By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Anew Magazine, September 2006
Whether you're building a home or remodeling, your choices of what to walk on are better than ever, and better for the Big Blue Marble, too. Today it's easier than ever to choose from a wide range of environmentally sound flooring materials that look great, feel good underfoot and are easy to clean – not to mention that they don't bring formaldehyde and other nasties into your household. Several flooring sources in the Madison area offer a wide selection of “green” flooring, and the trend is only going to increase, according to national industry sources. How to decide which material to use where? What's the right look and feel for you? Here's an overview.
Grind up the leavings from bottle stopper production, press them together into flooring tiles or planks, and you have the ultimate sustainable floor: a good-looking, durable surface made from the bark of the cork oak. That's right, bark: no trees were harmed in the production of the hippest flooring in kitchens today. It's soft and springy to walk on, watertight (it can be sealed with polyurethane or wax, or used “unfinished”), and a natural sound insulator. All this makes it a nice choice for living rooms, dining rooms, and basements too. It's friendly to folks with allergies, as well as insect-resistant, antimicrobial, and even fire-resistant. Not so practical in very wet areas, say a kid's bathroom. Cork can be stained dozens of shades ranging from blond to dark brown. Cost: about $2.75–5/square foot.
You want a traditional wood look, and also to be nice to Ma Nature? Do the math. It takes hardwood 40 years to mature for flooring harvest. Bamboo? Five. And then it grows back. Hey, it is grass, after all. Tougher than oak, more stable than maple, bamboo flooring comes in wide planks, ideal for glueless floating floors (less glue = less toxins). The most popular green choice these days, it's water-resistant, long-lasting, easy to keep clean and just plain lovely. Available in several colors and grain patterns, bamboo can play to an Asian decor style, a parquet look, or many other styles that favor clean lines. Cost: about $4–5/square foot.
One of the newest sustainable flooring options is made from the trunk of 80-year-old coconut palm trees that have stopped producing nuts in their Southeast Asia orchards. Though these were customarily thrown away, it turns out they make ideal flooring: the color is rich and dark like cherry, but with a dramatic, unusual grain pattern. It's as hard as maple and stands up to five sandings. Cost: about $10/square foot.
Say what? Doesn't getting teak involve ripping off the rainforest? Not if it's plantation-grown harvest from a reputable source. In good conscience, then, enjoy the beauty and benefits of this luxuriously dark, oil-rich wood, so resistant to water that sailing ships were once built with it, so durable that teak park benches 150 years old are still in use, and looking good. Cost: about $4–6/square foot.
Not that newfangled vinyl would-be stuff! Linoleum, in use since the 1800s, is a natural brew, made by mixing together linseed oil (hence the “lin”) with pine rosin, limestone, pigments and powdered wood and cork. This mixture forms granules that are then pressed into sheets against a webbing of jute yarn and hung to cure into a tough, flexible product that nowadays is available in a rainbow of dozens of bright colors and muted tones, too. Tougher than cork – or vinyl, for that matter – true lino stands up to stresses like chair wheels and is great for the hard use that a home office or rec room gets. Cost: about $5/square foot.
Natural stone tiles
You can't get much more back to nature than by bringing stone tiles into your living space. Each square reveals the history of millions of years through its unique patterns. Shadings range from subtle to spectacular, with fine grains or wild whorls of vanilla, gold, rose, charcoal, peach and more. Limestone, slate and and sandstone are fast gaining popularity in mudrooms, foyers and even bathrooms, where slip-resistant finishes make them more practical than you might guess – and no, they're not icy to the toesies! And with its heat-retaining properties, it's a natural choice for sub-floor radiant heat. Easy-cleaning and durable, slate is a growing trend in kitchen flooring. Another good stone site: around the hearth. Caution: some stones are tough to clean. Cost: about $6–7/square foot.
Follow the footsteps of history – install flooring once used in old Wisconsin barns and warehouses and re-milled into tounge-and-groove planks, available from Eco-Friendly Flooring on Madison's West side. Douglas fir, yellow-heart pine and maple are the most commonly available, but you never know what unique treasure might turn up. Cost: $4.50–15/square foot.
Recycled glass or aluminum tile
Glass tiles add shimmer and style to tile floors, as well as backsplashes, walls, bar fronts and more, and are available in over 100 patterns and colors. Cost: $22–100/square foot, but you can also purchase them by the piece. Aluminum's sheen is attractive and oh-so-moderne on fireplace surrounds and kitchen and bath fixtures and backsplashes. Lacquered aluminum tile makes a dramatic choice for a bathroom floor as well, coming in smooth and nubbly finishes. It's durable and low-maintenance, but lining the you-know-what with, well, old cans, is probably the priciest pun you'll ever play. Recycled brass, bronze and copper tiles are available, too. Cost: $25–60/square foot.