Architectural Theory, Construction Materials, Sustainability, Sustainable Materials

7 Ways to Use Terracotta in Buildings With Examples

Literally translating to “baked earth,” terracotta is a versatile material that can be used in different parts of a building – as both structural and non-structural elements. 

What is terracotta?

Terracotta is a sustainable material formed by a mixture of clay and water – which when baked, achieves a hardened ceramic property. This can be further glazed or left unglazed depending on the utilization of the material. 

Types of Terracotta

Terracotta can be put to use as a building material in the following ways:

  1. Polished Terracotta
  2. Porous Terracotta

In Buildings:

  1. Floor Tiles
  2. Roof Tiles
  3. Wall Cladding Tiles
  4. Ceiling Tiles
  5. Bricks
  6. Jaalis
  7. Ornamentation

1. Polished Terracotta

  • Known to create an aesthetic appearance, polished terracotta is prepared by adding quartz sand and chalk to the clay mixture.
  • Manufactured by firing the terracotta twice – before and after polish is applied.
  • This type of terracotta is leakproof, weathering resistant, and can easily be colored.
Bathroom with polished terracotta tiles
Bathroom with polished terracotta tiles

2. Porous Terracotta

  • In this type, small, fragmented rocks are added to the clay mixture to improve the strength of the material.
  • Due to its porous nature, they act as good insulators for sound and heat. 
  • They are light in weight.
Porous Terracotta
Porous Terracotta

Use of Terracotta in Buildings

1. Floor Tiles

  • These rust-coloured tiles give the interiors a warm and earthy tone. 
  • Suitable for warm and tropical climates. Using terracotta tiles in colder climates may cause cracks on water absorption.
  • Glazed and unglazed tiles can be installed based on the usage of a space. Wet spaces require glazed tiles to avoid water absorption.

Terracotta tiles with an accent floor tile
Terracotta tiles with an accent floor tile

2. Roof Tiles

  • Used as roof covering for sloped roofs in areas with frequent rainfall due to their waterproofing property.
  • They also serve as good thermal insulation – improving building energy efficiency by maintaining the temperature within a building.
  • One of the best known types of terracotta roofing is Mangalore Tiles.
Terracotta Roof
Terracotta Roof

3. Wall Cladding Tiles – Interior and Exterior Walls

  • Terracotta wall cladding enhances the overall look of a building by adding an earthy look to a modern building.
  • It is very durable and is also a low maintenance material – retaining its look for many years even without regular cleaning.
  • Application of the cladding is quick and easy – being weather resistant and fireproof. 
Terracotta Cladding
Terracotta Cladding

4. Ceiling Tiles

  • Placed underneath the roofing tiles of a fabricated roof to improve aesthetics of the ceiling.
  • They provide additional thermal insulation and waterproofing to a roof.
  • Advantage of these tiles is that they can be fixed on the same support of the roof tiles.
Terracotta ceiling tiles
Terracotta ceiling tiles

5. Brick

  • Terracotta bricks are hollow and lightweight – which makes construction easier.
  • They can be reused, which reduces the carbon footprint of a building and due to the vacuum created within the bricks, they act as excellent thermal insulators.
  • They reduce the humidity within a building.
Terracotta Brick
Terracotta Brick

6. Jaalis

  • Cut to desired designs and enhancing the aesthetic appeal – both inside and outside, jaali walls add an artistic touch to a building.
  • Jaali walls are used in partition walls and facade walls – they lend to the privacy within a building while allowing ventilation and sunlight in ample amounts.
Terracotta Jaali in exterior facade and interior partition wall
Terracotta Jaali in exterior facade and interior partition wall

7. Ornamentation

  • One of the most abundant materials used for ornamentation due to its workability and abundance.
  • Seen in buildings across several periods – in both detailed and rustic ornamentation.
GE Building (570 Lexington Avenue, New York)
GE Building (570 Lexington Avenue, New York)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Terracotta

  • Advantages
    • Sustainable and Eco-Friendly
    • Provides good thermal and acoustic insulation
    • Low maintenance and durable material
    • Fireproof and Waterproof
    • Energy saving material for buildings
  • Disadvantages
    • During construction, if the terracotta cracks or breaks, it cannot be fixed. 
    • Terracotta can be a delicate material to handle due to its ceramic properties.
    • During the manufacturing process, uneven drying and shrinkage may cause misshaping.

Examples of Use of Terracotta in Architecture

Wainwright Building

One of the first skyscrapers that served as a prototype for today’s office architecture – Sullivan and Adler designed a building using simple geometric forms, enhanced by the detailed terracotta ornamentation on each floor. It stands out among its surroundings due to its terracotta panels giving the building a contrasting rust red facade. The tenth floor bears the deep overhanging cornice with a broad frieze consisting of intricate terracotta ornamentation.

Terracotta in the Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan
Terracotta in the Wainwright Building by Louis Sullivan

Temples of Bishnupur

The architectural style of these temples are derived from the tradition and culture that is indigenous to that region. Terracotta became a material that was extensively used in these temples due to easy availability of clay soil, on the banks of the Ganga River. The ornamentation found on the facade of these temples depict various Indian epics and mythological stories – all with the use of one material: terracotta.

Terracotta has made an appearance in many well known buildings across different regions and timelines due to its availability and versatility. Due to its low cost and sustainable nature – terracotta has also been popular among clients and architects. A material that has been known to be used extensively in the past, present and possibly in the future, terracotta will never lose its charm.

Radhashyam Temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal
Radhashyam Temple in Bishnupur, West Bengal

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