Question

Is bamboo really better than FSC wood flooring? I've heard bamboo uses a lot of glue to keep it together and even eco glue sounds scary!

Asked by pamela weymouth
Mill Valley, CA

I will be putting new floors on 2 stories and i have small twin boys who will give the floor a beating. Want something pretty as whitewashed wood but durable! Considering pre-finished rough fsc certified wood.

Answer

David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

August 17, 2011

Funny you should ask that as I’m in the throes of preparing a course on Life Cycle Analysis.

  • Questions of which products or which solutions are greener than another can be really difficult to answer, and the answers can be surprisingly subjective.
  • To thoroughly determine the “winner” between bamboo flooring and FSC wood flooring (and note, by the way, that bamboo can be FSC certified!) would require the kind of study – an LCA -- that can make one’s eyes glaze over. 
  • Who has the time or attention span for that?

Factors to consider

So we’ll skip the snooze-inducing complete life cycle analysis and focus on a few specific points.

One of the first questions is what your criteria for “better” are?

  • Is it in terms of health for your family?
  • Health of the planet?
  • Social responsibility?
  • Durability?
  • Cost?

The answer in most cases is all of the above, with varying degrees of emphasis. Your priorities may lead you to different decisions. It’s likely that the best woods for indoor air quality are not the same as for climate change or for wear.

The glue in bamboo

Since you asked about glue, let’s start there. Yes, bamboo flooring, which is composed of strips of bamboo adhered together, requires glue. Until fairly recently, all bamboo flooring used urea- formaldehyde based glue. Nasty stuff, that.

But there are now several manufacturers using alternative
adhesives without the offgassing issues. Perhaps that’s the “eco glue” you mention.

Other eco aspects of bamboo

Bamboo has become a material du jour because it grows so rapidly. (Some grow several inches a day.) However, that’s only one of the environmental aspects to be considered.

  • Critics of bamboo note that it has to be shipped a long way, contributing to global warming, and that because of the high demand for it these days, it may not be grown sustainably.
  • In some regions, natural forests with rich, complex ecosystems are being cleared to make bamboo monoculture plantations.

For these reasons, many ecodesigners prefer locally grown native woods that are sustainably harvested. Properly certifying sustainability can add expense, though, often increasing the cost of FSC woods.

Durability

Another factor you raise is hardness: how well will the flooring survive the onslaught of your twins (or guests’ high heels)? 

Bamboo has a mixed reputation for hardness, varying by:

  • age of the stalks (older growth, 5 to 7 years, is better),
  • how the flooring is made (darker, carbonized bamboo is generally softer than the lighter natural color, and stranded bamboo is significantly harder than both) and from
  • one manufacturer to another.

In a recent project, we chose bamboo flooring that scored well on the Janka hardness scale, but we are nonetheless having issues with scratches and dings.

Reclaimed wood

Wood flooring varies in hardness as well. Which leads us to a third alternative: reclaimed wood.

  • New wood is more often from young growth trees and, hence, softer.
  • Old growth wood is increasingly harder to get, and the old growth forests that remain need to be protected.
  • But we have a source of strong and beautiful old growth woods in buildings that are being deconstructed.

This is often the most environmentally preferred choice, especially if the wood is locally sourced.

Flooring finishes

Whatever flooring you choose, familiarize yourself with the finishing options, particularly if you are having the finishing done in place and if indoor air quality or chemical sensitivity is an issue.

You’re almost certainly going to want to use a low- or non-VOC finish. And the whitewashing you mention may also be a factor. For one thing, I don’t know if you can whitewash bamboo.

“Real” wood floors (bamboo being technically a grass, not a tree) can be lightened, but whitewashing, pickling or bleaching may involve some less-than-eco chemicals.

My picks

My thinking: if it is available and affordable (and you like the look), reclaimed flooring is the way to go

My second choice would be domestically harvested FSC wood.

Or perhaps a good quality cork, which might help keep the din of the twins under control.

 

For more information:

Read "Can you recommend healthy flooring for a home with kids and pets?" a Q&A answered by Mari Strain.

Tagged In: bamboo flooring, wood flooring

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