A Rundown of Sustainable Flooring Materials

Floor coverings have been cited as both primary and secondary sources of contaminants as well as a significant burden on the health of the environment. Demand for aesthetically pleasing and exotic woods for our floors has led to the desolation of hard-wood forests and other fragile ecologies in susceptible third-world countries. On the other end of the flooring spectrum, petrochemical alternatives such as vinyl and ubiquitous nylon carpets represent an equally unsustainable substitute for hard woods due to genuine health concerns and the ultimate unsustainability of petrochemical products.

However, while flooring is itself only a part of what makes a house sustainable, materials are only a part of a complicated web of processes that culminate in a finished floor. For example, wood for flooring that is shipped and trucked from the forests of Gabon are inherently less sustainable than wood sourced from local groves. The underlay on which flooring panels sit is often foam – a petrochemical product and a known emitter of greenhouse gasses. Even the glue that holds the flooring together or to the floor can be a major factor in determining the ultimate sustainability of the finished floor. For the purposes of this article, these things are left out – as are less common flooring choices such as terrazzo, stone, and rubber.

 

First, the Bad Flooring Materials

Carpet

Few flooring products are as ubiquitous as carpets, which cover 70% of America’s floors, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute. Nonetheless, ubiquity in this case does not equate to a greener better product. Emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other potentially toxic components from carpets have been widely recognized as an indoor air quality problem. An estimated five billion pounds (2 billion kg) of carpet is discarded every year in the U.S. and put in landfills that will continue to impact generations well into the distant future. Furthermore, the high petrochemical content, and shorter lifespan coupled with the more demanding cleaning needs, when compared with other flooring materials, such as wood, linoleum, and polished concrete, have made it a symbol of the consumptive excess of American homes.

Vinyl

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring is relatively cheap and easy to install, and consequently it is a popular choice. It is often mistakenly called “linoleum” (a completely different, organic product). However, from an environmental perspective, vinyl flooring is considered a poster child of things to avoid. The process of manufacturing vinyl generates air-polluting dioxins. As a petrochemical-based product, vinyl consumes a nonrenewable resource. After they are installed, vinyl flooring products can off-gas for a number of years; the VOCs emitted include lead, cadmium, and phthalate plasticizers. When it’s lifecycle comes to an end, vinyl ends up in landfills where they do not decay. Millions of pounds of vinyl tile are dumped in landfills each year or burned.

 

The Good Flooring Materials


Wood

Wood is a complicated material. While its demand for flooring is a major cause of much damage to old-growth forests around the globe, it is still an excellent and sustainable flooring material provided that it is sourced from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified forestries and sourced locally.

Typically costs between $4.00-$12.00 per sq/ft

Bamboo

A cheap alternative to traditional hardwoods is fast-growing bamboo. Compared to wood, it grows much faster – up to 50 inches in just a single day. While traditional hardwoods can take upwards to a hundred years to mature, bamboo, which is actually a type of grass, reaches maturity in only five years, and when finished, is harder than coveted Brazilian Cherry woods. Additionally, bamboo has few pests reducing the need for toxic pesticides. Bamboo forests can sequester up to 70% more carbon per year than comparable hardwood forests. All these factors keep the carbon footprint reasonably low.

On the flip side, since the majority of bamboo timber is sourced from China, it must be shipped. Comparative studies of embodied energy show that bamboo sourced from China’s interior provinces and shipped as far as Colorado has a larger carbon footprint than using locally sourced stone. Because many bamboo-based flooring products are composed of bamboo strips laminated together, urea-formaldehyde (a known VOC) is often employed. Regulation remains relatively opaque and many manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims about the sustainability of their bamboo products.

Typically costs between $3.75-$6.50 per sq/ft

Cork

Cork is derived from the bark of the Cork Oak (Quercus Suber). The bark is stripped without harming the tree. Cork is naturally anti-microbial, has superb temperature and sound insulation properties, ensuring minimal heat loss, and a comfortable, quiet warm walking surface. Cork is resilient and ‘springs back’ preventing imprints due to heavy traffic and furniture. Cork is naturally low in volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions; however it is important to check the finish applied. Cork is not suitable for wet areas such as bathrooms and kitchens as it absorbs and retains moisture readily which can lead to mold and mildew concerns.

Typically costs between $4.00-$8.00 per sq/ft

Linoleum

Linoleum is a natural product made from linseed oil, wood flour, rosin, jute and limestone. Unfortunately the term is often used to refer to modern, petroleum-based, vinyl flooring products which can cause confusion. The best linoleum floors, known as “inlaid”, are extremely durable; they are made by joining and inlaying solid pieces of linoleum. Cheaper patterned linoleums came in different grades or gauges, and are printed with thinner layers which are more prone to wear and tear. Quality linoleum is sufficiently flexible to be used in applications where rigid materials, such as ceramic tile, would fail and crack. Because it is made of organic materials and is non-allergenic in nature, quality linoleum is used in many places, such as hospitals and health care facilities, where air quality is of the utmost importance. Linoleum is, however, known to be flammable.

Typically costs between $3.75-$7.50 per sq/ft

None (polished concrete)

Sometimes the best flooring is no flooring. In this case, the completed concrete floor slab is simply scoured and polished with industrial-grade equipment to a nice, glossy finish. Concrete is extremely durable, the ingredients for making concrete are readily available, easy to obtain, and do not off gas overtime. Concrete also has high thermal mass allowing it to passively regulate the ambient temperature of the building. Polishing the existing concrete eliminates the need for any additional flooring material (all of which require manufacturing and transportation). Processed concrete has a longer life cycle than any other flooring currently available such as carpet, wood or bamboo. Depending on the quality of the concrete, a properly polished floor will last forever thus eliminating carbon intensive steps in the floor’s life-cycle, such as manufacturing, transportation, and eventual disposal. The polished surface of concrete also reflects light lending any interior a brighter, lighter patina.

Typically costs between $3.00-$7.00 per sq/ft

For those who can afford it, hardwood derived from regional and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified forestries is still the way to go. While bamboo is much lauded as a sustainable material, concerns about the opacity of the manufacturing process, which is often done in China, and the actual carbon footprint of shipping said bamboo across the Pacific Ocean mar its sustainable reputation. At one-fourth to one-half the cost of hardwood, however, bamboo is a good alternative for home buyers looking for a little green on a budget. For homeowners seeking a more modern or minimal aesthetic, no additional flooring material but polished concrete is needed. It is cheap, durable, and is relatively easier to maintain than other flooring materials. It is also unaffected by moisture, humidity, insects, and very unlikely to take the kind of wear-and-tear damage that wood flooring does.

What kind of flooring appeals to you?
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