Marble, quarried in mountainous regions around the world, has been a very popular building material for millennia. Prized for its beauty, style, and elegance, this material has graced the palaces of kings and queens for centuries, making it an upscale, luxurious option for interiors. But marble flooring requires more maintenance and is more susceptible to damage than ceramic tile and other forms of natural stone.
Elegant, upscale appearance
Accommodates radiant floor heating
Adds real estate value
Porous stone, requires sealing
Scratches, stains easily
Slippery and brittle
The Geology of Marble
Marble is a very popular natural stone that is quarried and cut into slabs and tiles for a variety of residential and commercial building applications, including countertops, floors, and wall tiles. It is a metamorphic rock that forms when a sedimentary stone, such as limestone, is transformed under heat and pressure into a harder stone with beautiful color and veined patterns. Marble is sometimes confused with granite, however, granite is an igneous rock derived from volcanic magma, not layered sedimentary rock. Granite typically has a pebbly or spotted color pattern, while marble usually has a wavy veined pattern.
Marble Flooring Cost
Marble tile floors are a premium architectural element, and they are priced accordingly. Generally, they fall in the high-end range of all-natural stone, and they generally do not last as long as slate, granite, and other natural stone. Marble flooring typically costs $10 to $20 per square foot for materials alone, with some specialty marbles running as high as $40 per square foot. Ceramic tile is typically about half the cost of marble, although the cost of installation labor is fairly comparable. Professional installation labor adds $3 to $7 per square foot. Marble flooring installation will cost more for jobs requiring complicated layouts or lots of cutting; the labor cost is lower if the layout involves a simple layout of square or rectangular tiles.
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Maintenance and Repair
Once installed, routine maintenance of a marble flooring is relatively easy; it requires the same kind of sweeping and damp mopping you would do with a ceramic tile floor. However, unlike ceramic tile, marble is fairly porous, so you shouldn't allow water to puddle and stand on the surface. Standing water can penetrate the stone and discolor it.
Marble has a pH on the base (alkaline) side, due to its origin as a sedimentary limestone. This means that it can have a chemical reaction whenever it comes in contact with acidic substances. This includes a wide variety of foods, sauces, beverages, and cleaning products. Unfortunately, the discoloration stains that come from these materials are usually permanent. This can be prevented by applying a chemical penetrating sealer, as well as a surface sealer after installation. But for optimal protection, the surface sealer needs to be reapplied annually.
Even though it is stone, marble is actually a relatively soft material that can be scratched, scraped, and chipped under the wrong conditions. This is especially true if the material is polished, as the imperfections will be more noticeable on the smooth, flat solid surface. Unfortunately, scratches cannot be easily repaired without replacing the damaged material entirely.
The biggest advantage of marble flooring is that it instantly elevates the appearance of a space, giving it a regal bearing that is hard to imitate. And marble is available in multiple colors, and even in stunning multicolor mixes, providing flexible options for a variety of decorative schemes. Tiles can also be cut into rectangles and triangles of varying sizes in order to create complex mosaic installations.
Because it is a product of the earth, every piece of marble tile used in every single floor is one-of-a-kind; there is no other like it anywhere in the world. In the case of multi-colored marble, this uniqueness can be quite pronounced, with distinct features blaring forth from every tile. With more solid-colored marble, the color difference shifts are much more subtle and subdued, but your floor will still stand out with its own personality.
Unlike most natural stones, marble is able to take a very high polish, achieving a silky smooth and shimmering look when treated properly. This look of sophistication and glamour evokes the highest sense of elegance in a space.
Marble Flooring Installation
Marble tile is installed in much the same way as ceramic or any other natural stone tile. A layer of cement board (backer board) is first laid over the subfloor, then the tiles are glued down with a thin-set adhesive. The most common size is 12 x 12-inch tiles, 3/8 inch thick, but 16 x 16 and even 24 x 24-inch tiles are also available. After the adhesive dries, the joints between the tiles are filled with a cementitious grout. But unlike most ceramic tile, which requires only that the grout lines be sealed, marble flooring requires that the entire surface be sealed immediately after installation, then every year or so after that.
Although the techniques are similar to those for installing ceramic tile, DIY installation can be a tricky affair. Marble tile is a very heavy but brittle stone, and unprepared DIYers may find that they waste a good deal of material through breakage. Proper preparation of the subfloor is critical, and as a natural stone, marble is considerably more difficult to cut and drill, requiring specialty tools. For these reasons, most people choose to have pros install marble flooring.
