Best Tile Flooring Types for Tropical Homes

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Woman sitting at table in front of open sliding doors leading onto a terrace in a tropical house.
Tropical homes are often open to the elements so it is important that the type of floor covering used is waterproof. Image: © Olga Pink

When you live in a tropical country where you experience a hot and humid climate for most of the year, you invariably look for various ways to keep your home cooler naturally. That’s why tiles are the most popular flooring option in the tropics. As well as being cool on the feet, it’s the easiest type of flooring to keep clean.

Many tropical homes are designed with open walls or louvered sliding panels to facilitate cross-ventilation, which means that during heavy storms it’s possible to have an ingress of water into the house. Even homes with conventional doors and windows can get wet inside when windows are left open and there is an unexpected storm.

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Tiles provide a moisture-resistant floor covering and are available in a wide range of colours and patterns, so can be used to complement almost any type of interior décor. Even tropical hardwood timber homes can have tiled floors because there are patterns available these days that look like real wood.

From the most expensive porcelain tiles made in Europe to the cheapest ceramic tiles made in China, and a myriad of locally-made options in between, there is a tiling option that will suit all budgets. Obviously, the higher quality and more expensive tiles will last longer, but the quality of the installation actually plays a more important role in ensuring that the tiles don’t crack or warp.

Tiles are one of the finest flooring options for tropical climates. Since they are stiff and hard-wearing, they will not inflate or shrink like many other flooring materials. Here are the main types of tiles that are suitable for tropical homes:

Porcelain tiles

Porcelain is a material with high density which means it absorbs less water than any other type of tile making it very suitable for use in homes located in hot and humid tropical climates. Moreover, porcelain is manufactured at an extreme temperature which makes these tiles more hard-wearing and much more rigid than other flooring materials.

The principal material used in the manufacture of porcelain tiles is kaolin clay to which some ball clay is added to make the material more workable, as well as several minerals such as feldspar and silica to assist in the firing processes, and various mineral pigments to create the colours. There is also a type of porcelain tile known as a vitrified tile to which quartz has been added. This makes the tile even more dense and water-resistant.

Outdoor terrace of a tropical home facing the beach showing colourful porcelain floor tiles.
Porcelain tiles can be used both indoors and outdoors on terraces due to their hard-wearing properties and resistance to water. Image: Rachel Claire

These types of tile are most often installed in the kitchen or bathrooms because of their low water absorption properties, but their superior contemporary porcelain patterns and designs means they can be used throughout the home. However, as many porcelain tiles (and especially vitrified tiles) are produced with a high sheen, care needs to be taken when choosing the, for wet areas where persons might slip.

There are four types of porcelain tiles – full coloured-body, homogeneous, speckled-body, and double loading. The only downside of porcelain tiles is that they are more expensive than other types of tiles because of their high manufacturing costs. Although porcelain tiles are the more expensive to buy than ordinary ceramic tiles, their low maintenance means there can be money savings in the long run.

Ceramic tiles

Although porcelain tiles are the highest quality and most hard-wearing type of tile, the most common type of tile used in tropical homes is the ceramic tile because they are usually much cheaper to buy. Although they are not as dense as porcelain tiles, they are still very durable, water resistant and can withstand high temperatures.

Though ceramic and porcelain tiles are both clay based and kiln-fired to reduce the water content, the processing techniques are quite different. Ceramic tiles are made of a grainier clay and is fired at comparatively lower temperatures. As a result, they are a little more susceptible to water infiltration. However, as long as the glazed finish has been done properly, ceramic tiles provide a level of moisture resistance not far behind porcelain tiles.

Ceramic tiled floor in a tropical home with decorative pot plant.
Ceramic tiles are the most popular tile option as they offer the best compromise between price and durability. Image: Max Rahubovskiy

Ceramic tiles are more prone to chipping or cracking than porcelain tiles, because of their less dense composition. Therefore they are more suitable to areas of the house with lower foot traffic. However, many home owners use ceramic tiles throughout the house because of budget constraints.

The principal downside of ceramic tiles is that they can show signs of wear in the long term. Ceramic tiles don’t necessarily have the same colour all the way through (often the design is only on the surface of the tile) so they don’t wear as well as porcelain tiles that usually have the same colour (and often design) all the way through the depth of the tile.

Terracotta tiles

Since ancient times, terracotta has been used as a sustainable, natural wall and flooring material across the globe. Terracotta is a more porous clay-based ceramic with high iron oxide content which gives it its reddish-brown hue and makes it more popular with home owners looking for a more rustic appearance.

Whilst terracotta tiles are widely used in the dry tropics, they are more difficult to maintain in the humid wet tropics due to the porosity of the tile. In the wet tropics it is essential that the tiles be sealed on the surface after installation. However, even with sealing, they are more difficult to maintain than ceramic tiles.

