Art Underfoot

June 15, 2022
Terrazzo flooring bridges old and new spaces at Texas’ first art museum.
Houston, Texas
Steven Holl Architects
© Jaime Leigh Sonnier, Casa De Camera

In 1958, an Italian immigrant and master craftsman installed venetian terrazzo at Cullinan Hall in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ Caroline Weiss Law Building. Nearly 60 years later, his son’s business was invited back to the museum. Southern Tile & Terrazzo Co. manufactured onsite more than 52,000 sq. ft. of sand-cushion, cementitious terrazzo in the newly constructed Nancy and Rich Kinder Building on the museum’s campus.

Steven Holl Architects of New York, N.Y., wanted to closely match the terrazzo installed decades before in the older museum building. Replicating the historic installation in the Kinder Building lobby space presented several challenges though. Matching an old terrazzo floor means sourcing marble, granite, and/or quartz of similar color and size. Not only did Southern Tile & Terrazzo Co. replicate the color and distribution of marble chips, but the aggregate was the same size used in the original installation. “It was mostly sixes and sevens, which are 2 in. in size,” explains Michael Maraldo, President, Southern Tile & Terrazzo Co., Houston. Sourcing these large minerals can be a struggle. “A lot of quarries now have difficulty getting sizes five, six, and seven aggregates,” he says. Cactus Canyon Quarries, of Marble Falls, Texas, supplied four different colors of marble chips in the large sizes required.

“The biggest challenge for us, was that the slab was depressed 4 in.,” says Maraldo, “so we had 3.5 in. of mortar bed and the actual terrazzo was installed—because of the larger chips—at three-quarters to seven-eighths-in. thick, vs. traditional terrazzo that is installed at 0.5-in. thick.” Over the slab, torpedo sand was laid, followed by polyethylene plastic sheeting and 2 × 2 mesh 16-gauge wire before the mortar bed was installed. Afterwards, the divider strips were placed in a 4-ft. × 4-ft. pattern.

“It takes a lot of skill and labor in order to install a floor of that type,” notes Maraldo. “You have to seed the floor by hand with these larger chips.” After the marble aggregates were dispersed, rather than immediately apply rollers to extract excess water and cement, Southern Tile & Terrazzo built tampers and tamped the chips down into the wet matrix. This prevented the aggregates from congregating in one place. Finally, the floors underwent grinding, honing, grouting, and sealing.

Southern Tile & Terrazzo also installed complementary blue-gray terrazzo in the rest of the gallery spaces and 4,000 sq. ft. of white terrazzo (with smaller aggregate) in the tunnel that connects the Kinder Building to the older museum space. Precast cementitious terrazzo staircases were also installed, as well as a poured-in-place floating terrazzo staircase in the atrium.

The terrazzo flooring is as much a work of art as the paintings and sculptures displayed in the new Kinder Building. “When we put a terrazzo floor in, it is there for the life of the building. It will withstand the foot traffic the museum will endure,” concludes Maraldo.

Continue Reading