Marble is a great conductor of heat, making it easily adaptable to a variety of below-surface radiant heating systems. Radiant heating can eliminate one of the prime disadvantages of marble tile—its coldness underfoot. A marble floor heated from beneath with radiant coils can bring a rush of cozy warmth that is both unexpected and delightful, especially on cold winter mornings.
Marble vs. Porcelain Tile Flooring
Many of the same virtues found with marble floor tile can be achieved with porcelain tiles. While the subtle veining of marble makes for a completely unique floor, a remarkably similar look can be achieved by modern porcelain tiles, which now can be manufactured to realistically mimic a wide variety of materials, including natural stone and wood. While some people will be able to tell the difference, a porcelain tile floor can create a look that is very nearly identical—especially if a skilled installer has paid attention to laying out the tiles so the simulated veining patterns are convincingly random.
The biggest advantage to porcelain tiles is that they are considerably cheaper than marble, with national cost averages ranging from about $5 to $10 per square foot. This is slightly more than the costs for standard ceramic tile floors but considerably less than the average cost of marble. Finally, some people dislike the large-scale blasting operations by which marble is quarried, and choose porcelain tile because it is manufactured using simple clay.
Before choosing marble floor tiles with their high cost and their difficult installation and maintenance, porcelain tiles are definitely worth a look.
Top Types of Marble Flooring
Most marble tiles are made from raw stone imported from China, India, Iran, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Egypt, Portugal, and Greece, then manufactured into floor tiles, countertop slabs, and other products by domestic stonework companies, which are then distributed to retailers. More important than the commercial brand of the company is the type of marble you are buying. Here are some of the better-known types of marble used in residential settings:
- Carrara marble: This is the most common type of marble, quarried in the Carrara region of Italy. In color, it is grayish-white with soft, feathery gray veining. It is by far the most common type used in flooring applications since it is fairly economical.
- Calacatta marble: This marble falls at the other end of the spectrum, as the most luxurious and expensive, thanks to its rarity. Although it is similar in appearance to Carrara marble, it has much darker, thick veining patterns over a bright white background. There is also a variation with very beautiful gold hues in the veining. Calacatta marble comes from specific quarries in the Carrara region of Italy.
- Statuary (statuario) marble: This is also similar in appearance to Carrara, but it has a more translucent white background and more dramatic veining, which gives it a more luxurious feeling. This marble comes from the Carrara region of Italy, but north of the region where Carrara and Calacatta marbles are quarried.
- Emperador marble: This type is quarried in Spain, and comes in various shades of brown, with irregular veining.
- Crema marfil marble: Also from Spain, crema marfil comes in many color variations, with the most common being beige or yellowish with veining that varies in intensity.
- Talathello marble: Sometimes called silver beige marble, this variety quarried in Turkey has a light grey background with irregular vein speckles of silver or beige.
- Levadia black marble: This is a very striking black marble from Greece, with smoke-like light gray veining. It is not often used for floors but makes a very striking statement when it is.
Comfort and Convenience
When polished, marble can be a dangerously slick and slippery surface. In kitchens and bathrooms where water is likely, this can be a problem, since these floors are unforgiving on bones and joints in the event of a fall. Use non-slip rugs in these areas if you are using highly polished marble, or opt for less polished forms of marble tile.
All stone and ceramic tile, including marble, is notoriously cold underfoot. But like other hard flooring materials, marble also makes a very good base for radiant floor heating systems, in which hydronic tubing or electrical wiring is networked through the underlayment. This can turn a normally cold flooring material into one that is wonderfully comfortable.
Whenever marble is installed, purchase at least one extra box of tiles and keep them in storage. Every lot of marble tiles will have slightly different coloring and veining, and having replacement tiles from the same batch ensures that they come from the same quarry, making it much easier to match tiles if one breaks, cracks, or becomes stained.
Is Marble Flooring Right for You?
No flooring material conveys elegance better than marble, but marble is a temperamental stone that requires considerable care when installing it and when caring for it afterward. Be aware of its limitations before you spend the money on marble flooring.
A Guide to the Care & Cleaning of Natural Stone. Marble Institute of America.
Marble: Characteristics, Uses And Problems. U.S. General Services Administration.