It’s beautiful. It’s evocative. It’s natural solid stone flooring – 300 million years in the making. These statements on the website of the World Floorcovering Association (www.wfca.org) say it all!

Stone floors offer something no other flooring can: history. Since the beginning of civilisation architects and designers have used natural stone for their most important works. In countries around the world, stone has long been the accepted choice for cathedrals, monuments, museums, houses of government and, of course, homes.

There are three basic types of rock from which stone floors originate – sedimentary; igneous; and metamorphic. Travertine and limestone are examples of sedimentary rock. Granite is an example of igneous rock. Slate and marble are examples of metamorphic rock.

Stone has long been considered the flooring material of choice for the privileged elite, but that is no longer the case. Advances in technology have helped make the labour-intensive processes involved much more affordable and those savings have been passed on to modern-day consumers.

Stone’s path to the floor begins in a quarry. Large blocks of stone are cut from the earth and transported to a processing plant. In fact, stone is just a rock until it’s been quarried; only after cutting is it called stone.

The blocks are cut into slabs. The slabs then go to a fabricator to be cut again, shaped and polished – some provided in large slabs, others cut even further into tiles, but all end up somewhere gracing and enhancing a floor, wall, or as cladding.

But how is natural stone shaping up against stiff opposition in today’s marketplace? To find out what the current situation is locally for natural stone floors, FLOORS in Africa contacted three of the major suppliers of these materials – Mike Tully of Mazista Tiles, Oren Sachs of WOMAG (World of Marble & Granite) and Guillaume Masson of Natural Stone Warehouse – for their views.

Mike Tully
According to Mike, the market for natural stone flooring is good, but there is always the need to have a competitive edge, particularly with so many faux stone-look materials around.

He says limestone and granite are currently the most popular natural stones – particularly in the large (1 200 x 600mm) sizes, which are much sought after by the architectural profession. “Although the bigger sizes are the order of the day, in my opinion this does not indicate a trend towards seamless floors.”

Similar to the other ‘hard floor’ materials, a great deal of the material in the market today comes from India and China and, although some of these display good quality, it is an issue that needs careful consideration when purchasing.  

“At Mazista we have been obtaining our top-quality marble, limestone, granite, travertine, quartzite, sandstone and slate tiles from both South African and foreign quarries for the past 70 years, and these are used for roofing, flooring, wall cladding and other applications,” says Mike. “We have also been exporting to numerous overseas countries for that period of time.”

“Perhaps the main advantage of natural stone floors is that they have a confirmed status within the marketplace and, once installed, will last for ever,” he says. “However, the industry is continually being pushed at commercial level to provide a comprehensive supply and installation service which we offer.”

Oren Sachs
Oren says, “With natural stone there has been considerable development.  Although the materials on the market are exactly the same as they have been for centuries, there have been major advances in cutting techniques, the fillers that are used, and the finishing of the material, which now includes non-slip and textured finishes.”

In addition, natural stone tiles have been a huge success since they were introduced, and tiles are now available in large size tiles (900 x 900mm; 1 200 x 600mm; and 1 800 x 600mm) – all in top quality and at reasonable prices.

Although many other floorcoverings now offer natural stone ‘look-alikes’, there is a large sector of the market that will always prefer the authentic stone material because of its glamour and uniqueness in that every tile is different – providing the designer with unlimited design creativity.

WOMAG buys its stone from all over the world, visiting all the best international trade shows and going to the actual quarries to ensure that clients get top quality at the right price – because WOMAG buys directly at source. “This enables us to work with the supplier to ensure that only the finest quality is purchased,” says Oren.

Oren also says there is a problem in the marketplace where the get-rich-quick fraternity is downgrading the market and giving it a bad name by sourcing cheap product which is then sold as quality product which is often out of square, poor colour quality and generally bad material that will become problematic in use.

“These floors invariably fail or lose their aesthetic appeal very quickly and then need a costly replacement – all of which reflects badly on the use of natural stone. People should insist on top-quality product and only deal with reputable companies,” he says.

“The versatility of natural stone is one of its strong points, which enables it to be used on shower floors and walls, and many other applications – including being used with underfloor heating,” he says. “It’s also excellent in high- or low-traffic areas, and in wet applications, with various finishes available to meet any demand.”

“WOMAG is also unique in the sense that we supply tiles as well as slabs that match each other – making them ideal for tops and big wall cladding. This ensures that the client can have a vanity top that matches the floor and wall tiles,” concludes Oren.

Guillaume Masson
The worldwide popularity of this noble material has resulted in the entry of many new producing countries, hence broadening the colour palette that one has to choose from as a buyer. Advancements in both quarrying as well as manufacturing technologies have also contributed to the development of a multitude of finishes, each suited to a specific application, again widening the choice for the consumer and making the product suitable for almost any type of application.
 
Far from being a diminishing market, we see a great future for the natural stone industry as the product becomes more widely available, accessible, and affordable to the discerning South African consumer. It is the responsibility of the main industry players to maintain the necessary industry standards and to protect the consumer from unscrupulous fly-by-nights and thus ensure a bright future for all concerned.

At Natural Stone Warehouse we have a very balanced product offering between marble, travertine, sandstone, granite, limestone and slate, which means we do equally well in all market sectors as we offer a complete turnkey solution to customers.

Our stone is imported from Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Namibia, India, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Germany, to name a few. We also strive to support local producers in slate, sandstone and granite. We love to be proudly South African even though there are various restrictions with locally quarried products.

Asked which of the other flooring materials is the biggest threat to his market share, Guillaume said that he believes the biggest threat to the stone market comes from within and is the damage that is being done to the good name of this timeless product by unscrupulous traders who import and sell substandard stone to unaware consumers.

This is a very specialised industry and only established companies should be trusted – who have the experience, the know-how, strong after-sales service as well as the ethics.

There is a process in identifying and selecting the most suitable product for the required application as well as the installation and the treatment and care. This expertise, quality and trust comes at a price and ‘Penny wise and pound foolish’, as the saying goes, has never been so true!

“Regarding workmanship, although there is clearly a lack of standards as well as the enforcement of standards as compared to, say, the European market, we as a company always strive to offer as much technical information and advice as we can to our customers. Through the years, we have also established a strong network of subcontractors who operate with the highest level of workmanship and meet all the required standards.”

Our interviewees have underlined natural stone’s versatility, good looks, availability in slabs and tiles, longevity in service, unequalled aesthetic appeal and affordability – what more could any discerning designer, specifier or end user require?

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to the following for information obtained in the compilation of this article: www.wfca.org; Mazista Tiles; WOMAG (World of Marble & Granite); Natural Stone Warehouse.