More than 500 years ago, Venetian builders in the Friuli region invented terrazzo in order to make use of marble remnants left over from posher projects. Drawing on ancient marble mosaic styles, these tradesmen began to set irregular fragments of discarded stone into clay to build terraces around their living quarters, giving terrazzo—or “terrace” in Italian—its name. Over time, to flatten and smooth these coarse surfaces, workers developed the galera, a tool with a long handle and weighted end to which a grinding stone could be attached. They also began to use goat’s milk as a sealant because it brought out the stone’s true color and sheen.
The Immigrant’s Art and Innovation
Terrazzo and the terazzeri arrived in the United States with an influx of three million Italian immigrants between 1900 and 1915, initiating a flurry of innovations. These elite tradesmen began to divide colors and control expansion and contraction of the material, which could cause cracking, by dividing the surface with strips of marble, mosaic tessarae, semi-precious stones, zinc, brass, or even plastic. In the mid-1920s, the electric grinder began to make a finer finish, faster and at lower cost, and color options increased with the use of white Portland cement, which could be dyed with mineral pigments. The advent of synthetic materials has made terrazzo more cost-effective and versatile. Midcentury, a thin-setting, epoxy-based version made installation quicker and less labor-intensive while offering architects even greater aesthetic freedom.
Because of its uses in high-traffic, heavy load, monumental and classical architecture–from St. Peter’s Basilica to Disneyland, opera houses to the Hoover Dam, boutiques to coliseums–terrazzo may be associated with luxury and grandeur, but it is also materially modest and expressive. Designers may use it to illustrate floors and to generate graphical space and moods at any scale and in any style.
Durability, Longevity, and Resilience
Terrazzo can last the lifetime of the architecture around it, indoors and out, and looks good whether old or new. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even structural collapse had left terrazzo floors, many in historical buildings, intact with repairs of chips and gouges proving relatively easy and inexpensive. Because it is a veneer system applied to a substrate, it is said that ‘as the concrete goes, so goes the terrazzo’, but cracking can be inhibited by laying a membrane over the substrate, making the veneer more resilient and independent from the material underneath. Over-maintenance actually causes much avoidable discoloration and wear. These virtues make terrazzo one of the most added-value materials out there. And the greenest.
Adaptive reuse and renovation have become two of the most powerful tools the building industry has to diminish its outsize contributions to climate change. Made from marble, quartz, granite, recycled glass, porcelain, concrete, metal aggregates, mother-of-pearl, pre- and post-consumer recycled glass, plastic, and mirror chips—all zero VOC materials—terrazzo does little to no off-gassing. Its non-porous finish prevents microbial growth and the accumulation of moisture, eliminating mold and improving indoor air quality. Its extreme durability and longevity, low maintenance, embodied energy, reclaimed and often regional materials, and minimal cradle-to-grave environmental impact mean it contributes to LEED points and the U.S. Green Building Council’s credits for new construction.
Into the Future
Today, terrazzo continues to evolve. Designers use more intense color and larger aggregate to create bold looks that are sometimes not even recognized as terrazzo. Engineered marble manufacturers like Dzek, which makes the proprietary Marmoreal, and Caesarstone have begun to tap the talents of crafty and conceptual designers like Max Lamb and Formafantasma. Used increasingly in furniture and accessories and not just architectural elements, terrazzo is mimicked appreciatively, as in Chen Chen and Kai Williams’ Gingko lamp, a confection of urethane resin, wood, fabric and acrylic. Terrazzo stretches from the glamorous realms of ancient mosaic and Frank Lloyd Wright icons into the diverse realms of maximalists, minimalists and everyone in between.