Simplicity as a principle

Clay is a material that occurs naturally all over the world and was formed over millions of years by the weathering of rock material. With sufficient water content, clay can easily be plastically formed and then fired into high-strength ceramics. The famous ceramic Venus of Dolní Věstonice was created around 25,000 years ago on the basis of this technique. This was later followed, among other things, by a wide variety of pottery, artistic works, and countless Roman brick buildings with tiled roofs and ceramic floor coverings.

Simple material composition and manufacturing processes
The long cultural history of ceramics in our latitudes is based not least on the fact that the main raw material, clay, is available in almost unlimited quantities and can also be easily mined and processed. And so it is no coincidence that the roots of the Agrob Buchtal company or Deutsche Steinzeug and its production sites, which date back to 1755, lie precisely where there are natural clay deposits to this day.

Contemporary ceramic products do not differ fundamentally from those of previous generations, neither in terms of material composition nor in terms of production. Ceramics is still a product made from a few natural ingredients, and even in the age of Industry 5.0, the firing process is based on principles whose simplicity always reminds us of baking bread. This impression is no coincidence. After all, the fundamentals of clay processing date back to a time when the production of highly processed, complex (and thus potentially environmentally harmful) products would simply have been impossible. In today's world, where craftsmanship, regionality, sustainability and responsible use of resources are becoming increasingly important, we are seeing a growing demand for ceramics. This demand has arisen, of course, not in spite of this simplicity, but precisely because of it.

Durable and fit for the future - in existing and future buildings
Ceramics are extremely durable. This is borne out by the many ancient monuments as well as the intensively used buildings of our time, such as swimming pools. The decisive factor is that the material does not wear out. The longevity of ceramic elements, based on the principle of simple archaic processes, offers major advantages for sustainable building. For example, our products contribute significantly to the smooth, purposeful use of buildings, while at the same time eliminating the need for costly maintenance work. Today's technical means enable us to reproduce almost all older or even historic building components with comparatively little effort. This aspect is essential when it comes to renovating or continuing to build existing buildings. To a certain extent, one could speak of ceramic production being "backward compatible" - unlike, for example, the highly complex components of the computer industry, whose reproduction is impossible after only a few years. Conversely, for ceramic elements this means that building concepts developed tomorrow can still be adapted the day after tomorrow in terms of design sustainability.

Innovation and sustainability
Despite thousands of years of comparable material compositions and manufacturing processes, there is certainly potential for innovation in connection with ceramic materials. Of course, today we have larger, more powerful and more efficient kilns. They enable more flexible production processes, more diverse surface finishes or the faster achievement of market maturity of prototypes. In addition, they often mean considerable savings in energy, materials or time, which in particular help to achieve reductions inCO2 emissions and waste volumes and to establish more sustainable work processes. At the same time, however, we are also subject to the limits and constraints of the market. As a German ceramics manufacturer with eleven million square meters of tile production per year, we unfortunately have few opportunities to influence changes in production technology compared to the global players from China or Italy. Therefore, we can hardly exert any pressure on manufacturers - for example, to accelerate the development of new types of kilns using hydrogen as an energy source.

However, there are innovations in the product area, such as the digital "imprinting" of glazes. This not only enables precise surfaces, smaller batch sizes and more tile patterns, resulting in a pleasantly irregular appearance of wall and floor surfaces. Rather, they simplify the already simple manufacturing process and help us get by with even fewer raw materials. An important role in terms of product development is played by the future workshops that are held time and again with architects, which provide us with valuable external input, as well as the numerous collaborations with product designers - such as with Sebastian Herkner and Markus Bischof.

Despite all our commitment in this area, however, we must always keep in mind that we need to keep our four plants busy, where it is not easy to consistently align all processes and products with sustainability aspects from one day to the next. Added to this is the reality that price is still the central criterion in many product areas. At the same time, sustainability has increasingly established itself as a purchasing criterion in recent years. In other words, a new market requirement has emerged, as the group of buyers who can and want to spend more money on sustainable products is steadily growing - in the private sector as well as among commercial and public investors and building owners. So, as a company in this field of tension, we need to do one thing without leaving the other.

Material and processing intelligence
With newly developed formulations, we are trying to achieve a reduction in the use of materials. Whereas standard wall tiles used to be 8 to 10.5 millimeters thick, our stoneware tiles have recently been able to get by with a thickness of just 6 millimeters without losing any of their strength or precision. In addition to reduced raw material consumption, this means above all reduced energy requirements), less packaging material, and lower fossil fuel consumption for fewer raw material shipments and more efficiently packed trucks. Further potential savings result from the method of laying. With a dry laying system, for example, it is now possible for us not to have to permanently glue tiles to the floor but to lay them "floating," as it were. This is achieved by pressing a cork granulate mixture onto the back of the tile material instead of applying a plastic grid. In the course of product development, we have chosen this natural material because it has ideal properties for precise and safe laying of tiles, but also because its nature is best suited to ceramics. The specially developed cork layer (as well as the clay used as the basic material for the tile) is a pure material, harmless to health and theoretically even suitable for food contact. Thanks to the dry laying system, these tiles can be laid faster and easier than conventional tiles. Another significant advantage of this system is that at the end of their useful life, the tiles can be removed without loss using a suction lifter and, once the cork layer has been removed, can be disposed of or reused according to type. Once the products, which consist of just two components, have been qualitatively and quantitatively recorded as part of a building design and linked to a corresponding BIM database, their contribution to thecarbon footprint of the building can also be determined without any problems. This also creates the best conditions for implementing a consistent circular economy in the case of these ceramic tiles, which already have cradle-to-cradle certification.

Ceramics - versatile, holistic, changeable
Ceramics are not only natural, durable, health-promoting and innovative, but also incredibly versatile. Tiles are just as suitable as floor or wall coverings in conventional rooms as they are in all types of wet rooms and swimming pools, and they come in many different tile sizes, glaze colors and finishes. In addition, ceramics can also be used in facades, for example, as custom moldings or in tubular or angular forms in a wide variety of colors and surface textures. The many international projects created with ceramic tiles make it clear that although they have historical origins, they still have a firm place in modern architecture and offer planners flexible adaptation options and great creative scope. This scope facilitates the embedding of buildings in the urban environment, enables transitions between indoors and outdoors, and supports the consideration of user needs. The result: holistic architectural concepts that are sustainable if only because, with people at the center, they ensure that buildings are optimally used in the long term.

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Alte Badeanstalt Essen 2
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