Photo courtesy of Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble of Burlington, Iowa.

Photo courtesy of Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble of Burlington, Iowa.

Roughly two decades ago, it was common knowledge that the average indoor shopping mall would be renovated every five or six years… and generally, this would include replacing the flooring with updated hard surface material. Today, that isn’t the case. The economics of the times simply don’t allow for this to happen. And, the advancements in tile, stone and how they are installed translate into shopping center flooring which is pretty much indestructible and therefore, doesn’t need to be replaced. In particular, since the advent of large format porcelain tile, these projects look good, perform at optimal levels and last much longer than in the past. Other tile products stand the test of time, as well. Take a look at the West Palm Beach International Airport with its henna-colored "cotto" tile just about everywhere in the terminal. That flooring installation took place over 20 years ago.

So if you’re planning on having tile installed in either your new or renovated shopping center, it’s pretty clear that if you do your homework in selecting the best possible tile installation contractor, the investment you make will pay back long-term dividends i.e. a floor that lasts 15 or more years without requiring much maintenance at all.

Whereas there are thousands of professional tile contractors in the United States, there are only a handful with the track record and wherewithal to offer total turnkey shopping center installation work. Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble is a third-generation installation contractor based in Burlington, Iowa, that has installed tile for major shopping malls in all 50 states, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. The firm’s current president and owner, Larry Rheinschmidt, Jr. answers key questions here on exactly what a developer or general contractor should look for when selecting a tile installation specialist for their next mall project.

Q:Have there been many changes in mall designs which have affected how tile and stone are installed?
A:Over the years, floor designs have evolved from being a large expanse of one color “field tile” to a variety of tile colors, sizes and shapes. Floor murals are often incorporated in mall designs. These may be created out of small mosaics, broken tile pieces or via water jet artwork… which can be described as putting together precisely-cut tile pieces in a grandiose jigsaw puzzle. Overall, floor designs have evolved from being very basic with one color, one size tile to very intricate and colorful productions.

Q:What are some of the first considerations when renovating an existing mall?
A:Shopping center renovation work is unlike other types of renovation for a number of reasons. A great deal of floor tile must be installed and at the same time, contractors must be 100% aware of not interrupting the flow of day-to-day foot traffic. Shoppers must still be in a comfort zone walking through the mall during an installation and have easy access to all stores at all times.

Photo courtesy of Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble of Burlington, Iowa.

Q:How can this be made to happen?
A:For the most part, it is paramount to use rapid-setting installation products that allow for an area which has been tiled during the night to be ready for the onslaught of public foot-traffic the next morning. Another solution is to have tile work done during the day in the center of the mall, leaving all surrounding areas to be used as walking corridors. In some cases less common these days but still existing, when using a non-rapid setting material, workers must come up with a routing system that takes shoppers around the work areas in pathways that do not minimize access to any of the mall’s store entrances.

Q:What are some of the more popular types of tile used today in shopping malls public areas?
A:We are working with large format porcelain tiles, sometimes in sizes as large as 24” x 36.” These can be tricky to install unless the substrate below the tile is completely clean and totally level. Porcelain has become the product of choice due to its ease of maintenance and incredible durability. For example, most porcelain tile is harder than granite and less water-absorbent. We installed some porcelain tile floors over 15 years ago which are still performing at top levels and when cleaned correctly, look just as new as they did the day they were first installed.

Q:What else do you work with for flooring?
A:If we are installing stone, it has to be very hard material such as granite or certain types of travertine. Some marbles, such as the deep green species, are beautiful but too soft to be used as floor tile in heavy traffic areas. That’s why you see them used on the facades of storefronts, both indoors and outdoors. There still are specifications that call for brick pavers, quarry tiles and pre-cast terrazzo tiles, as well. Occasionally, a design may call for an “engineered stone” tile material which consists of quartz chips suspended in a resinous binder matrix. We have even had a few instances where specific areas of the mall have been designed with glass tile on the floor.

