The Beauty and Benefits of Glass Tile Pool Finishes
By Eric Herman
The marriage of ornamental tile and manmade bodies of water is nearly as old as civilization itself. From the luxurious pools and spas of ancient Greek and Roman palaces to modern-day masterpieces, intricate tile treatments have transformed water features into works of art.
For all its long history, the extensive use of tile in swimming pools has remained an exotic luxury in the minds of many homeowners. When the backyard swimming pool became a fixture in the American landscape during the mid-20th century, the use of tile was relegated to simple waterline bands installed to ease cleaning and prevent cracking that occurs when plaster is exposed to wet/dry transitions. Tile products used for these simple applications were relatively inexpensive, and for decades, swimming pool contractors and their clients faced limited choices among mundane ceramic tile product lines.
But those days are gone, and glass tile has revolutionized the way builders finish pools and spas. Elaborate designs, shimmering colors, and an extensive array of possibilities greet homeowners hoping to turn their projects into jaw-dropping achievements. Today, glass tile swimming pool designs are a popular request.
As the name suggests, glass tiles are made of silicate glass material, which manufacturers use to create a variety of products. Glass tiles are generally smaller than ceramic or stone options—typically measuring two square inches or less—but the pint-sized tiles pack a punch, coming in a seemingly infinite range of colors, textures, and transparency.
When installed properly, most types of glass tile represent the most durable of all swimming pool and spa surfaces; they offer sturdy resistance to chemical corrosion and other types of damage. Compared to other interior swimming pool and spa surface materials—such as plaster, exposed aggregate, or fiberglass finishes, which typically last anywhere from five to 25 years—glass tile surfaces can retain their appearance and surface integrity almost indefinitely.
Durability is a plus, but homeowners are drawn to glass tile for its aesthetic value more than its utility. It can be used in traditional waterline applications, but many people choose glass as the primary interior finish. It also can be applied to steps, benches, raised walls, or shallow lounging areas to create focal points. Glass tile can generate uniform colors or be mixed to create subtle hues that cannot be achieved any other way. In some of the most elaborate examples, it’s deployed to create vivid mosaic images.
“Not only is glass tile elegant, it can mimic the mosaics found in pools and reflecting ponds of Greece, Rome, and Turkey. It’s the foremost material we have to create color,” says David Tisherman, who uses glass tile extensively in his pool designs. “For those who want something truly spectacular, glass tile is often a big part of the equation. There’s nothing else like it from a design standpoint.”
Tisherman blends three or more colors of tile to create custom color mosaics in many of his pool designs. When viewed closely, the individual tile’s colors are apparent, but when submerged in water and seen from even a short distance, these differently colored tiles blend visually to create an optical field that generates an endless variety of hues.
“It’s very similar to Pointillism used by Impressionist painters,” Tisherman says. “Each tile is a single dot that, when combined with others, creates a blended color. Some tiles will be above the surface on walls, some submerged beneath just a few inches of water, and others under several feet of water. The reflection and refraction of light, combined with water, creates a dynamic set of shifting visuals.”
Tisherman and other designers report that homeowners often feel a strong emotional response to their glass tile finishes, with many testifying that it’s the most cherished facet of their exterior environments. Most professionals believe it’s the iridescent and translucent qualities of the material that engender such passion. Using those alluring qualities of glass, manufacturers have developed techniques where each piece contains variations of internal color and reflective structures, characteristics that have prompted many designers and homeowners alike to compare the appearance of glass tile to gemstones.
“When you look at a cut diamond, for example, there’s a complex optical system where light enters the structure and is then reflected back out through the facets,” says David Knox, founder of Lightstreams Glass Tile, a manufacturer located in Mountain View, Calif. “Glass tile works much the same way optically, and it can therefore create a similar emotional response.” That visual complexity often shifts depending on the angle of the sun or other lighting source and the depth of the water. This gives the pool or spa an ever-changing appearance which, in turn, can provide continually refreshed visual interest. “Because of the material’s physical qualities and the way most glass tiles are manufactured, every piece is different—much the way every piece of natural stone is different,” Knox says. “It’s the only manufactured material I can think of that has that kind of subtle variation.”
How Much Does Glass Tile Cost?
For pools and spas, glass tile is still seen as a luxury item, a fact that has actually fueled its mass appeal. Prices depend on the product and the complexity of the installation, but it’s not unusual for glass tile to cost $75 to $100 or more per square foot installed.
Because of the high price tag, many swimming pool builders remain reluctant to even suggest glass tile as a possibility when talking to clients. Others urge clients to consider the broadest possible range of options, including glass tile, before making a final decision. There are hundreds of glass tile suppliers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia offering thousands of product options. Such a competitive market means a wealth of aesthetic options from which homeowners can select.
“You don’t really need to sell glass tile to a client,” says Kate Wiseman, a landscape architect and design director for Verdant Custom Outdoors. “I let them touch it and see it, and they find their own reasons for appreciating the material. There are so many different types of glass tile, it’s almost unfair to consider them as a single category. My job as a designer is to provide the client with a range of choices they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Glass Tile: What You Should Know
Ready to use glass tile for your next project? Keep the following in mind:
• Durability Although known as one of the longest-lasting pool and spa finishing materials, glass tile can be subject to both cracking and chipping, especially when exposed to rapid changes in temperature. Such failures are generally the result of substandard products that have found their way into the market. Research your selected manufacturer and ask friends, your designer, and even your installer for recommendations. A qualified tile worker can often spot a material problem by how well the tiles stand up to being cut for installation (questionable material will chip when cut, for instance). Such overly brittle material will be susceptible to failure.
• Rough edges Some glass tile products have sharp edges, due largely to the manufacturing process, as well as trimming during installation. The problem can be eliminated by careful buffing after installation by a qualified installer, but homeowners should always discuss this potential issue with their swimming pool designer and the installer.
• Quality installation Glass tile is tricky to install compared to other types of tile. Installations should only be performed by tile setters experienced with the material. Otherwise, the work could be visually marred by uneven grout lines and even subject to failure (such as tiles falling off the surface), sometimes within just a few weeks of the initial installation.
Photo courtesy of David Tisherman's Visuals, Inc.
Eric Herman is editor of the professional journal, WaterShapes. He has been writing and reporting about the artistic use of water in the landscape for nearly 20 years.
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