Back Portal Redesign Phase 4

Details make all the difference!

Windows before...

It’s amazing the difference one seemingly small detail can make!  We were a few months into the summer, and loving everything about our new back garden – the hot tub was in, we had planted several varieties of flowers, and the tomatoes were thriving.  The one thing that had been nagging at me long before we started the garden was the house wall that bordered it on one side.  In the middle of the wall there is a large window with privacy glass (the master bathroom is on the other side), and it just seemed so stark and unfinished…I had thought about adding a planter box underneath the window, and possibly adding shutters or a small trellis to create an overhang of some kind, but none of these seemed in keeping with the Pueblo style, and staying true to that was really important to us.  I kept thinking that the window should have been trimmed, but windows here aren’t done that way. Sometimes you’ll see a window with a large beam at the top, which is stunning, but is also part of the structure of the opening, and not something that could be easily added after the fact.  I had to come up with an idea to break up the expanse of the wall, and ideally bring in some color as well…

Talavera to the rescue...

I love the Talavera tile patterns that are so prevalent here – both the bright colors and artisan characteristics really appeal to me – but it can be tricky to use them outside as they are not designed to withstand the cold winters we have here in Santa Fe.  We did learn that you can get porcelain tiles that look like Talavera, and because they are a different kind of clay (and hence fired at a higher temperature), they are fine in the winter…but they are about $9 each!  Having just invested in the wall/steps/hot tub projects, we weren’t ready to spend $500 to frame out one window.  Even though I knew the effect would be amazing, we just couldn’t justify the cost.

We were at one of our favorite tile stores, asking if they had any suggestions, and that’s when we learned about silicone grout (once again, professionals can be such a valuable resource!).  As it was explained to us, Talavera tiles are fired at a lower temperature, and only have glaze on the top, so if they get wet and then freeze there is a good chance they will crack or the painted/glazed finish will pop off the top (or both).  As long as the silicone grout completely surrounds and seals the sides, no water can get in, so the temperature outside is no longer an issue.  We had a solution!  Talavera tiles are only about $2 each, even less if you buy them by the box, so cost of this project had just become much more manageable!

We decided to do a tile frame around the three windows that you could see from the portal – the one that overlooked the garden as well as the two that looked into the living room.  We also decided to do each frame in a different tile pattern – the portal is a fun, casual space and we thought it would be a great place to add a little whimsy 😊.  We intentionally selected tile patterns that had a colorful background to maximize the contrast to the stucco wall.  (in a future post I’ll detail an indoor project we did with Talavera tiles, where we selected tiles with a neutral background to get a completely different effect)

The project details...

I should mention that this was a true labor of love on Andy’s part (definitely not the first, and I’m sure not the last!)  He wasn’t at all sure that this was a good idea…he wasn’t sure a tile frame would look right, and he was more than a little bit anxious about cutting into the stucco to put them up.  I can be particular about projects, and this was one of those times – I wanted the tile to be flush with the stucco, instead of creating a 3-D frame that stuck out.  Installation would have been much more simple if the stucco hadn’t been applied yet (or if we had had any experience at all with stucco in the past), but that wasn’t the case. 

Once again, the solution was to ask a professional.  One day when our contractor was out checking on the wall/steps project, we asked his advice.  He explained how the structure of the window is built before the stucco is added, and that all we needed to do was grind away the stucco where we wanted the tiles to go, install the tiles, and then make sure the whole thing was sealed with the silicone grout.  The key would be not removing more stucco than was necessary (so we wouldn’t have to patch it), and grinding deep enough to accommodate the depth of the tiles so they would be flush with the finished wall.  This was not quite as straightforward as it seemed, because stucco (and the concrete underneath) is applied by hand, so the thickness can vary from one area to another – definitely a learning curve, but after three windows Andy is a pro 😉

We measured the width of the tiles, adding room for grout on either side to get our width measurement, then drew a vertical line using a level.  That became the outer edge of the space that needed to have the stucco removed.

The other thing I was really particular about was that we didn’t have any cut tiles – I know that in most tile projects that’s unavoidable, but I really felt like it would take away from the effect, so I was determined we could figure it out.  The answer became varying the size of the spaces between the tiles ever so slightly, in each row.  This drove Andy crazy!  He is an engineer by trade, and the idea of having grout lines that were not uniform wasn’t something he could put his head around. To his defense, I understood his concern that the finished job would look unprofessional, but I reminded him that Talavera tiles are hand-made, and the tiles themselves aren’t exactly the same size, so we would have to have varying grout lines regardless.  This tile project was going to involve both art and math, and we just needed to accept that from the get-go.

We took our measurements, figured out how many full tiles we could fit and laid them out on the floor, adjusting the space between them to arrive at our final measurement.  If the row had an odd number of tiles, we knew that the middle of one tile would align with the middle of the measurement.  If a row needed an even number of tiles, then we would have a grout line in the middle of the measurement. We put down a piece of blue painter’s tape the length of the row of tiles, and with a sharpie marked the edge of each tile on the tape.  That gave us a template to work with.  We stuck the marked tape on the window frame, lined up each tile next to its corresponding mark and stuck it to the wall using a construction adhesive for outdoor projects. We also used blue tape to help hold the tile until the adhesive dried.  We only installed about 4-5 tiles at a time – more than that and the tiles started slipping. It was a long process, but it only took a few tiles to see that the finished project was going to be amazing!

The learning curve also included working with silicone grout, which is sticky and has a mind of its own! Thankfully, since the two larger windows were under the portal roof and would not be exposed to the elements, we were able to use regular grout on those, which is much easier to work with.

To say that we are pleased with the result is an understatement!  Each box of tile was about $125 (we have extra tiles and I’m sure they will be used on future projects), and we went through several tubes of construction adhesive as well as several grinder bits to remove the stucco, so I would put the cost of each window at $150-$165.  Of course with DIY projects, we usually don’t think about adding time and labor in the cost column - on this project they were both significant (if memory serves it was 3 weekends).  But we would do it again in a heartbeat – we dreamed it up, figured it out, learned a bunch, and had fun doing it together – all-in-all a definite DIY win!

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Deb Tisler

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