Large-Format Porcelain Panels: Thin Is Beautiful
By Brent Ehrlich
Porcelain has been manufactured in one form or another for more than 2,000 years and has been used for everything from urinals to Ming Dynasty vases. In buildings, porcelain is usually found in small tiles and bathroom fixtures, but porcelain panels (sometimes called large-format porcelain panels, or LFPP) are now finding their way into mainstream architecture. More common in Europe but now offered by Daltile, Crossville, and StonePeak in North America, these extremely thin panels can be used for exterior cladding, walls, countertops, and other solid surfaces and offer intriguing environmental performance when compared with other surface and cladding materials.
Porcelain is often confused with conventional ceramic tiles, which are made with a combination of clay and sand, and fired at 1,900°F. After firing, ceramic tile can still be somewhat porous, with moisture absorption greater than 0.5% and as high as 20%, according to StonePeak. Porcelain contains sand, clay, and also feldspar and is heated to about 2,300°F. The high heat melts the feldspar and other ingredients together, leaving the final product with a moisture absorption of less than 0.5%—the ANSI standard for porcelain that is used by the Porcelain Tile Certification Agency and ISO (though ISO does not use the term “porcelain”).
Porcelain panels are very thin, similar to tile—at approximately 1⁄8" for Crossville’s Laminam (3 mm) and Daltile’s SlimLite (3.5 mm), and slightly thicker at 1⁄4" (6 mm) for StonePeak’s Plane. This thickness typically includes a thin fiberglass mesh backing for added strength. Porcelain panels are available as large as 5' x 10' for Plane and approximately 3' x 10' for Laminam and SlimLite and are available in more than 50 color and texture options for Laminam; 40 for SlimLite; and white, silver, and Calacatta Vena for Plane. Note that StonePeak uses an innovative large-format print process for Calacatta Vena that mimics the look of marble (real marble is expensive and difficult to maintain) and Plane panels can also be used for flooring—uniquely so.
Though porcelain panels take a lot of energy to make and are imported from Italy, embodied energy from transportation is less than that of terra cotta or other heavier tiles, and they have a number of attributes that should spread that energy investment over a long service life: they are strong, dense, nonporous, and impervious to moisture; resist scratching, staining, fading, and cracking; are not affected by freeze-thaw cycles; are chemical-resistant; are not a food source for mold or mildew; are extremely low-maintenance; and do not emit VOCs or other chemicals. Properly installed, these large-format porcelain panels should last as long as the building.
When used as exterior cladding, porcelain panels are mounted with thin-set mortar and do not require mechanical mounting systems like stone panels do, nor do they require sealing or painting, saving materials and labor and associated environmental costs over a building’s life-span. According to Irene Williams, who represents Crossville tile, “It can also be installed over existing tile,” creating a new look without major renovation, which is important in public spaces that are difficult to close for repairs and where dust (particularly asbestos) can pose a health concern.
For interiors, porcelain panels can be used in place of most solid-surface materials but are particularly well suited for areas exposed to moisture, heat, or chemicals—such as locker rooms, bathrooms, and laboratories—or where cleaning and sanitizing chemicals are used. They can also be applied where other tiles and surface materials are impractical. “Laminam goes beyond what a typical tile can do,” said Williams. She said they are light enough to be used on ceilings, door facings, and sliding panels, and all of these panels are flexible enough to be applied over curved surfaces (the thinner panels by Crossville and Daltile are more flexible than the thicker StonePeak product), providing the appearance and durability of polished stone that cannot be matched by standard veneers or laminates. And “it cuts similar to glass, so you can do creative wall installations,” she said.
The uniqueness of porcelain panels provides some challenges, however. “There are nuances working with it,” claimed Williams. Although lighter and easier to maneuver than stone, the panels are still quite large and unwieldy. Like most tiles, they have to be installed over a carefully prepared, level surface; panel manufacturers require thin-set mortar companies Laticrete, Mapei, and Custom Building Products to verify systems that work best with each tile application. Porcelain panels cannot be installed over every substrate (wood, for instance) either, and contractors have to learn how to cut, install, and work with them. Panel manufacturers suggest a spacing of 1⁄16" between each panel, and they have to be set carefully so the edges are flush to avoid potential damage.
Manufacturers were reluctant to quote prices for their porcelain panels since they vary based on volume and application, but representatives from StonePeak estimated the uninstalled cost to be around $20–$25/ft2, which is less than most stone or recycled-content surface material.
Williams notes that most architects and designers are not selecting these products primarily because they are “green.” The panels are being selected because of their looks and design potential. She claims to have seen a surge in interest in the panels since they were introduced in 2012, and if sales warrant it, Crossville will eventually begin manufacturing them in the U.S.
For more information:
StonePeak Ceramics, Inc.