Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Material Substitutions – Learning from our Mistakes
by Daniel Frisch
Posted April 12th, 2023

With our shared passion for design, residential architects and homeowners spend countless hours researching, comparing, and specifying a home’s materials.  Sometimes, we pine for materials of a former era, and other times we push forward into uncharted waters in a quest for the new, unique, or innovative.  When we are not relying on the tried and true, we scour the shelter magazines and tirelessly tour stores and showrooms in search of perfect products. Selecting and specifying materials for a home is at its heart an optimistic and affirmative process.  If successful, the home will be beautiful and stand the test of time.  Whether we reference Steinbeck’s (first penned by poet Robert Burns) “The best-laid plans…,” or simply attribute events to the law of Murphy, things unfortunately do not always work out as advertised.  While the years have taught us to bring a questioning ear to a great showroom pitch, and to raise our eyebrows while captivated by architectural ‘porn,’ our enthusiasm in our quest for the new, new thing remains undiminished.  Notwithstanding, we haven’t always made it through the selection and specification phase unscathed and sharing what we’ve learned seems a worthy endeavor.  Some of the stories in this essay date from the early days of our practice, and others happened recently, and perhaps, these illustrations will prevent one or more new stories from being written.

The Volatile Organic Compound Act of 1987 came into existence four years before the 1991 founding of our firm, and in those early days, architects and contractors were only slightly aware of the impact the law would have on construction methodologies.  For several years, oil-based paints and polyurethane floor finishes were still widely available.  Manufacturers upped production in advance of the law, and being very shelf-stable, pre-1987 grandfathered product remained widely available.  Almost imperceptibly and without much fanfare, manufacturers began to dilute their oil-based offerings to comply with the VOC law.  Product performance suffered, and with no other choice, manufacturers invested in improving latex and water-borne formulations.  It would take a dozen years for the industry to fully switch from oil-based to water-based products, and I can remember the project that demanded that our firm toe the line as well.  The year was 2002, and we had just completed a project on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and soon after our client moved in, we noticed the crisp off-white crown moldings were yellowing.  We asked our product representative from Benjamin Moore to visit the apartment to assess.  None too casually, he admitted that Benjamin Moore’s then-recent oil-based formulations were having trouble remaining color-fast, and that the company would provide us the latest and greatest latex paint to replace, and three thousand dollars of labor as well, if I would solemnly swear not to specify their oil-based product again – regardless of which old-timer painter demanded we do so.  For these next twenty years, we’ve honored that deal.

Stone and tile choices fill a second warehouse of memories.  If asked when younger to name my favorite color, I would most likely have answered “gray; it’s neither black nor white, and I live in between.”  This fit my sense of humor and is similar to the engineer’s aphorism that the glass is neither half-full, nor half-empty, but twice as large as it need be.  Gray was not only useful in mediating disputes, my peers and I obsessed with gray building materials.  For many years, gray dominated as a choice for kitchens and bathrooms, and even for walls.  It seemed that almost all Manhattan properties listed for sale were painted pewter gray – thank you, Calvin Klein (and John Pawson, the brand’s British designer).  The favorite bathroom stone was Batik Azul, a gray limestone that perfectly matched this minimalist gray sensibility.  As with all limestone, Batik Azul has a soft appearance and is very porous.  When marketed to us by the showrooms and vendors, we were assured that modern impregnating sealers would ensure that the stone would maintain its appearance for years.  Except, sealers fail, and when they do, the beautiful Batik Azul showers turns splotchy white with repeated dousing of shampoos and conditioners.  Try explaining to a client that the stone hasn’t failed, it is just the sealer.  The reason doesn’t much matter when the only solution is to rip out the material and start anew.  While today’s quartz composite and porcelain materials do not look quite as soft as Batik Azul, we can now satisfy our gray urges with much less fear of returning to the job after a short period to re-do a home’s bathrooms.

We also liked a veinless gray kitchen counter marketed as Basaltina.  Basalt (the generic name for Basaltina) is very hard, evenly dark gray in color, and seemingly well suited for kitchen counters.  Like Batik Azul, however, Basalt is very porous and reliant on sealers to perform well as a kitchen counter.  Soon after we completed our first kitchen featuring Basaltina counters, dark stains appeared, and the new family with young children reported that the only food prep they had performed was unboxing pizza.  The grease had bled through the cardboard and penetrated the counters.  The second and last time a client picked Basaltina we were brought to the apartment to inspect the tell-tale dark stains.  Sure enough, the stains were from similar cooking oils.  Luckily, or so I thought, the apartment was located just across Fifth Avenue from Eataly, and I jogged across the street, buying a bottle of extra virgin olive oil with which to try to stain the counters evenly.  This, of course, did not work, and we had little recourse but to convince the vendor and fabricator to replace the counters, at the vendor’s expense, with a composite quartz material.

