FAMILY, FAITH AND TILES

HOW A MOSQUE USED PORCELAIN AND ADHESIVES FROM A LOCAL MANUFACTURER TO CREATE A UNIQUE EFFECT

AN estimated 1,750 mosques serve about three million Muslims in the UK. One of those mosques is the Masjid e Salaam Mosque which was established in 1996 through the efforts of local Muslim residents of Fulwood, Preston.

Since its formation, it’s said to have grown considerably in size and activities. It describes itself as a non-profit, non-political, religious and educational institute with the purpose of serving the Muslim community of Fulwood and beyond.

The mosque sees considerable footfall: there are five daily congregational prayers while adults and children attend weekly Islamic education classes and special occasional seminars. Marriage services are conducted, provision is made for funeral services (janaza prayers) and nightly traweeh prayers during the month of Ramadhan.

After almost a decade in planning and four years since building began, Friday 25 March 2016 saw a landmark new mosque opened in Preston. At 11am, the doors of the Masjid e Salaam mosque in 49 Watling St Road were thrown open to the community for the first time.

Records on the mosque’s official site show that the total estimated cost of building the mosque was nearly £3m. This included site clearance and demolition, substructure (foundations and ground floor), steel frame and upper floor, concrete stairs, the roof and dome, sanitary and ablution facilities and floor finishes, among other costs.

A LINK between a prominent member of the mosque, Amjad Patel and his brother Zabir, who is md of the nearby flooring supplier, Roccia, led to an agreement about the tiles to be used in the mosque.

Roccia is the new name for Tilemart, which was rebranded after 23 years, and it’s located at Mercedes Benz House in Preston. ‘It wasn’t the ideal time to buy premises in 2009 during the Great Recession but the opportunity came up and was too good to miss,’ says Zabir.

‘We stripped the showroom, starting with the ceiling all the way down, and it took one-and-a-half years to convert. Everything was designed in-house – we didn’t get architects or designers involved.’

Until now, the company has kept a low profile, but that’s something it’s hoping to change as it plans to take on a new PR agency. ‘We deal with between 120-130 manufacturers, more than anybody in the UK,’ says Zabir.

‘All our accounts are direct, mainly Europe – Spain and Italy – the latter being our predominant supplier. We have the high-end brands you’ll see in London. Once a week, people visit by train or car, spending a good day here.’

Roccia’s commercial division devotes its time to looking after clients, from picking them up at the station to feeding them and touring the showroom. ‘We have a good conversion rate. At the end of the day, price is everything and service is important. The service we provide is second-to-none.’

The company does site visits in Manchester and London once every two to three weeks to seek clients. ‘Our core business is the northwest,’ says Zabir. ‘We started off with people coming from 30-40 miles away; now, with our new showroom, which is more of a destination site, we have people from as far afield as Carlisle, Scotland and the South and Liverpool, and Cheshire (Bolton).

‘We import 7-8 containers a week from Europe and have 3,000 pallets in stock at any one time. We have 49 staff and we supply Europe regularly – for instance, we’ve just done a project for a villa in Marbella for tiles that came from Italy, delivered direct. We’ll probably do four or five lovely projects in Spain and France, too.’

As the company diversifies, its commercial division has the biggest potential for growth because of the brands it’s adopted over the past five or six years, says Zabir.

‘We’ve rebranded purely because Tilemart no longer reflects what we do. We opened the factory shop to cater for the Tilemaster market. We opened our bathroom department six years ago, for instance, and from nothing we now have six full-time staff, four full-time designers and consultants. That’s a huge growth for us.’

Most brands with which Roccia deals come directly from the manufacturer rather than through a distributor. ‘The plan is for the next two years to increase our turnover with the launch of our website. On the back of that, we’ve already recruited four new staff in the offices to potentially look after that business.’

The original Tilemart was opened by Zabir and his father in 1994, in a little shed 250m away from Mercedes Benz House. ‘I’m Preston born-and-bred,’ he says. ‘I have four brothers directly involved in the firm; they’re all directors, so it’s truly a family business.’

Zabir describes the company’s growth as slow but steady owing to 15-20 staff members who’ve been with them more than 10 years. ‘We look after our staff, they’re very loyal,’ he says. ‘From the moment a customer walks through the door, we give them an experience, meet-and-greet, walk them round to our café area. We make an experience of it.’

Client visits can last between three to four hours, Zabir says, as there’s so much to see and take in.

Some of those clients include people looking for advice on tiling for their mosques.

‘We supply mosques all over the UK,’ Zabir says. ‘At the moment, for instance, we have four on-going projects – one in Accrington, two in London and another one in Manchester.

‘The reason people come to us looking for that advice is that we’re Muslims ourselves. Consequently, we’ve developed over the past four years a team to help in the background to work specifically with mosques, from the design element where they create the designs to the final finishes. We get involved on the fitting side as well.’

