Sustainable Floor Choices
Floored by choice
When it comes to choosing flooring for your home, there are a myriad ways to go. And while looks and cost are certainly going to be key drivers in your decision-making, don’t forget that it’s also so easy to build eco-friendliness and sustainability into the equation.
What makes a sustainable floor?
It’s a surface that’s produced from readily renewable materials via eco-friendly processes. It also creates little impact on the ecosystems around it in the course of its life-cycle, from harvest through to manufacture, use and disposal. Many sustainable floors also have a social aspect to them, in that traditional flooring types, such as bamboo or sisal, tend to rate highly when it comes to sustainability, and choosing such options ensures a future for the communities that supply and manufacture them.
If you’re interested in assessment-based life-cycle information regarding the flooring you’re considering, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (BEES) programme is the website to visit. It compares the life-cycle environmental impacts of a range of floorings, as provided by researchers around the world. Top of its list come the natural products cork, linoleum, and wood, with wool and composite marble at the other end of the scale, due to their manufacture and installation requirements.
So, what are some of the “greener” choices available to you?
Wooden floors have been popular around the world for centuries. They add warmth and color to your interior scheme, are practical and easy to clean, and – unlike carpet – are great for people with allergies. What’s more, depending on the kind of timber you pick, this is a great environmentally responsible flooring choice.
To begin with, trees are a renewable resource, but opt for a species that’s plantation-grown and harvested commercially, rather than one that’s plundered out of native forestry. They also absorb carbon as they grow and this remains stored in your flooring, rather than being released as emissions into the atmosphere. What’s more, at the end of its useful life beneath your feet, your wood can be repurposed or recycled, so that the carbon stays locked inside.
New technology has also made many types of hardwood floors much easier to install than they have been in the past. They can even now be ordered pre-finished, so there is no need to sand or seal the boards before or after installation – they can simply be laid straight out of the box.
Bamboo has been a traditional flooring in Asia for millennia. To look at, it can resemble hardwood, but it is cut from a rapidly renewing, highly replenishable resource – as bamboo is a grass, not a wood, it grows to maturity in just 3-5 years. It stores up to 70% more carbon a year than hardwoods, and can also be harvested without the need to replant, as the root system is left intact. This all means its carbon footprint is low, even after shipping out of Asia is included. It is strong, extremely durable, naturally anti-bacterial, and resistant to insects and moisture, which makes it ideal for humid environments.
There are a number of types of bamboo flooring available, each varying slightly in manufacturing process, economic viability at source and local preference. In Asia, the most common form uses thin bamboo stems, cut as flat as possible, then trimmed to similar lengths. The wood can then be stained, varnished or left with a natural look.
Outside of Asia, it’s more common to find more highly processed, manufactured bamboo floors. These are generally made from mature bamboo poles, again sliced into strips, then skinned and boiled to remove the naturally occurring starches and sugars. The wood is then dried and planed, delivering two major naturally occurring colors, similar to beech and oak, respectively.
It’s when it reaches the lamination stage that that the eco-friendliness of most widely distributed bamboo flooring tends to be compromised. This is because it is generally bonded together using urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins, which emit volatile organic compounds, so aren’t great for air quality at the time. That said, bamboo uses much less UF adhesive than other options such as particleboard substrate.
There are, however, bamboo products and systems available that don’t use UF. These locking bamboo systems are the easiest to install, in fact, with joints that click firmly into place and allow you to create your own look using plank alignment and color.
Cork tiles or planks are made from the bark of the cork oak, which is carefully harvested from the living tree. This means it is a highly renewable and sustainable flooring resource. It is stripped from a cork tree about once every 10 years, once the tree is 25 years old. Each tree can live for up to 200 years.
In terms of flooring performance, cork has a lot going for it. It is naturally anti-microbial, is a great insulator against both noise and heat loss, and is comfortable underfoot. Its springy resilience also means it copes well with furniture placement and heavy foot traffic. To round it all off, it’s fire-resistant as well.
Cork rates high on the “green” scale too. To begin with, as a tree, it provides a living environment for other plant and for animal species. It attracts few carbon emissions in the course of harvest, and if you choose your sealant carefully, you will find there are also low-VOC options available. It is also highly recyclable once its days as flooring are done.
True linoleum (lino) – also marketed under the trade name Marmoleum – has been around since 1855. It is manufactured from 100% renewable sources and is 100% biodegradable.
Lino is a blend of dried and milled flax seeds (linseed oil), pine resin, ground cork and pine resin, with a jute, burlap, or canvas backing. It is fire-resistant and is also anti-static, which makes it ideal for allergy sufferers. Further, as its decorative pigments are embedded in the structure of the lino, it doesn’t fade.
Top-quality lino is extremely flexible – making it useful in environments where tiles etc would crack – and durable. There are cheaper linoleums available, but they are thinner in cross-section and won’t last as long. Just make sure, if you are opting for lino, that this is actually what you are getting. More common today is polyvinyl chloride (PVC) flooring, which has become colloquially known as “lino”… but isn’t. Yes, it wears well, but it also contains plasticisers, chlorine-containing combustion products and impurities such as free monomers, which are less than environmentally friendly.
Rubber flooring tends to be associated with commercial and industrial spaces, but – with a bit of imagination – can play a useful role in bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms in particular. True rubber is harvested from the living rubber tree, and is therefore a 100% renewable resource. As a floor, it is easy to install and keep clean, insulated against sound and vibration, and is anti-static, so great for asthmatics. It should be fade-resistant too. Again, just make sure you get the real thing, though – synthetic rubber is not a sustainable material.
This is an interesting one, given the sheer number of products from which carpet can be made. Perhaps the greatest surprise to be found here, though, is that wool carpets – although wool is a natural, sustainable and renewable resource – rate very poorly on the “green” scale, in terms of published research. This is largely due, not to the wool itself, but to the energy requirements of the carpet manufacture, the VOCs given off by the adhesives used in laying the carpet, and your choice of underlay. That said, low-VOC carpets are becoming increasingly available – or you can use tacks, as they used to do before the onset of glues. And there are also more environment-neutral underlays coming onto the market.
What are your other choices, if you’re worried about wool carpet’s eco-friendly performance? Sustainable carpeting includes that made from other natural fibers such as cotton, sisal, jute, or coconut husk. Again, it’s a case of looking into the manufacturing and installation of each individual product you are considering. One particularly “green” option is carpeting made completely from recycled polyethylene terephthalate – that’s the plastic used in food and drink containers. There’s a never-ending source of the stuff, recycling it like this keeps it out of our land-fills, and its dyeing is less polluting and requires less energy than other flooring types.
The timber of the coconut palm is a comparatively rare flooring choice, but is one with good sustainability credentials. Coconut palms grow quickly, but the wood is usually harvested from 60-80-year-old plants that are no longer producing fruit. Coconut is a hardwood with an unusual, appealing close grain. It is cheaper than teak, and as hard as mahogany.
You should now be set to specify eco friendly fooring. There are a lot of choices and you now have the information to help make your decisions.