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Eco-Friendly Floors

Sustainability Underfoot

by Avery Mack

GL_0115_EcoWoodFlooringTruly good flooring is beautiful, practical and eco-friendly. The best choices may change from room-to-room, as well as with geography, depending on family needs. Here are some key factors to consider for an optimum installation.

Added Value—Hardwood

Wood comes in many colors, polished to a high gloss or textured, and can be refinished when styles change. “Timber used to float downriver to the sawmill and not all of it arrived. We salvage logs from the bottom of the Penobscot River for flooring and other products,” says Tom Shafer, co-owner of Maine Heritage Timber, in Millinocket. “Our wood is as fresh as the day it was cut decades ago.” Cold water preserves the resource and adds a natural patina. Removal of the estimated 700,000 cords of underwater wood will help restore the waterway’s natural eco-system.

Note: Wood can scratch or dent and be susceptible to water damage. Even recycled wood might not be eco-friendly. “Wood reclaimed from manufacturing plants can contain machine oils, harsh chemical residue, lead paint or asbestos,” explains Shafer. “Know where it came from; follow the chain of evidence.”

High Traffic, Pets, Long Life—Linoleum

Linoleum is made from linseed oil, wood powder, resins and ground limestone. Mineral pigments provide rich color throughout, which prevents paler worn spots. A personalized pattern may include borders using linoleum sheets or tiles. It’s long-lasting, durable, fire-resistant, biodegradable, has no harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) and repels dirt and dust.

Note: Vinyl, made from unnatural chlorinated petrochemicals, won’t wear as well or last as long as linoleum.

Spills or Wet Feet—Tile

Bottles recycled into glass tile reflect light, brightening smaller rooms like the bath. Long-lasting ceramic or porcelain tile has no VOCs, is easy to clean and won’t host germs, bacteria or dust mites.

Note: Look for lead-free glazed tile. Glass tile may be cost-prohibitive for larger spaces. Most tile can be slick when wet; texturing increases safety.

Child-, Pet- and Elder-Friendly, Warm and Comfy—Cork

Cork is lightweight, flexible and can mimic stone, granite, tile, marble and wood, while providing comfortable cushioning. “Cork assumes the ambient temperature in the room, keeping feet warmer. It holds up to dogs, too,” says Tim Tompkins, a Portuguese Cork Association committee member in Greenville, South Carolina. “Cork is both healthy for the consumer and sustainable for the environment.”

Note: Due to its cushioning nature, heavy furniture or high-heeled shoes may make indentations.

Wood-like and Sturdy—Bamboo

Bamboo generally regrows in three to five years, is twice as hard as red oak and can be stained almost any color. Edge-grained bamboo, banded together, turns flooring into a statement.

Note: “It’s shipped from Asia and may have formaldehyde glues and durability problems, so shop carefully,” advises David Bergman, a New York City green architect and author of Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide.

Long-Wearing Classic Look—Stone

Travertine, limestone, granite, slate and marble are all stone flooring options. Stone can increase home value, has a classic look and is a piece of history that adds to any décor, although it’s not a renewable resource. Cork or non-petroleum-based laminate floors can give the look of stone without destroying an in-situ natural resource.

Note: Large blocks of stone are cut at quarries and transported to processing plants, cut into slabs and transported to a processor to be cut again, shaped and polished before being shipped to the store—a big carbon footprint.

The Great Imitator—Concrete

Easy-to-clean, durable, concrete never needs to be replaced. Small repairs can be patched. Large repairs, such as a broken pipe beneath the surface, may require refinishing the entire floor to match the stain color. Some homeowners have created a faux rug using other stain colors to disguise the repaired area. Finishes can make concrete look like hardwood, painted tile, a rug, marble or granite, including terrazzo options. For an entryway, homeowners can design a custom welcome mat, perhaps incorporating a family crest, monogram or motto. Finishes can be textured to varying degrees to increase foot traction.

Note: Ensure the structure is sturdy enough to bear the extra weight of concrete. It feels cold underfoot in winter and cool in summer. Epoxy coatings don’t let concrete breathe, so any moisture emanating from the concrete slab will be trapped. Test for the moisture-vapor emission rate; problem areas can include sections covered by furniture.

Avery Mack is a freelance writer in St. Louis, MO. Connect via AveryMack@mindspring.com.

Fun Floor Facts

  • Mixed and matched floors depict a planned flow in an open-concept house. Find fun ideas at Tinyurl.com/FlooringTransits.
  • Most carpet is chemical-laden and not so health- or eco-friendly, although there are some exceptions.
  • Sustainably produced handwoven wool rugs backed with jute are susceptible to the jute’s retaining spills and pet odors; its yellow-tan pigment also can color rug fibers. Jute eventually disintegrates, leaving clumps of unsecured wool fibers.
  • In Portugal, bark is hand carved off the tree as cork, which is healthy for the tree. Trees are grown on protected land that also benefits insects and birds. NASA, Mercedes and BMW have found cork to be a lightweight, durable replacement for steel. The Library of Congress has relied on its original cork flooring for 75 years.
  • Kinetic energy from people dancing or walking on special flooring can light up the area and send energy back to the grid (see Joycott.com/energy-floors).

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