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On Solid Ground: Sustainable Flooring Choices

Whether you are building or renovating a home, flooring is a major decision. It has an outsized impact on how your home looks and feels. It can also have a large impact on your indoor air quality and the environment. This blog will make it easy for you to assess which of the many eco-friendly flooring materials is best for you while also providing a few design tips.

Design Considerations

The two main considerations for your flooring decision, from a design perspective, are intensity and contrast. Intensity refers to how light or dark the floors are. Generally speaking, contemporary interiors lean toward lighter floors; transitional interiors lean toward medium intensity floors; and traditional interiors lean towards medium or darker floors. There are always exceptions of course!

Contrast is also an important consideration especially when designing kitchens and bathrooms which tend to have a lot of cabinetry. Aesthetically speaking, you’ll want a touch of contrast between what is sitting on the floor (such as cabinetry and furniture) and the floor itself. Otherwise it can look kind of muddled.

Materials

When considering which flooring materials to choose there are several factors to consider in addition to looks and comfort. From an environmental perspective, the carbon footprint of your flooring decision depends greatly on the distance the materials have to travel to reach your home. You should also be aware of the off gassing of dangerous toxins known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs will negatively affect your indoor air quality. Even a very sustainable material, such as bamboo, can be manufactured, installed and/or finished with high VOC products.

VOCs

VOCs are compounds that react with nitrous oxides in the atmosphere to form smog. Examples in the home furnishings industry include formaldehyde, benzene and toluene. Unfortunately, in addition to creating smog, the vapor that VOCs release depresses the nervous system, damages livers, lungs and kidneys and can result in headaches, irritability, decreased concentration and fine motor skill deficits.

Children (Foster, Stelmak & Hindman, 2007) and people who have chronic respiratory problems, compromised immune systems or cardiovascular disease are particularly susceptible to these negative health effects. Unfortunately, we don’t know how long high VOC products such as finishes off gas. Our best guess is years (Jones, 2008). One study found that only 50% of the VOCs in one finish had been released after one year. So, unfortunately, we can’t assume that if we can’t smell it, it can’t hurt us.

High VOC adhesives are often used in the manufacturing and the installation of conventional flooring. In addition, many finishes are high in VOCs.

Underlayment

For most floors, there is usually a layer between the subfloor and the flooring you walk on. This sublayer is called the underlayment. It provides a smooth surface for the flooring to sit on and depending on the material can help with sound absorption and comfort. For instance, natural cork absorbs sound well and is very resilient and comfortable. Other sustainable choices include strawboard, recycled paper fiberboard, formaldehyde free particleboard and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).

Bamboo

Bamboo is often an affordable and eco-friendly choice. Although it is technically a grass, it is harder than red oak. Bamboo is fast growing; it replenishes itself in 3-6 years. And it comes in a variety of widths and colors in addition to its natural color.

  • Transportation
    The one downside to bamboo, from an environmental perspective, is that almost all bamboo comes from China. That long distance travel contributes to increasing its carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    Look for no or low VOCs in manufacturing, adhesives and finishes. Tesoro Woods’ Engineered Bamboo contains no VOCs.
Carpet

Carpet is a wonderfully soft material. Our favorite carpet manufacturer is Earthweave. They manufacture undyed, or organically dyed, all wool carpeting in many patterns. Colors range from off-white to grays to browns. It is completely biodegradable. In addition, wool cleans easily so there is no need for chemical stain proofing.

If wool is not an option for cost or other reasons, our second choice for performance and environmental reasons is 100% recycled nylon carpet. Some manufacturers are now offering reclamation programs for recycling purposes which also prevents carpeting from taking up space in landfills. No matter what the carpet is made of loop piles will always be a bit more durable than cut piles.

  • Transportation
    Earthweave is manufactured in Dalton, Georgia so it has a relatively small carbon footprint for consumers in the United States. Many synthetic carpets are made in Dalton, Georgia too, but check to be sure.
  • VOCs
    Earthweave has no moth, fire or stain proofing chemicals and uses a no VOC adhesive to attach the natural backing. For synthetic carpets, look for the Carpet Rug Institutes (CRI) Green Label Plus logo which certifies that the carpet, and adhesives have been tested and certified by an independent laboratory and has met stringent criteria for low emissions.
  • Pads
    Most carpet manufacturers recommend a pad as an underlayment. Earthweave’s 100% natural wool-based pads are free from moth proofing, stain proofing, fire retardants and adhesives. Some synthetic pads that are made of recycled materials which can off-gas. Look for the CRI Green Label Plus logo which certifies synthetic pads that have been tested by an independent laboratory and have met stringent criteria for low emissions.
Cork

Cork is a very comfortable, resilient surface to walk on. It can’t be installed below grade because it is susceptible to moisture, but it is biodegradable. Cork comes from the bark of the Mediterranean Oak Tree which replenishes itself in 7-9 years.