With respect to the Masjid e Salaam Mosque, it was only natural Roccia would be involved. For one, the mosque is only 200m from Zabir’s house. ‘I frequent it regularly; it’s a community project.

‘During its construction, I was there every day, project managing everything down to the types of tiles we’d use. We had an excellent team in charge. Because it was my local, I took a personal interest.’

What his team created is unique in the UK, Zabir says. ‘When you think of a mosque, you think of something beautiful. What we’ve done here – and we were heavily involved in the design aspect – is gone from a contemporary look to a minimalist one featuring big slabs of porcelain.’

The mosque is a blueprint for others in the UK, Zabir says. ‘On the back of finishing it, we’ve had two or three visits from architects saying: ‘Okay, maybe we can also do things differently now.’

Since it opened early last year, visitors have come to the mosque to get inspiration not only from the tiling, Zabir says, but from the structure of the building. ‘It was a community project,’ he says. ‘The money came from the community, along with some big donors. It’s a very middle-class area. Many non-Muslims helped by voting for it.

When the mosque was launched, it held open days, one for Muslims and an open weekend for non-Muslims. ‘We were gobsmacked at how many non-Muslims came,’ Zabir says. ‘We were predicting 40-50 and were instead inundated with between 500-600 visitors.’

Once a week, the mosque hosts church and school visits; the imam who provides the tours is one of Zabir’s brothers. ‘We try to get the message across about how Muslims integrate with the community, explain what our beliefs are, and persuade them not to believe everything they read in the media about Islam.’

The mosque interior features carpets and tiling, and all the adhesives, including the anti-cracking mat, were specified by Tilemaster Adhesives, with whom Zabir has had a longstanding friendship.

ESTABLISHED in 1990, Tilemaster Adhesives is a family business. Its products are manufactured in Leyland, Lancashire and distributed throughout the UK, it says, within 24-48 hours to the buyer’s premises or directly onto the contract site.

Tilemaster says it’s unique because of the family virtues that run through the business and are reflected by one-to-one customer service, covering product formulation, packaging and technical site support. It says it’s committed to supplying industry with a comprehensive range of products ‘manufactured to the highest standards’.

Zabir has known Tilemaster founder, Paul Kelly, for years. ‘So many suppliers have been and gone over the years,’ he says, ‘but Tilemaster has always been here. Paul is Tilemaster!’

On a personal level, Zabir has high praise for Paul, which is undoubtedly a result of their trust in each other. ‘We’ve become good friends,’ he says. ‘He’s an exceptional chap, a beautiful human being, always there to help.

‘The product range they incorporate began with buckets of adhesive which we used to buy from them. They have so many ranges and have expanded vastly in the past six years.’ Then, a quip: ‘I wish I’d known how well they were going to do, I would’ve bought into the company a long time ago!’

Zabir says Roccia is Tilemaster’s biggest customer in the UK, buying more than a dozen pallets of adhesive per week to each store, which amounts to a container-load. ‘Going forward, Tilemaster will look to expand even more and we’ll correspondingly look to expand their brands,’ Zabir says. ‘The trade customers we deal with don’t touch other manufacturers’ products.’

Zabir estimates between 90-95% of the floorlayers he works with choose Tilemaster. ‘They love the product. The technical team is just around the corner if they need anything. In our big projects, we always specify Tilemaster. It’s also lovely to know their team has grown to between 50-60 strong, so the synergy is there. Both our companies have grown together.’

The Tilemaster products used at the mosque included Standard Set Setaflex, a polymer modified, flexible standard setting cement-based wall and floor tile adhesive with increased adhesion and non-slip properties.

Formulated to give an extended pot life of about between three to four hours, Tilemaster says this product is suitable where longer working times are required. These properties were particularly helpful on the mosque project because of the size and intricacies of the larger tiles.

‘Tilemaster Standard Set Setaflex has been formulated for fixing various tile types including ceramic, porcelain and natural stone tiles to substrates subject to limited movement and/or vibration such as plywood overlay, timber framework and underfloor heating systems as well as for fixing to solid substrates such as concrete and sand/cement screed,’ the company says.

The product is suitable for areas subject to prolonged or permanent wet conditions such as swimming pools and wet rooms, and it can be used internally and externally; it’s unaffected by frost after setting, the company adds.

The other product used was the Light Weight Standard Set, a polymer-modified, flexible standard setting cement-based wall and floor tile adhesive.

Light Weight is made using what Tilemaster says are specially formulated lightweight fillers and additives to produce ‘excellent non-slip properties, improved workability, higher yield and more than 60% extra coverage over traditional sand/cement-based adhesives.’ The extra coverage and light weight fillers reduce the weight of the adhesive alone by 2.3kg per square metre when compared to a more traditional sand/cement adhesive.

Light Weight Standard was chosen for this project because the larger tiles were 1 metre x 3 metre in size and therefore the excellent non-slip properties coupled with the light weight aspect meant the product was the ideal choice.

