When discussing emerging markets and disruptive innovation, we find ourselves going to the news about FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) or the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries. We think of technology companies, micro-chips, electric vehicles and space travel. We don’t normally associate this tip-of-the-spear innovation with one of the earliest materials developed by mankind -- tile products. In just a few years, Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels (GPTP) has arrived as a real market contender in comparison to traditional ceramic and porcelain tiles. They’ve made notable headway in the design-oriented tile space as a result of the superior characteristics that porcelain tile offers in this newer, thinner, much larger and sometimes faster-to-install format.

Despite these “thinner” tiles arriving in the States in the early 2000’s, in 2017, the tile industry passed both ANSI 137.3, American National Standard Specifications for Gauged Porcelain Tiles and Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels/Slabs and A108.19, Interior Installation of Gauged Porcelain Tiles and Gauged Porcelain Tile Panels/Slabs by the Thin-Bed Method bonded with Modified Dry-Set Cement Mortar or Improved Modified Dry-Set Cement Mortar. The emergence of these standards gave much needed guidance to the category, allowing specifiers, installers, manufacturers and consumers some protection and understanding as to how materials were to behave -- and how to conduct these in a manner that was easy to replicate with consistent quality. This marked the point in time when these materials were sure to expand further into the market.

With these tile sizes ranging anywhere from 3- to 6-mm-thick and upwards of 5 x 10 feet in size, they were intimidating, cumbersome and thought to be extremely fragile at the onset. They required new ways to handle, fabricate, install and even had different mortar and substrate requirements. This started one of the biggest challenges in this soon-to-be fast-growing category: fear and uncertainty as to how to get it right and how to avoid panel damage during installation. This concern was led by the installation community and it began to show itself in project quotes where the installation price was high enough in some markets to result in the GPTP getting value engineered to other materials outside of the tile category. How could this massive hurdle be cleared and help the tile industry expand upon what ostensibly was an amazing opportunity?

“The first step in gaining market acceptance was training… getting the right tools, cutters, tables, suction cups, mortars and adhesives to installers, giving them a feel for how they would work,” said Jim Tasillo, executive vice president of Fierst Distributing in Pittsburgh, PA. “Our company invested in these tools and ended up renting them out, as installers did not want to make the capital investment to purchase them.

"Now, as GPTP continues to evolve and gain popularity, installers are not only making the investments, but are hungry for even more education. We dedicated an industry veteran, Jack Bindyke, as our training director," Tasillo went on to say. "He works with our sales team, traveling to jobsites and dealer locations offering in-depth, interactive training. If an installation firm is well-trained and comfortable working with this material, they recognize opportunities which set themselves apart from others, that can be extremely profitable."

Concurrent with leading distributors now providing trainings on GPTP, manufacturers did the same, all under the standardized training regimen called for in the A108.19 standard. “Prior to COVID-19, Bostik has kept our training centers quite busy with Gauged Porcelain Tile Panel (GPTP) classes,” said Chad Bulen, consumer and construction technical director for Bostik. “One of our biggest findings was that upon the conclusion of major GPTP training, installers and other attendees wanted to stay longer for a more in-depth look at surface preparation. Tile installers are very well-versed in mud applications, but GPTP and the fast pace of today’s construction present many positive challenges for the installer to learn how to precisely apply high-flow, self-smoothing self-leveling underlayments, high-performance floor and wall patches, membranes and even moisture mitigation.”

Manufacturer training added to distributors' workload by offering both expansion of training resources to more installers and more intimate product detail on the specifics of any given brand of tile or installation system. As of today, many installers have obtained certification, having completed a GPTP training course per the A108.19 standard via an assortment of tile and mortar manufacturers, as well as industry associations. This successful deployment of training events has considerably broken down the barrier in terms of being able to gain installer acceptance, and also to offer the architectural community opportunities to specify gauged porcelain tile and realize its many opportunities.

"One of the biggest challenges with GPTP is educating the architectural and design communities on this material,” said Erin Albrecht, executive vice president at J & R Tile, Inc. in San Antonio, TX. “Not just what it is but the different applications, the intricacy of working with it and knowing what the right size panel is for their project. Having pre-construction conversations with all involved saves post-construction time and mid-construction headaches. As an NTCA Five-Star Contractor, our firm has been able to host multiple CEU presentations to A&D firms to further educate them on this material, which is only gaining more popularity."