  • Transportation
    Most cork comes from Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Unfortunately, that long distance travel contributes to increasing its carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    To preserve your indoor air quality, be sure to avoid any flooring that uses urea-formaldehyde binders.
Linoleum

Linoleum is another very comfortable, resilient surface to walk on that is biodegradable and naturally antimicrobial. It is very durable and slip resistant.
Real linoleum is made of linseed oil, pine resin, cork dust, wood flour, limestone, natural pigments and a burlap backing.

Do not confuse linoleum, a completely natural product, with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) vinyl, a completely synthetic product. PVC is a solid plastic material made from petroleum and vinyl chloride. It is made softer and more flexible by the addition of phthalates and can contain chemicals like bisphenol (BPA). PVC is considered one of the “Hazardous Handful” of chemicals that experts recommend we avoid for health reasons. Negative health effects include cancer, hormone disruption and immune system damage. Vinyl is not biodegradable or recyclable.

  • Transportation
    Most linoleum comes from Europe. That long distance travel contributes to increasing its carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    Be sure to look for no adhesives or low VOC adhesives. In addition, there can be a slight odor and some VOCs due to the oxidation of linoleic acid in the natural linseed oil (Jones, 2008).
Stone

Stone is hard and very durable, but it is a non-renewable resource that damages landscapes during its extraction. Paris Ceramics offers antique marble and stone. Quarrying and manufacturing, especially when making stone into tiles, requires a lot of energy and water. To be safe, you might want to ask for your stone to be tested for radon. Radon is a naturally occurring, but carcinogenic gas, found in some stones.

  • Transportation
    Try to use local stone whenever possible to avoid transporting such a heavy product across long distances and thereby increasing its carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    Stone tiles can be high in VOC’s if there are a lot of bonding agents (as can many synthetic stones made of concrete mixed with polyester and other compounds). Also be sure to use no or low VOC, water-based grouts and sealers.
Tile

Tile is a hard, but very durable, surface made of clay, silica and other readily available materials. Fireclay Tile’s ceramic tiles are made of recycled content in an amazing variety of shapes and colors. They also make a large number of non-slip tiles which are perfect for bathrooms. The only downside to tile is that it has no sound absorption, so if you’re covering a large area be sure to incorporate area rugs into your design.

  • Transportation
    Fireclay Tile is manufactured in California and Washington so for consumers in the United States it has a relatively low carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    Look for zero or low VOC water-based grouts and sealers.
Wood (New)

Wood is a moderately hard surface that has some spring to it. It is biodegradable and can be reused. Many people install engineered wood rather than solid wood for a number of reasons including expense and warping resistance. Engineered wood is usually thin layers of wood, or sometimes wood chips, laminated together. It is usually stronger, lighter and straighter than solid wood. The thicker the top layer, the more times it can be refinished. Engineered wood can be prefinished or finished on site.

Whether you go with engineered or solid wood, to make sure you aren’t inadvertently contributing to deforestation and thereby increasing carbon emissions (Project Drawdown), you’ll want to use North American hardwoods and/or wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). According to the Sustainable Furnishings Council, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices across the home furnishings industry, North American hardwoods are not endangered. Technically, a hardwood tree is a deciduous tree that bears fruit or nuts. Examples of North American hardwoods are alder, ash, balsa, beech, cherry, hickory, maple, oak and walnut.

If you can’t find a North American hardwood that suits your purpose, make sure the flooring is certified by the FSC. In addition to increasing deforestation and carbon emissions, in many forests around the world logging still contributes to water pollution and displacement of indigenous peoples and wildlife. FSC is an independent, non-profit organization that certifies if the wood has been sourced in a sustainable manner. Do not be fooled by look-alikes. For example, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a logging industry trade group, not an independent group.

  • Transportation
    North American hardwoods are a good choice in the United States.
  • VOCs
    Look for zero or low VOC water-based adhesives and finishes.
Wood (Reclaimed)

Reclaimed wood flooring typically has lots of character and is a wonderfully sustainable choice. However, it is not necessarily less expensive than new wood because it can take a lot of work to remove the nails and other large imperfections in the original product.

  • Transportation
    Selecting a vendor near you will decrease your carbon footprint.
  • VOCs
    Be aware that if the wood was previously in a factory it might off-gas some of the chemicals that it was exposed to there.

 

In sum, there are many options for sustainable flooring ranging from reclaimed wood to bamboo so you can be “on solid ground”. What is best for you depends on how you want your space to look and feel as well as how concerned you are about your carbon footprint and indoor air quality. Try to use as many local and domestic products as possible to reduce your carbon footprint. To preserve your indoor air quality, be sure to ask about any adhesives used in manufacturing or installation, and any finishes used.

Image Attribution

Dirck van Delen, A Seven-Part Decorative Sequence: An Interior, 1630-1632, Rijksmuseum.

References

Foster, K., Stelmack, A. & Hindman, D. (2007). Sustainable Residential Interiors. NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jones, L. (2008). Environmentally Responsible Design. NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Project Drawdown. Climate Solutions 101. https://www.drawdown.org/climate-solutions-101.