Don’t call me terracotta!

Clay has been a staple building material for millennia – the oldest bricks date to 7500 BC in Turkey and the oldest examples of glazed brickwork (or tiles) date to the 13th century BC at Chogha Zanbil in modern day Iran.

Initially considered inferior to stone, brick didn’t gain a good foundation in the UK until the close of the Middle Ages – its popularity increased in the Tudor period. Glazed tiles, however, have provided decorative relief on the insides and outsides of some of the world’s (and the UK’s) most prestigious buildings for centuries – just think of the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Iran, Casa Vicens by Gaudi or the Minton Floor at St George’s Hall in Liverpool.

In our Q&A, James Ormerod, MD Aliva UK, shares his passion for clay, and tells our customers why it’s time to fall in love with it again.


Q: Clay – it’s just red bricks and tiles, isn’t it?

JP: When you say ‘clay’ and principally, ‘terracotta’, people think of bricks, pots or tiles. But there’s so much more to this wonderfully versatile material. Clay can be formed into many different shapes and sizes, glazed in any colour you want and finished with a variety of textures.

Clay rainscreen cladding is especially versatile – whereas with bricks you are limited to certain shapes for structural integrity, the only limitation with clay rainscreen is the architect’s imagination.

Q: But aren’t terracotta facades all buff or orange?

JP: During the boom years of the 90s and early 00s, clay facades had a renaissance. The technology and cost-effectiveness were not the same then – many buildings were finished with orange or buff clay rainscreen cladding. There are many buildings of this style in our city centres – and clay’s reputation is tarnished by the cheap and quick way in which they were often built.

However, technology and pricing has changed. At Aliva we can match a glaze to any Pantone or RAL colour, finish it in any glaze and create any size or texture you need. Want small, pattern imprinted, peacock blue tiles with a crackle gold glaze? We can do that. Want large format tiles (up to 3000 x 1000mm) that look like one continuous sheet of material and can self-clean? We’ll do that too.

Think about the wonderful effects that Victorians and Art Deco architects achieved with tile – we have better, faster, quicker and more sustainable processes than that. The possibilities really are endless.


Q: Clay, terracotta, rainscreen – are these all the same thing?

JP: There are many different names for this kind of tile. We chose to call ours Grescovering; in Italian this is actually stoneware, but we prefer not to generalise it as terracotta or clay, as this gives the impression of a red tile. Grecovering can still can be referred to as extruded clay, tile or terracotta rainscreen cladding too.

Q: Isn’t making bespoke tiles a lengthy process?

JP: Not at all. From the finalisation of the design, we can create and ship bespoke tiles in 8-10 weeks. We use modern machinery with state-of-the-art kilns, which means we can take large orders, with no drop off in quality and still maintain a consistent delivery period – which some smaller or older-style producers might not be able to do.

Q: What are the benefits to a structure of being clad in tiles?

JP: First, there is the structural benefit – rainscreen cladding can be as little as 20mm thick, which makes it the perfect material when working to weight or dimension constraints. We are currently creating large format tiles that look like concrete for a new residential development – the weight of concrete walls would have been too much for the building, so this is a safe, cost effective option.

Then there’s the aesthetical benefit. We tailor-make bespoke tiles to your exact specifications, meaning no one needs to have the same tiles or design as you – that makes your building unique. Whether you want to make an artistic impression, stand out from the competition or just use the built environment to enhance people’s lives, then I believe tile is the choice for you.

Tile is also environmentally friendly. It’s a natural product and because it’s so thin, less clay is used than with traditional wet-slip bricks, or brick cladding panels. Tiles and their aluminium fixing systems are also entirely recyclable and non-combustible. The lifespan for tile cladding is 60+ years.

Q: Are there any standout buildings you would rate for their use of tiles?

JP: A few architects are beginning to understand the unique forms and aesthetic range clay tiles are capable of – however we need more of them to take the plunge! Tiles are a cost-effective way of creating a unique building that really makes people stop and look.

A stand-out building for Aliva is the New Business School at Cardiff University. The architects, Boyes Rees, required a façade that would be eye-catching and tie two existing buildings together. We chose a four-colour, ombre brown scheme that replicates inside the building.

EPR Architects used 10,000 ceramic tiles to lift the façade of 24 Saville Row. At first they look like standard black and white tiles, but close up they have been finished with an oxidised glaze, an effect that changes with the light and gives each tile a unique pattern.

Studio FAT pushed the tile brief to the limit, with a collaboration on a completely tiled holiday home with artist Grayson Perry. This is a great example of tile’s versatility – there are moulded tiles, non-standard shapes and multiple colours and glazes.

There is also the stunning new façade for One Eagle Place in London, proving that decorative tile facades didn’t go out with the Victorians.

These buildings are testament to what can be achieved with tile. We’re calling on architects to be brave, fall in love with clay and let your imagination be your only limit.