Outdoor terrace of a tropical home with rattan furniture and terracotta floor tiles
Terracotta is another category of clay tile that can be used both indoors and outside provided it is properly sealed. Image: © Elena Elisseeva

They are susceptible to staining from mould or mildew growth in the rainy season, especially if used outside on terraces or in wet areas inside the house. Therefore they must be regularly cleaned with a mild detergent and resealed every 6-12 months. The quality of the sealer and how well the sealing process is done will determine the frequency of resealing.

Despite the high maintenance involved, many home owners opt to use terracotta tiles because their earthy appearance makes them more suitable to certain types of house design and interior décor. The other downside of terracotta tiles is that good quality ones are usually more expensive than standard ceramic tiles, and hand-made terracotta tiles can be even more expensive than some types of porcelain tiles.

Concrete tiles

Another type of tile that requires quite a lot of maintenance because of its porosity is the concrete tile. Like terracotta, these require sealing and are subject to staining if not well maintained. However, they are popular in many countries where terracotta tiles are not readily available, as concrete tiles can be produced with a pigment that makes then resemble terracotta tiles.

Plain concrete tiles in different shades of grey are also a good budget-friendly option in contemporary settings, but concrete tiles can be produced in many different colours and designs, and in some places they can be manufactured to order.

Modern bathroom with grey concrete tiles on floor and walls.
Plain grey concrete tiles have become popular with interior designers in recent years, especially in bathrooms. Image: © Dariusz Jarzabek

Concrete tiles are much thicker and heavier than ceramic tiles, so provided they are installed and sealed properly, they can last longer and be a more durable option for areas of the home where there is high foot traffic.

Because of their thickness and weight, concrete tiles can be installed over old tiles without removing them, provided the old tiles are not cracked or loose. There are some tricks to doing such an installation properly, so it’s best to engage a professional tiler for this task. And as the height of the new floor will be higher, it’s important to check door clearances before starting such a project.

Natural stone tiles

For luxury home installations, natural stone tiles are usually the first choice. These can include materials such as granite, travertine, marble, limestone and sandstone. The latter two, like terracotta, are best suited to the dry tropics because their porosity means that in the wet tropics the material faces the same maintenance issues as with terracotta.

Granite is the most affordable option of the three natural stone options best suited to the wet tropics. It’s extremely hard wearing and, like speckled-body porcelain tiles, has the same pattern all the way through so won’t show signs of wear in the long term. It’s very resistant to scratching but high-gloss finish granite tiles are not suitable for bathrooms because they can become slippery.

Luxury bathroom in a tropical villa with natural stone floor and wall tiles.
Natural stone tiles give an elegant look to the luxury tropical home. They are expensive but will last a lifetime. Image: © Visionsi

Travertine is another popular natural stone that can be used for floor tiles, and because it has a more earthy look with its unique patterns, can be better suited to architectural designs where the glossy finishes of granite or marble would look out of place. However, travertine is not as durable as granite or marble, and requires regular sealing to keep it in good condition.

Marble is the most luxurious and some would say more elegant of the natural stone options. It adds a touch of sophistication to modern home designs, but like travertine it requires some maintenance with sealing, and should only be cleaned with pH neutral cleaning products. Anything acidic, like citrus juice splashes, can damage marble, and it can be very slippery when wet.

Luxury vinyl tiles

At the other end of the budget scale for floor tile options are vinyl tiles. Ordinary vinyl tiles are not suitable for the tropics because they are prone to warping, but there is a category of vinyl tile known as LVTs (luxury vinyl tiles) which can be used successfully in the hot and humid weather of the tropics.

However, not all LVTs are made the same, and some of the cheaper brands perform no better than ordinary vinyl tiles. Therefore it’s necessary to look for higher quality brands that are certified waterproof and have a manufacturer’s guarantee against warping.

Dining and kitchen area of an apartment in the tropics showing vinyl tiled floor
Luxury vinyl tiles (LVTs) are the most budget-friendly type of floor tile that can be used in tropical homes. Image: Max Rahubovskiy

The advantage of LVTs over other types of tiles – aside from their lower cost – is that they feel soft to walk on and have noise-absorbing properties which may make them useful to lay on the upper floors of two-storey residences. They can also be more easily installed by a home handyman than other types of tiles.

LVTs are produced using modern printing technology so they can replicate almost any other type of floor covering. LVTs are made from 100 percent synthetic materials so are easy to clean and require much less maintenance than many natural materials. A good quality LVT is as durable as most other tiling options in the short term, but they won’t withstand heavy furniture being dragged across them.

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