Now all that was needed was a tiler familiar with Tilemaster and the mosque.

Amjad Patel, Zabir’s brother, said the remit for the floorlayer was that a statement needed to made. ‘We wanted the wow factor and it needed to be entrenched in Muslim culture. We needed a tiler who’d understand everything and adhesives products that would stand the test of time.’

Enter Stephen Wagstaff.

CHEERFUL in a cheeky chappie sort of way and brimming with positivity about flooring, Stephen Antony Wagstaff is a tiler who’s also the director and founder of Pro-tilers Wall & Floor UK based in St Anne’s but who works all over the country.

He started the company two years ago, but was involved in floorlaying for several years before that with another company.

Flooring and tiling wasn’t something he wanted to do originally, however. ‘I had dreams of being a chef and started out as a pot-washer in a hotel to that end, until I decided it wasn’t for me. Then I landed the landscaper job, which I was lucky to get because I’d started out as a labourer. That’s how I started to become involved in construction, then flooring.’

Stephen was working on a spa floor with his friend when he discovered he enjoyed the tiling aspect. ‘From there, my interest just grew. Now I’ve done every possible aspect of tiling – council work, small domestics, big stuff.’

He’s even done work abroad, at a Denmark shopping centre, which has led to him doing what he describes as ‘large format stuff, which is niche’. But regardless of the size of the job, Stephen says, his goal is to ensure that the customer is always happy with the result. ‘Client satisfaction is all I ever want. It keeps me going.’

Born in 1971 in Wiltshire, Stephen is ‘an army child’, and attributes his strict upbringing to the disciplined way he approaches tiling.

Stephen and his team started on the mosque ablution rooms in February 2015 and it took a year to complete.

Amjad says the mosque chose Stephen because he has an eye for detail. ‘He sees the big picture, and he’s good at communicating. He’s easy to bounce ideas off and if something doesn’t work, he’ll bring you round to understanding how he sees it.

‘In terms of meeting deadlines, he’s perfect. We chose him because he doesn’t shy away from bespoke work. Many tilers will, unfortunately, try to complicate a simple job and then you must win them around to your way of thinking.’

Wherever he works, Stephen says, he suggests Tilemaster products. ‘They’re easier to work with. All the tilers I know select Tilemaster. In this mosque, for instance, we used the Lightweight product on the large walls because it had particularly good purchase.

‘We also completed the central atrium area with the Lightweight product, which took our team of five or six guys about five weeks. Then we moved to the prayer room and the corridors.

‘We also completed the ablutions and polished the corners and resin-filled them, so there’s no trim. And then the last part we did was the quiet room which was challenging because a 3mm gap meant there was no room for error. That took about two weeks.’

Stephen points out that a mosque is particularly difficult to tile because of the sheer amount of footfall. ‘In addition, visitors closely peruse the craftwork and tiling, and they’re picky about perceived flaws. And because everyone has put hours in the community development, they all have an opinion, and you’ve got to ensure that it’s bang on as everybody feels they have a stake in it.

‘It’s a bit of groupthink with the end-user because we bounce ideas around saying what we think will work. Ultimately, the client will be happy if you explain what you’re doing and why. We wouldn’t ever push something, saying ‘Well, it’s GOT to be like this or that.’

‘Once everyone’s happy, we go for it. I’ve been taught that if your work isn’t of a standard you’d accept in your own house, then don’t do it at all. That’s always stuck with me. You’re only as good as your last job, no matter how long you’ve been going.’

In addition to the specific challenges of a job, Stephen says tiling is getting more technical. If he was given the opportunity to ask manufacturers a question on flooring it would be: ‘Why’s everything changing so much? Over time, the rules keep changing – for instance, laying decoupling systems is now a requirement. How do we keep updated with it all? My first impression is there must be a financial imperative behind it.

‘On the other hand, if you get into a tit-for-tat with manufacturers about specifics, you end up in a battle. At the end of the day, they’re producing the best product they can and that’s all you can expect.’
The best aspect about dealing with Tilemaster, says Stephen, is that if there’s anything he needs to know, he can directly contact Mark Kelly, the founder Paul’s son, who’s now md. ‘That sort of accessibility from an md is unusual,’ he says. ‘With many manufacturers, you’d never get through to the top guy.’

Stephen says the philosophy he lives by is ‘never believe you’re the best, because you’re not. I reckon I learn something every day on the job; if you stop learning, you may as well quit. For instance, I’ve worked with guys much younger and less experienced than me who’ve given me good ideas’.

That’s a surprise, Stephen says, considering he was always in trouble in school because he never listened to teachers. ‘I’ve always been good with my hands, not so good with my brain and when someone’s telling me how to do something, I’m thinking of a better or alternative way to do it.’

Clearly, his ability to listen and learn combined with a penchant for doing things his own way was instrumental in the success at Masjid e Salaam Mosque.