Better Slate Than Ever

Three major suppliers discuss the advantages of using slate for flooring.

Click here for a list of suppliers of tile and stone flooring

The natural texture and colors of slate, here supplied by Evergreen Slate Company, enliven this office environment. The firm provides Vermont slate flooring in five standard sizes and five patterns, in standard groupings from 10 to 36 sq. ft. Photo: courtesy of Evergreen Slate Company, Inc.

By Nicole V. Gagné
The selection of flooring has long been a particular concern of the hospitality industry. Above and beyond something hospitable looking, which is also suited to the interior decor, the floor has to be of sufficient durability to withstand a lot of heavy traffic. It also ought to be easy to clean and should resist staining and fire and, particularly in this litigious age, be slip resistant too. Add to this wish list the “green” preference for a natural material that’s long lasting, plus the aesthetic desire for a range of color possibilities, and you’d seem to be looking for something that’s too good to be true. The ideal product really is out there, made basically of clay or volcanic ash – materials which ordinarily wouldn’t be all that effective as flooring, but over a considerable amount of time metamorphose into slate. And for more and more commercial spaces these days, slate is the flooring of choice. This survey of suppliers of slate flooring examines three major figures in the field: American Slate Company of Walnut Creek, CA; Echeguren Slate, Inc., of San Francisco, CA; and Evergreen Slate Company, Inc., of Granville, NY. The two West Coast firms, established in 1978 and 1981, respectively, offer slate from quarries around the world; the third, based in the Northeast, was founded in 1916 and specializes in slate quarried in Vermont. Their varied experiences, taken together, describe the spectrum of possibilities available within this rapidly growing field.

Along with supplying slate flooring in a range of sizes, colors and textures, all three firms also supply slate for roofing and other applications, such as cladding and paving. Their perspectives on these markets, however, are different. “Floor tile is a large part of our business,” says Daniel Piché, president of American Slate Company, while Mike Bache, sales representative of Evergreen Slate Company, responds, “I would definitely say that the heavy majority of our business is toward roofing.” For Alex Echeguren, president and CEO of Echeguren Slate, the spread is “probably about one-third roofing, two-thirds flooring and other applications: dimensional slabs, wall cladding, wall slate.”

The two California-based businesses have also experienced a market bias favoring residential over commercial applications. “With the significant drop in new residential activity, the commercial segment as a percentage has grown over the past couple of years, but it still remains less than half of our business,” says Piché. “I think residential is probably the majority of the market,” says Echeguren. “But there’s plenty of slate in commercial work as well. For example, there’s a lot of slate in shopping malls, acres of it.”

These suppliers have worked closely with the restoration market as well as with new-construction projects built in period styles – a growing trend that has increased the demand for slate flooring. “We track the different classes of trade that we sell,” says Piché, “but it is very difficult to measure where the slate is actually being used. The restoration market is an important segment for us, but my sense is that the majority of the business is going into new construction, whether it’s hotels and resorts, commercial applications or housing.”

Echeguren concurs. “We’re more of a regional company," he explains, "and out in the West, I’d say that the greater majority of the materials are going into new buildings, as opposed to renovations of old houses.”

Bache, however, describes the two markets as neck-and-neck: “I would say it’s about 50-50. We see old buildings where they’re looking for repair pieces, but we also sell quite a bit for new-construction residences.”

These slate experts outlined certain basics that a prospective customer should have in mind when selecting a slate floor. Slate is available in a natural-cleft surface, or it can be sanded or honed, so texture and hardness are two key points to consider. “Even within the natural-cleft format, there are varying degrees of roughness and smoothness,” says Echeguren. “Also, certain slates from India are quite soft, and you don’t want to specify one of the softer slates for really high-traffic areas, because they’ll wear and you’ll get traffic patterns.”

Three different sizes of India Kota Brown flooring from Echeguren Slate have been artfully arranged in the headquarters of the Informatica Corporation in Redwood City, CA. This Indian limestone varies in color from olive green to brown and features a layer of gold on top. Photo: courtesy of Echeguren Slate, Inc.

The natural surface of slate, Piché says, “is not readily available in other natural-stone products, like marble or granite. In addition to the natural surface, we can supply tiles with a polished or wire-brushed finish. Also, because slate is a natural product, no two pieces are alike, making it a popular choice used in many of the finest shopping malls, hotels and restaurants in the country.”

That very variety is the great beauty of slate. “But not everyone sees it that way,” says Bache. “They need to realize that it’s a natural product, and so you will see some range in colors between individual pieces. There’s a process of sampling that takes place, and we do our best to educate the potential buyer about what they’re going to get and what the finished product is going to look like.”

