Dan Rockhill is the Executive Director of Studio 804 — a not-for-profit corporation whose participants are graduate students at The University of Kansas’ School of Architecture, Design and Planning in Lawrence, KS. Each year, he oversees the construction of a new building by the Studio 804 group. This year, they built Ecohawks: Engineering Research and Teaching Facility from the ground up. Within this LEED Platinum-certified building exists equally sustainable bathrooms, with tile installations that were completed by the students/first-time installers.

“An overall design goal for the bathrooms — which are identical and run 65 square feet — was to contrast with the gleaming white of the bigger spaces in the facility,” said Rockhill. “We did not want to introduce a lot of color, and we really wanted a subtle look.”

The graduate students who were involved in the project also commented on the design goals of the bathrooms. “We did not want to leave the bathrooms boring; we wanted to make them unique,” said Rachel Mattes, who holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Kansas and was an installer on the project. “As the installers, we stepped up to the plate and made the bathrooms different — something people wouldn’t see everywhere.”

Melanie Arthur, who also holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Kansas and was an installer on the project, commented on the design and functional goals. “A functional goal of the bathrooms was for engineering students and professors to be able to ride their bikes to the building, take a shower and be on their way,” she explained. “Additionally, this space was the only place in the building where it made sense to do something different. Instead of having a very ‘square-looking’ bathroom, we opted to install tiles of different sizes and colors. Different colors would offer a dynamic effect, in order to play with the design. We tiled the corridor of the men’s and women’s bathroom as well to further contrast with the building’s white drywall hallways.”

To achieve these goals, Mattes and Arthur opted to use tiles from Mosa, a company based in the Netherlands.  In November of 2012, a handful of Studio 804 students had taken a trip to San Francisco to attend Greenbuild International — an expo which features green building innovative products and services — where they came across Mosa’s Terratones Collection in subtly different shades of gray called X, Y and Z.

A learning experience begins

This would be the first-ever tile installation for Mattes and Arthur, who had volunteered to be the installers at the beginning of the project. “I had never done an installation prior to this one, but I wanted a design and leadership role,” said Arthur. “I walked into this blindly. It looked simple on YouTube videos, but in reality, it is very messy and very challenging. Tiling is difficult.

“Professor Rockhill would supervise the installation,” Arthur continued. “He would come in to do quality control and to make sure that we were doing everything right, but we were responsible for all of our work.”

Arthur and Mattes picked out all of the materials. In addition to picking out the tiles, Mattes and Arthur chose to use Bostik Hydroment Polymer Modified Thinset for the mortar as well as Bostik Hydroment Unsanded Tile Grout.

In the hallways, the students continued their specifications of green in USG Durock’s EcoCap Self-Leveling underlayment, which was used underneath the concrete hallway floors. The product reduces the carbon footprint by 50% and embodied energy by 45%.

RBC Tile and Stone Distributors, located in Overland Park, KS, shipped the Terratones Collection by Mosa to Studio 804. “We chose 2- x 24-inch, 4- x 24-inch and 6- x 24-inch tiles,” said Mattes. “They were all the same length. The ceramic tiles have a matte finish, although they were manufactured with quite a bit of recycled content, so they were not ceramic the whole way through. When we cut them, we could see two layers of material.”

A novel approach

The week-long installation came with challenging variables for the first-time installers. There were two installers in each identical bathroom. To implement the design, Mattes and Arthur — who installed in the women’s bathroom — had to come up with a creative approach in order to deal with the heaviness of the tiles.

While many installers start in the middle of a wall and work their way up to the ceiling, then go back to the middle and from there go to the floor, Mattes and Arthur went middle to ceiling, and then floor to middle. “The most frustrating part of the entire project was the heaviness of the tiles,” said Arthur. “We started by putting straight Oriented Strand Board (OSB) at the halfway point of the walls. We went around the whole room with the OSB to serve as a ledge for the tiles to sit on. From the middle, we installed up to the ceiling. We left a gap between the tiles and the ceiling for when we went back later with grout.”


INSTALLER: Graduate students of Studio 804 group — a not-for-profit corporation at Kansas University’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning in Lawrence, KS

TILE PRODUCTS: 2- x 24-, 4- x 24- and 6- x 24-inch tiles with a matte finish in subtly different shades of gray called X, Y and Z from Mosa’s Terratones Collection

INSTALLATION PRODUCTS: Bostik Hydroment Polymer Modified Thinset Mortar and Bostik Hydroment Unsanded Tile Grout — both from Bostik of Wauwatosa, WI

NUMBER OF INSTALLERS: 2 for each bathroom (men’s and women’s)


Besides supporting the tiles throughout the installation, another challenge that the women had to overcome was in spacing the tiles. “The fact that the tiles were so heavy, they would squish down on the spacers,” said Arthur. “We used rubber spacers, and they became squished just enough so that by the time we reached the ceiling, we had more empty space than anticipated. It was enough to be noticeable. Correcting that problem was frustrating. We overcame that challenge by doubling up the spacers.”

A finished first installation

The students succeeded in finishing the installation by doing what students do best — researching solutions to the challenges. “Just in terms of learning how to do something you have never done before, knowing that there is research and [published material] really helped,” said Mattes.

The reaction to the bathrooms since their completion has been very positive. “A lot of my family and friends came to see the project at my graduation,” said Arthur. “My mom said that now I can lay tile at her house.”

Mattes added some thoughts on the reaction to the finished project: “Everyone seems really impressed with the whole thing; it ended up looking really good. A couple of people told me they would have never guessed someone who never installed tile had done that job.”