Step On It

Families are starting to worry about the chemical content in their manufactured flooring and carpets and beginning to seek out more natural alternatives—and they are finding plenty of options. Top concerns include:

• They want to protect the health of sensitive family members and are looking to install floors and carpets made from natural materials that won’t off-gas chemicals.

• They want their new or remodeled homes to meet the criteria for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification—when a third party verifies that a home is environmentally responsible through a combination of factors that includes installing recycled and responsible materials.

• They want the products they install to leave a minimal impact on the planet—whether by purchasing salvaged lumber or new bamboo flooring.

• They want a more natural look. Overly slick, synthetic-looking rooms are out. The texture and character offered by reclaimed materials and natural fibers is lending homes a softer look that brings the freshness and spontaneity of the outdoors to indoor environments.

Creative Carpeting

While wall-to-wall carpet may no longer hold allure for many homebuyers, having a buffer underfoot still adds warmth to a home. The trend away from synthetic carpet follows good logic. The average carpet contains some 120 chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in its stain-resistors, dyes and other treatments. Some of these are neurotoxins, with the potential to cause headaches, nausea and even more severe reactions when they “off-gas” (a process that lasts three to five years after installation).

Natural carpet varieties have seen a huge upswing in popularity as a result. These range from durable, comfortable wool carpets, to stiffer, woven plant-based carpets made of sisal, sea grass, coir and jute. Sisal comes from agave plants grown in East Africa and China; beige-to green sea grass, which can’t be dyed, grows in China and India; coir is made from coconut husks; jute (the plant used to make burlap) produces one of the softest natural carpets.

Many of these coarse, woven rugs are rougher underfoot than plush polyester, but newer basket and herringbone weaves are starting to improve the feel. And to liven the natural colorations of many of these carpets, many are offered with a huge range of borders, from dragonflies and lilies to palm trees and elephants, to cottons, tapestries and leathers. “The biggest thing is the constant maintenance,” says Connecticut rug retailer Wyatt Whiteman. “Even water will make them dirty because these are porous.”

When in doubt, choose wool. Wool carpets offer a traditional wall-to-wall look, clean better and last longer than the plant-based varieties.

Better Wood, Certified

The stunning look of hardwood floors is here to stay, and can be easily implemented into a green lifestyle. The fate of the world’s forests is a major environmental concern, of course—rainforests absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas and a major contributor to climate change. And while these ancient trees help purify the air and water, they also provide habitat to 90% of the plants and animals living on land, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. More than 10 years ago, the independent Forest Stewardship Council began certifying wood flooring, furniture and other products, giving consumers confidence that the wood they purchased was allowing for regeneration, maintaining support for wildlife and rare species, protecting streams and promising fair wages to laborers. Looking for the “FSC” seal is the first step in finding environmentally friendly hardwood flooring, and consumers don’t have to look far—Home Depot is one of the many large retailers carrying FSC maple, hickory and oak flooring.

And a particularly hardy plant is beginning to one-up wood altogether for flooring, thanks to its easy regeneration, affordable cost and durability—bamboo. Bamboo flooring has a golden honey hue and comes from plants that can be harvested in just three years (as opposed to the 120 years it takes for an oak tree to reach maturity) without need for excessive pesticides. Unfortunately, as bamboo has risen in popularity, Asian forests are being clear-cut to make room for plantations, and there is no certification yet to make sure the flooring is harvested sustainably. Instead, homeowners have to seek out companies like Teragren with an upfront green mission.

For matching environmental mission with quality materials and one-of-a-kind look, the biggest eco-trend in flooring is reclaimed wood. Companies like TerraMai, based in McCloud, California (with a new outpost in New York City), provide old growth tropical wood from around the world. Marketing Director Matt Nichols says the wood they provide (after sourcing it, removing metals by hand and milling), all tell a story. “The wood comes from railway ties in Thailand, or an old barn on the California coast,” he says. “It can be elegant but there will still be nail holes. To me, those nail holes make it more interesting and distinct.”

The company provides wood to top-end residential and commercial clients, as costs run four to five times what one would pay at a mainstream hardware store. As Nichols points out, however, one could hardly go greener than using recycled materials. “Every conventional wood, even if it’s FSC-certified, is all harvested,” he says.