Both large-format tiles (defined by tiles with any one side that is greater than 15 inches in length) and GPTP have the same floor flatness tolerance, a maximum allowable variation of ¹/₈ inch in 10 feet and no more than ¹/₁₆ inch variance in 24 inches from the plane, when measured by the “10-foot straight edge method.” In new construction, one can be assured concrete slabs will not be flat enough for most modern floorcoverings. The same holds true in most retrofit applications. Until the conflicting Division 3 specifications for FF numbers and the Division 9 specifications are synced or decided upon prior to construction start, change orders to resolve flatness issues prior to installing all types of flooring will continue to sprout up. Floor flatness is obtained a number of ways. From grinding high spots, to patching “bird-baths” to pumping/pouring self-leveling underlayments, the tile industry is doing an incredible job explaining this requirement for GPTP. Surface preparation is a major component in the conversation and training for GPTP and is greatly accelerating surface preparation knowledge throughout the entire construction marketplace.

The highest growth area for surface preparation has been self-leveling cementitious underlayment due to the fact that it can be installed over a large area, quickly ready for tile. Today’s high-flow, self-smoothing self-leveling underlayments can deliver the best quality for floors with tighter tolerances. This specific subgroup of self-levelers gives upwards of 45 minutes of working time and heal time, require minimal tooling to obtain a flat floor and obtains as much as 5,500 PSI compressive strength at 28 days that is walkable in just three to four hours. Now that self-leveling cementitious underlayments have caught up to the market demands for these extremely large tiles, it’s time to look at tile mortars and adhesives. Some thought to simply state A118.4 and A118.15 as requirements for the mortar selection, but early GPTP projects and trainings identified a number of items about our current mortar and adhesive recommendations that needed to be further refined. For example, mastics were out for obvious reasons, but other prevalent mortar types weren’t as obvious from the onset. The fastest-setting mortars would skim over before it could be applied on both the back of the tile as well as the wall or floor, per the application details called for in the ANSI 108.19 Labor Standard. So, in concept, fast-set mortars appeared to be the absolute solution due to the extremely large tile size and their ability to self-desiccate or hydrate properly, without much access to grout joints to facilitate evaporation of some of the excess water in the mix. This offered another area for improvement and for installation materials to catch up.

Bostik’s BAM™ (Bostik Accelerated Mortar) broke into the scene as one of the optimal solutions for GPTP. It’s designed as a different take on a fast-setting tile system, packed full of polymer and a blend of fast-setting cements offering a consistent cure resulting in most GPTP applications, being grout-ready in just 24 hours, while delivering an open time and adjustability time of up to 30 minutes at exceptional bond strength that exceeds ANSI 118.15 requirements. This gives ample time for craftspeople to apply the mortar to both substrates, while curing out quickly to reduce risk of tiles being disturbed by other trades. This RapidCure™ solution gives today’s installers the workability they desire and the protection they require.

The exponential growth of GPTP can be attributed to craftspeople adopting the technologies, manufacturers designing aesthetically pleasing products and the design community creating unique spaces for us to live, work and play.

“We have been very fortunate to be one of the early adopters of GPTP,” said Eric Tetreault, owner of Casavant Tile in Upstate New York. “In a time where there’s such a labor shortage on one hand and then labor that is not properly trained on the other, our crew has worked feverishly to develop our niche. We definitely realize that these products are very specialized and you need a trained and well-equipped team specifically for these projects. It’s a very different technique than basic tiling. We’ve even, within our own projects, had to ‘invent’ tools for our own needs. As an NTCA Five-Star Contractor, our crews have engaged in extensive training, discovering methods that allow us to deliver high-quality, by-the-book installations. This creates success stories that won’t get the GPTP ‘VE’d’ and will allow us to make good money as well.”

According to Amber MacCracken, designer at Kahler Slater, a leading architecture and design firm in Milwaukee, WI, “GPTP present many opportunities for the design team. We absolutely love the aesthetic, consistency and durability we get from them. The material gives us more visual control when compared to natural stone with all of its variations. Now, we get book-matched marble that is blemish-free, lightweight and allows us to use tile as a design element in places where we historically would have been limited due to weight. These tiles are inspiring us in more than just bathroom floors and walls. We’re specifying them on fireplace surrounds, countertops, backsplashes, partitions and outdoor applications, as well.”

GPTP are indeed here to stay. The upside is huge. Now to accelerate the process, it’s up to the industry to start touting the benefits of these products and train contractors on the many nuances that this game-changing material brings to market.

About the author

TILE Tech Focus Adam Abell

Adam Abell, who celebrated his 9th anniversary with Bostik, became the company’s market manager of tile and stone installation systems three years ago. He can be reached at adam.abell@bostik.com.