Q:Are there any installation techniques employed to keep “shoppers shopping?”
A:There is a unique process utilized in shopping mall renovations known as “Tenant Coordination.” This method incorporates tile contractors to install the tile in areas directly in from of the entryway to a store, with minimal obstruction to incoming traffic. To do this correctly, each tenant must be looked at individually. For example, if the store manager or a security person is willing to open the store early or stay late, this tiling can be completed without any notice to the shoppers. Another way is to tile half of this tenant’s entrance during hours in which the mall is open, allowing for an adjacent walkway. Once this new tile has cured, customers enter using the newly tiled path while installers focus on completing up the remainder of the entrance.

Q:Is there a “most common” material used to install floor tile in the mall?
A:More and more flexible quick-drying thin-set materials are being used today. These are generally latex-modified and allow for minor tile movement without causing individual tiles to crack or come loose.

Q:What is the one most daunting challenge a contractor installing tile in a shopping mall faces?
A:Without a doubt, it is meeting the planned deadline of the project. Based upon our experience, we know that almost every mall wants to remain open, or at minimum, have its renovation 100% completed by the beginning of the holiday shopping season, which takes place from the day after Thanksgiving through the week after Christmas. In order to make this happen, in some cases tile installation professionals may have to bring in workers from various spots all across the country to one specific jobsite at the very last minute. One missed holiday season deadline means many missed future shopping mall tile installations for companies such as ours.

Q:What about problems? What are those which come up the most? And, how do you address and remedy them?
A:One very large, ongoing problem is that due to large, expansive floor areas, ripples and waves become accentuated rather than being hidden by the newly installed tile. The concrete substrate must be very flat. If not, a self-leveling material must be used to ultimately achieve a smoother looking, very flat floor. Another problem that is prevalent in shopping centers is that of floor movement and stress cracks. If the floor system does not allow for movement, the result can be loosened or cracked tiles. Several methods must be employed to address this. One is to use an anti-fracture membrane on the concrete before the thin-set is applied. Another is to use flexible thin-set mortars to address these problems. These procedures don’t actually eliminate the need for functional control joints in the concrete or caulk joints in the tile. In particular, this regimen is critical in areas which have direct sunlight on the floor.

Q:A mall floor can be well over 100,000 square feet. What methods must be employed to keep the design layout consistent over this large area?
A:Today’s top installers use lasers and transits to achieve layouts that match the original blueprints. These are so precise that they can stay within tolerances less than 1/8 of an inch over a quarter mile of floor expanse.

Q:What about safety issues when tiling a shopping mall?
A:Safety is always a major issue. One safety technique for floors recently tiled and ready to be walked upon the following day is to install an edge where the tile stops. For the public to walk across this edge, installers generally position an angled strip which provides a smooth transition up from the old floor to the new tile. This strip should always be perpendicular to the flow of foot traffic; having it positioned parallel to the traffic flow could result in turned or sprained ankles. It is very important to know about the level of slip-resistance offered by specific tile materials. Some materials, especially highly polished porcelains or granites, can be very slippery. No mall owners want lawsuits from injured shoppers, so many of them are insistent of having tiles with a textured surface to minimize slipping. Or in some cases, when the look of a highly polished tile or stone is part of the design scheme, these flooring materials are coated with an anti-slip chemical which has been engineered to be extremely effective… and, long-lasting. Of course, we must make sure all tiles installed are perfectly calibrated and rectified. If a tile is just a fraction of an inch thicker than the tile installed next to it, a raised area or “lippage” may impede traffic and/or result in injury to shoppers.

Q:How do you communicate to one another when you’re working on a 100,000–plus square foot shopping mall tile project?
A:Most of the jobsites we now work on are over a quarter-mile in length from one end to another. The best way to communicate is either via two-way radios or cell phones. Golf carts are often used to get from one end of the project to the other, as well. Just like in any business, when tiling a shopping mall, good communication is key.

Q:What are the credentials that one must look for when selecting a professional tile installer?
A:As in any business, you want an installation professional with a great deal of experience within your business sector which can provide plenty of great reference letters. A good idea is to check out members of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), a non-profit trade association serving every segment of the industry that is recognized as one of the largest and most well-respected national tile contractors associations in the world.