New Life for Old Floors Green Flooring Comes of Age

When updating a home, one of the best things you can do for your health and your property value is to get rid of that dusty, allergen-trapping old carpet. But then what? There’s a dizzying array of flooring options. But thinking ecologically can help you narrow the field to something that’s right for your home, your values, and what’s left of your money.

Green Flooring
Bamboo makes a very attractive “green” floor with the stalks milled into tongue-and-groove boards. © Environmental Building Supplies
Matthew Sellens of Perpetua Wood Floors in Portland, Oregon suggests a tiered system for considering sustainable flooring. Start with the green holy trinity of reduce-reuse-recycle, and then consider factors such as health risks to workers and distance traveled from manufacturer to market.

Also consider the kind of wear the floor will have to take. A beautiful, sustainably harvested cherry floor won’t last if you live with animals that dig their claws into it, or kids that tread heavily with their toys.

Some options:

Wood: When it comes to wood, reducing means going with what you already have. If your home was built before the middle of the last century, chances are you have a wood floor with a tight, straight grain. Refinishing that floor means no new trees fall, no shipping costs and nothing is added to the recycling or the landfill.

If restoration isn’t an option, reuse: Look for old flooring salvaged from gymnasia or other buildings. The quality is the same as you’d find in old houses, and may even cost less than new wood.

If old flooring isn’t available, look into the growing options for recycling old barn beams, sunken logs or other wood sources. Mountain Lumber of Ruckersville, Virginia got its start remilling functionally extinct American chestnut from old barns in southern Appalachia, but also has sold oak floors from old French railroad cars and heart pine from razed New England factories. The company is currently selling a specialty line of English brown oak stained in deep rich reds and browns after years of functioning as house-sized casks for brewing hard apple ciders and Guinness beer. These exotic, recycled woods can be expensive, selling for as much as $30 per square foot.

Reclaimed wood may be difficult or impossible to match, so buy enough for a whole project in advance. It’s also more likely to have what insiders call “character,” which can translate into a final floor that shows nail holes and dark lines where old finish has collected—giving a rustic or casual look.

Virgin Floors

New wood is the lowest option on the green-flooring hierarchy. The greenest choice may be wood from forests managed under guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), even though environmentalists don’t agree on all the criteria.

Cork: Although many people think of cork as something that comes in wine bottles, cork has been used as flooring for generations, and is one of the most sustainable new-flooring options available. Made from the inner bark of the Mediterranean cork oak tree, cork can be cut repeatedly from trees that may be hundreds of years old.

Cork is made up of millions of tiny, air-filled cells that make it both springy and insulative. Cork, which was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite flooring, is warm, easy on the feet and quiet. Available in sheets or as tiles, cork flooring looks like a more organic form of stone, and comes in natural tans, browns and blacks. It works anywhere a wood floor would, and costs between $4 and $10 per square foot.

Linoleum: “A lot of people don’t realize that the word “linoleum” comes from linseed oil, and that linseed oil is the main ingredient,” explains Abby Mages, co-owner of Environmental Building Supplies in Portland, Oregon. In other words, linoleum is a far cry from outgassing vinyl made from petroleum products. True linoleum is usually also made with wood and cork fibers, and mounted on a natural jute backing.

Linoleum is water, child, and animal resistant, and comes in an astonishing variety of swirly, marbled and simple colors. The linseed oil continually reacts with air in a way that kills bacteria that try to move in. And linoleum can be cut into shapes and fitted to make any pattern you can imagine. The material generally costs between $3 and $4 per square foot.

Bamboo is one of the new darlings in green flooring. It comes from a fast-growing grass that takes only four years from planting to harvest, but is harder than any North American hardwood.

The flooring is made by gluing bamboo stalks together and milling them into tongue-and-groove boards. It costs between $3 and $7 per square foot. But bamboo also has its drawbacks. With a crowded field of manufacturers, quality may be inconsistent. Some environmentalists worry that natural bamboo forests are being cleared for intensive farming of the species. Others note that while the finished products send out little by way of toxic chemicals, workers are still exposed to formaldehyde and other toxins during processing.

The new maple floor in ORNA IZAKSON‘s home came from an old gym.