Moving up the radio dial from the ‘90’s to the aughts, we come to glass tiles.  Throughout that decade, it seemed that every high-end tile showroom’s walls were covered with seductively shimmering back-painted glass tiles, in aqueous hues of blue and green.  We learned phrases like “back-butter thickness” and “crack suppression membrane,” both of which implied specific instructions for properly installing glass tiles without subsequent cracking.  Some jobs went smoothly, but on others, we ran into cracking issues.  We learned to order extra tiles, and to keep a stock on hand for tiles needing replacement.  Invariably, we were told by our vendors that the problems stemmed from contractor unfamiliarity, if not incompetence.  Sometimes the room’s underlying construction was to blame.  I recall one project that had an adjacent elevator which was claimed to be vibrating the tiled wall.  Most frustratingly, was a consistent undertone that our cracking tiles were a problem unique to us, and that other specifiers and installers were not experiencing the same failures.  I remember one project where we were so concerned that the mechanics might not follow the supplier’s strict and explicit recommendations that we color-printed and laminated forty pages of instructions and tacked them to the wall like wallpaper so the installers could not miss them.  The tiles still cracked.  With glass tiles, we have yet to find a suitable substitution, but fortunately, the trend has largely passed on and we are left holding our breath on fewer projects.  Sometimes it is better to learn to favor a different aesthetic, rather than keeping endless boxes of replacement tiles in the storeroom.

Today, one of our more popular trends is encaustic tiles – cement tiles with pigment throughout the tiles (as opposed to a glaze on top).  Various forms of encaustic tiles date from the middle-ages, and many can still be seen in churches, cathedrals, and palaces throughout Europe.  Today’s versions are usually vibrant and modern in their patterns and frequently featured in the shelter magazines.  We have used various manufacturers’ tiles with mixed success, better on walls than floors where shower products pool and pond. In a recent project completed during the pandemic, the floor tiles effloresced, and a chalky residue appeared on the surface of the tiles.  Not only did this not go away, water and soaps defeated the impregnating sealer leaving behind dark stains at the floor.  After two or three attempts to clean and reseal, we had to finally recommend to the owner that the tiles be replaced.  After a bit of research, we found a porcelain tile line that is nearly indistinguishable from the encaustics they strive to emulate.  In this case we’ll have a very reasonable material substitution to offer to the next client who falls in love with a picture in a magazine.

My final story under the heading of “Material Substitutions – Learning from our Mistakes” has to do with PVC decking.  The marketing materials on PVC and composite decking tell a wonderful story of maintenance-free decking with twenty-five to fifty-year life spans, as well as cradle-to-grave environmental benefits as the boards are largely recycled and no rain forests would be threatened.  Dig through the marketing materials, and you can find no downside to these synthetic materials – other than the cost.  For a recent project, the PVC decking we specified was surprisingly more expensive than the mahogany alternative.  The dark boards we specified and had been installed deformed (warped) in the sun’s heat and after a few months, the effect could only be described as “oceanic.” Just last week we hopped on a conference call with the project’s general contractor and project manager, the local supplier, and two representatives from the manufacturer.  It turns out that, despite the company’s marketing collateral including the tag line “everything wood should be” the material simply does not perform effectively as rooftop decking.  The first hour on the call, the manufacturer’s representatives steadfastly asserted that the material had behaved as expected, even if inconsistently with their marketing materials.  The representatives contended that the entirety of the fault lay with the installers, who had failed to understand the nature of the product.  During the second hour, the ocean tides turned, and the conversation became productive with a collaboration of ideas for improving the rigidity of the substrate, decreasing the board lengths and changing to a lighter color.  By the end of the call, the manufacturer offered to provide at no charge all the materials necessary to stiffen the framing and replace the decking.  We look forward to the replacement installation, and to specifying mahogany going forward.

Reaching the conclusion of this essay, I don’t regret one square foot of the Batik Azul or Basaltina we installed, nor the glass and encaustic tiles that required replacement, nor even the PVC decking.  Designing and building homes is an exciting balance between the expected and actual, and there is no better route to education and future accomplishment than participating in both the successes and failures.  All we ask is that our clients stay patient while we treat their projects as our laboratory and find elegant solutions to problems as they arise.

DF,  4-12-23