Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans1
Green Flooring for Sustainable Spaces
Awareness of, and interaction with, one’s surroundings is a concept that gets to the very root of why we care about being green. When you choose the right floor, you have an opportunity to make a commitment to mindful living, to taking better care of a body that is deeply affected by what it walks on, and to do so in the sustainable manner that is right for you.
As with any other aspect of green building, the decision about what type of green flooring to use should factor in several basic principles such as: renewability of the material source, energy used in production and shipping, health effects of exposure, durability, and options for disposal when its lifetime is over, among others. Unlike many other important considerations of home construction, however, a floor’s function doesn’t end when your house is finished: A floor is something that you’re going to see and touch daily, and every single room has to have one!
The vast majority of current conventional flooring products have little to do with eco-friendliness or even aesthetic appeal. Approximately 70% of floor covering in the United States is carpet, mostly made from nylon, which is a familiar term that masks its ultimate source: petroleum oil. Besides being made from one of our most endangered resources, synthetic carpet is high in volatile organic compound (VOC) off-gassing, provides a safe haven for many allergens, and, as long-term homeowners know, wears with very little grace. Once ripped up and disposed of, nylon carpet is fated for a non-biodegradable repose in a landfill. Other popular floors have similar issues: the petroleum-based vinyl flooring that is common in kitchen and bathrooms everywhere is made of polyvinyl chlorate (PVC), which contains several chemicals called phthalates (sure, easy for us to say!). Phthalates have raised enough health concerns, particularly with respect to male development, that in 2005, the European Union banned use of some phthalates in children’s toys.
Both vinyl and synthetic wood laminate floors lack any inherent aesthetic qualities–images of actual, natural products are photo engraved to approximate realistic and natural looks. Although industry sources claim that popular laminates used recycled lumber waste from managed forests, the formaldehyde-heavy fiberboard, a relatively short lifespan, and energy associated with production make this option a questionable resource in green building terms. Of the standard floors, only hardwood is a fully natural product, but don’t assume that any and every hardwood material is produced using practices of sustainable forestry, or that they it is healthy for indoor air quality.
The vast majority of current conventional flooring products have little to do with eco-friendliness or even aesthetic appeal. Approximately 70% of floor covering in the United States is carpet, mostly made from nylon, which is a familiar term that masks its ultimate source: petroleum oil.
Green Flooring Alternatives: Safe and Beautiful
There are plenty of alternatives to petroleum and clear cutting, and more green flooring options are available today than ever before. Here are some of the best options for green flooring—not only in terms of ecological preservation, but also for the comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that these options lend to a home.
- Natural linoleum—unlike the plastic properly called polyvinyl chloride that’s often casually referred to as "linoleum,"—is a natural and low-VOC product that has been used for over a century. Linoleum is made from renewable, biodegradable resources: linseed oil (from crushed flaxseed), pine rosin, clay, cork, limestone — one of the world’s most abundant minerals — and backing of jute, the common plant fiber that burlap is also made from. Vibrant, marbled colors from organic dyes are a hallmark of linoleum, and because the color permeates the material, it can be sanded for renewed longevity. Although a linoleum floor requires the waxing upkeep that vinyl doesn’t, it can be cleaned, sanded, and patched easily, and maintains the slight give that make resilient floors perfect for heavy traffic and prolonged standing for decades longer than vinyl. Linoleum is available in sheets and tiles, which should always be installed with low-VOC adhesives, as well as hard tongue-and-groove planks for do-it-yourself glueless installation. Linoleum is produced in Europe.
- Cork is another inviting and ecologically wise flooring option. Though the word may conjure up images of bulletin boards and wine bottles, cork flooring is solid, sturdy, and sustainable. It’s derived from the Mediterranean cork oak’s bark, which is harvested by hand about once a decade and then grows back, augmenting the tree’s health. Because cork oaks aren’t harmed in the harvesting process and can live over 200 years, cork is truly sustainable and one of the greenest possible flooring options (excess material is used to make bottle corks). It’s also extremely varied, ranging from natural grains to bright colors and all kinds of textures. Naturally resistant to fire, moisture, and insects; insulating for both sound and heat; and gentle on the feet, knees, and back, cork may be the ideal green floor, though finish should be checked for VOCs, particularly if you choose the hardier urethane over wax. Glueless tongue-and-groove installation is recommended.
- Sustainable hardwood is an obvious option, which goes hand-in-hand with another popular green floor: bamboo. The two share many qualities, including general level of hardness, sound quality, and methods of maintenance. However, the ways they’re grown and harvested are vastly different. Bamboo, which is a grass rather than a tree, can reach maturity in as few as three or four years, and does not need to be replanted. Hardwood, on the other hand, takes much longer to grow and be regenerated. Many hardwood manufacturers call their products sustainable or claim they’re from managed forests; however, these terms are relative and self-applied, even by companies that engage in clear cutting or destruction of indigenous lands. Both hardwood and bamboo are available in solid or engineered formats, both of which have green pros and cons: engineered floors use less timber and may be more durable, but solid can be sanded and refinished, and are less processed with fewer glues. Whatever you choose, seek out low-VOC finishes and formaldehyde-free adhesives, and consider a glueless floating floor. Another hardwood option is reclaimed wood, salvaged from older buildings as they’re deconstructed. Many of these woods are of a higher quality because they were made from old-growth trees, use less energy for processing, and have a much shorter distance to travel than hardwoods, which are often exotic.
Look for wood that’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and make sure the individual wood is FSC-certified, since a company can claim endorsement without offering any actual FSC-approved wood, or confuse the consumer by offering some certified woods and some conventional ones while prominently displaying its FSC seal. Of course, the FSC is not the only standard for sustainability, but it remains by far the most widely trusted within the industry and by environmental groups, as many others are less stringent: see this comparison for more details. And though it’s a highly green product in and of itself, there is no current certification available to ensure that bamboo is harvested and produced in the most sustainable, socially responsible fashion.
- Exposed concrete is another floor gaining popularity for green building. Though it may sound bizarre, concrete is an excellent component of a house that uses passive solar heating, acting as a thermal mass that absorbs warmth and reduces the need for a heating system. It’s also well-suited to in-floor radiant heating. Concrete has an advantage over most other types of sustainable floors in that its main ingredient, limestone, is abundant worldwide and can be processed locally, requiring no additional carbon footprint in shipping. It can also be made to order. In general, concrete’s most pressing environmental issue is the emission of CO2 and other pollutants in the high-energy heating and mixing process. Emissions can be reduced by 50% or more by integrating fly ash (a byproduct of coal-burning electricity generation) and slag that would otherwise go to waste into the cement mix. Look for the product of a dry-process kiln, which uses 50% less energy than wet-process. At its most green, concrete is a viable alternative to plant and animal-based floors, and can be made aesthetically appealing with a variety of colors and textures, and sealed with a low-VOC finish. Concrete is also easy to clean, moisture-resistant, and long-lasting — but you may miss the comfort provided by something softer.
These aren’t the only eco-friendly flooring options available, by any means. The cool, low-maintenance appeal of tile can be met by seeking out handmade or recycled ceramic/glass tiles, though VOCs may be a concern with grout. Recycled rubber from tires and other post-industrial waste are beginning to make an appearance, though air quality varies wildly with these options. And, of course, there’s that 70% of American floors: carpeting, which is discussed in its own topic area on this site.