What Lies Beneath
By Lindsay Randall
Long before flashing a bit of ankle was considered vulgar and Spanish shoe king Manolo Blahnik made women swoon over his strappy creations, people have made a concerted effort to protect their lower extremities from the ground. From flip-flops for sand to boots for snow, some people even consider fluffy slippers as necessary barriers from indoor floors.
But what if the surface beneath our feet was as clean and green as a thick, grass carpet? What if it were quietly borrowed from nature, stripped and stretched or pummeled and pressed to pave your floor with beauty and grace – and so clean it benefits the whole body, from sole to crown?
With hypoallergenic cork, anti-microbial rubber, formaldehyde-free wood and low-VOC bamboo, even someone with a bad case of germophobia can’t complain, and the realm of eco-friendly flooring has grown considerably over the past few years. The general merchandise market for green goods has teetered up to $25 billion, expanding at a rate of 15 percent per year. Homeowners are delving into the plethora of materials that will beautify their floors and benefit the environment — along with their feet.
Ted Bench III, manager of two Best Tile & Wood stores in Pennsylvania, has noticed an increased interest in sustainable flooring since the media started promoting green living. “We have a lot of people coming in and asking for bamboo and eucalyptus,” he says. “People are starting to catch on. The price is the same if not cheaper than some of the oaks out there.”
THE MEANING OF GREEN
Because the term “green” has nearly become synonymous with “chic,” homeowners should be aware that some companies slap on the green label as a marketing strategy. When it comes to recycled materials like rubber and vinyl, a telling indicator is the percentage of post-consumer and post-industrial materials in the product. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, viable products must contain at least 20 percent post-consumer and 40 percent post-industrial materials to be dubbed recycled content.
Don’t forget to consider the energy and water used in the manufacturing process. For truly green products, look for minimal water use, re-integration of scraps and a lack of smoke stacks and heat during production.
Bamboo and cork are renewable materials – warm and lustrous as floors and perfectly safe for their sources. Bamboo shoots skyward faster than a teenager, and with a six-year growing cycle, it can be gathered regularly with no damage to the natural crop. Cork is harvested harm-free from the cork oak tree. First sent to factories to make bottle stoppers, cork is later transformed into floors as a post-industrial byproduct when the waste is ground and formed into sheets with very little adhesive and high pressure.
And with rainforests being ransacked at an alarming rate, it’s hard to deny the merits of using reclaimed wood and timber from sustainably managed forests. Ecologist Jon Pampush says knowing where your wood comes from is half the battle, because illegal logging in the tropics for highly prized, exotic lumber is only contributing to the “catastrophic situation” of deforestation.
“My personal frustration is the loss of North American flooring,” Pampush says. “We have an exceptional hardwood state, so if you can find a hardwood milled in the United States, I’d say that’s a pretty good environmental choice. And reusing wood is an excellent opportunity. I can’t see a downside to that.”
THE END OF CARPET
Though an unattractive conversational topic, waste is the hot-button issue for companies and builders insisting on eco-friendly flooring. Once a coveted luxury, 4.6 billion pounds of wall-to-wall carpet are now added to landfills every year. Add other non-biodegradable materials to the stack and “you get a glimpse of the environmental impact traditional flooring has,” says Andrew Dodge, president of Gerbert Limited, a national importer and distributor of eco-friendly floors.
Fortunately for Earth and your home, alternatives abound. From recycled leather tiles to color-flecked rubber, many green flooring materials provide comfort, style and a healthy environment for your family. Resilient, acoustically sound, hypoallergenic and easy to clean, cork’s warm, earthy texture can complement a traditional interior with tones of chocolate and caramel while enlivening a kitchen or living room with a vibrant moss color or stark black. Don’t expect the spongy softness of a corkboard under your toes, though; cork hardens considerably when compressed.
“Cork flooring combines extremely high comfort with resistance to molds, mildews and common pests, along with its natural beauty,” Dodge adds. “It’s back in style.”
Perhaps less glamorous than its trendy peers, linoleum has been a staunchly eco-conscious option for decades. But before you roll your eyes in remembrance of the frumpy kitchen surfaces of yore, know that linoleum is made from natural, raw materials (linseed oil, rosin, wood and cork flour, limestone and jute), is easily recyclable at the end of its 25- to 40-year life and is free of heavy metals and most environmentally incompatible materials.
If dumped on a landfill, linoleum decomposes over time without releasing harmful gas, and if incinerated, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that is taken up by trees and jute and flax plants. With companies like GreenFloors.com offering jewel tones and a wide range of luxe textures, an updated, sophisticated linoleum floor is entirely possible.
POSH PLANTS No longer reserved for exotic soups and makeshift walking sticks, bamboo is being picked, sliced, boiled and pressed to create lovely, blonde planks for the home. A plant that doesn’t need fertilization or pesticides, it has lithe, green shoots that grow rapidly, allowing sources for chic bamboo floors to renew naturally in a few years.
Bamboo manufacturers are offering a variety of stains now, too, says Laura Stout, owner of Buckingham Floor in Doylestown, Va. “It gives you a more traditional, not-quite-Asian feel you get with the old straight bamboo,” she says.
Bamboo is available in solid planks or layered over fiberboard or hardwood, but be sure to check your source for low-VOC and formaldehyde-free adhesives during installation to keep the air clean and clear. EcoTimber(r) (www.ecotimber.com) boasts bamboo floors harvested strictly from plantations and features a wide variety of hardwood flooring, including reclaimed, antique and exotic woods, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Yet another option is recycled flooring. Best Tile & Wood sells reclaimed wood floors from a manufacturer in Maryland. “The old wood, which is usually 60 to 100 years old, is then cleaned and milled into flooring panels, Bench says. “It’s very unique. It’s aged and has knots and wormholes in it.
If preservation is on your mind when shopping for hardwood floors, visit the FSC Web site (www.fsc.org), which provides an extensive list of certified dealers and providers of environmentally friendly lumber. From orchard walnut to hand-scraped hickory, hardwood is still going strong as an elegant, timeless choice and, if chosen from local mills, sustainable forests or plantations, can enhance the environment and your home.