One aspect of the popularity of slate flooring is undoubtedly its ease of installation; unlike a slate roof, installing a slate floor does not necessarily have to be a professionals-only job. “Our slate can be thin-set like ceramic tiles and can be a great DIY weekend project, with no special installation requirements,” says Piche. “Our tiles can be installed by butt jointing and without the use of grout. This is an advantage, as grout often becomes dirty. Butt jointing, using our accurately cut slates, results in a great-looking job that can be completed at a lower cost than a grout application.”

According to Echeguren, “A do-it-yourselfer who has some ability at technical work can do it; 12-in.-x-12-in. tiles are probably not that difficult for do-it-yourselfers--provided they have proper instructions and materials. But we don’t deal with too many do-it-yourselfers, and we don’t advise people on how to install it because each application is a little different. We deal with a lot of general contractors who have enough knowledge about construction practices to do it themselves, or to instruct a laborer in how to do it.”

Bache, however, emphasizes relying on a pro for the best job. “We would always recommend that a professional do it," he says, "and we do our best to provide recommendations of qualified individuals to use as references.”

The maintenance of a slate floor frequently raises the question of applying a sealant to the slate. “It doesn’t require a sealant,” says Echeguren, “but the industry recommends it. It’s more protected and easier to maintain when it’s sealed, and there are many different sealers available. But it’s pretty low maintenance, generally. Slate can be damaged by acid, so you don’t want to clean it with really harsh or abrasive chemical cleaners. A mild detergent is usually what’s called for.”

Piché adds, “Slate is non-porous and non-skid, which makes it a great product for heavy-traffic commercial areas. It is also fire resistant, and it doesn’t stain. The natural stone itself has a lot of advantages, and so a sealant is not required. If a sealed appearance is demanded, we recommend the use of water-based sealants only.”

This heavy-traffic area uses the popular Rajah line from American Slate Company, which embodies a range of slate colorations, including red, purple, mauve, gold and browns. Photo: courtesy of American Slate Company

“We don’t make specific recommendations in terms of what products to use,” says Bache. “But we do point out the benefits of using a sealer, as well as the negatives. Certainly among the benefits is that it’s going to be easier to clean the floor, and it tends to make the colors a little more vibrant. But it depends on which type of sealer you use. We’ve seen some of the low-cost sealers develop a milky look to them. It develops over time, especially if several coatings have been applied.”

Not surprisingly, the demand for warranties with such a long-lasting material is virtually nil. “On occasion, we have been asked for a warranty, but it’s very rare,” says Bache. “As a roofing product, it lasts a hundred years, and those same characteristics define slate as a flooring product: It’s a very hard and dense material that’s not going to absorb anything.”

“In roofing, we’re occasionally asked for warranties, but we don’t typically issue warranties or guarantees for flooring,” says Echeguren. Piché adds a useful warning for the buyer: “We have expert quality-control programs built in, but, unfortunately, not all slate products are produced to our high standards. Many ‘slates’ on the market are really shale and are of a lower quality. Shale products can flake, absorb water and lose their original color over time. The materials may look like slate, but if quarried near the surface, it is likely schist or shale from lower-quality deposits.”

Has the growth of the green movement and concerns about sustainability contributed to the demand for natural, long-lasting slate? “It does have a long life-cycle,” says Echeguren, “but I don’t know that the green movement has really affected the overall popularity of slate flooring or increased the general market for it.”

Others in the field, however, have felt the impact of this important social movement. “Definitely,” says Piché. “Natural slates are a green product, with a proven track record for sustainability.” Bache adds, “I think it’s stimulated some interest. Out there right now, people are looking for alternative products, products that are more earth friendly, because of the green movement, of course. And slate is most definitely one of those products.”

All three firms have also experienced differing trends in their most popular sellers. At Echeguren Slate, “We have slates from all over the world, and multi-colors from India and China have been popular, at least in the Western region of the United States, just because they’re vibrant,” says Echeguren. “People are attracted to bright colors out here; it’s less conservative than New England. We still sell lots of grays and greens and blacks – the traditional popular colors. Basically, it’s a product that’s driven by design and by trends in colors. In a broader sense, whatever is the current popular color in interior design – or even exterior design - that will also affect what colors of slate are popular then.”

Bache describes a more constant seller at Evergreen Slate: “In terms of flooring, we see a strong popularity in the color green but also in black – an age-old standard. We also have a mottled green and purple, and as we spoke about before, the beauty of the slate lies in every piece being different, especially with the mottled green and purple – no two pieces will ever be alike. Because of that, it certainly has a very strong appeal.”

Piché recognizes the impact of regional tastes on the demand at American Slate Company: “The range of applications is limited only by one’s imagination, in designing interior and exterior applications, as well as wall facings, garden features, walkways, driveways, spas and pools. Because of the wide array of applications, the most popular colors can differ greatly. Region can also play a big part, due to local construction practices. For example, a customer in the Northeast may prefer the traditional gray, green, and purple colors of Vermont quarries; whereas, a customer in Arizona may want slate in an earth-tone color.”

Click here for a list of suppliers of tile and stone flooring



Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes