Buyer’s Guide to Green Floor Materials

September 4, 2009 By Willem Maas

Willem Maas wrote this article, with contributions from consultant Marian Keeler.

No flooring product has zero impact on our planet, but some materials are better than others. This buyer's guide will help you choose the most environmentally sound and healthy floor that meets your needs.

MaterialSelection TipsProsConsCostRecommended Uses
Bamboo Flooring

Renewable resource. Fast-growing grass that can be selectively harvested annually.
Look for bamboo products that are FSC certified and have no formaldehyde added.

(See products links at end of article.)
* Renewable resource

* Extremely durable

* Harder than red oak or maple
* Overuse of natural bamboo forests may be destroying them

* Asian sources require significant embodied energy for transport
$4-$8 per square foot* Bedroom
* Living room
* Family room
* Dining room
* Kitchen
* Entryway
Carpet

Green carpets and area rugs are low-emitting and made from natural fibers (e.g., wool, jute) or with a high content of recycled synthetic fibers.
Look for The Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus certification. Area rugs and carpet tiles are preferable to broadloom (wall-to-wall) carpet.

Visit the Green Label Plus website for a list of carpets that have been tested and certified as low-emitting products.
* Carpet industry is actively addressing its environmental issues

* Good sound absorption (quiet to walk on)
* Synthetic fibers are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource

* Difficult to clean

* Can harbor dirt, dust and mold
$4 and up per square foot* Formal areas
* Bedroom
* Stairs

Don’t use wall-to-wall carpet in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, basements, or other areas regularly exposed to moisture.
Cork Flooring

Cork is a renewable resource made from the bark of the cork oak.
Look for products that have no formaldehyde added. Avoid cork-vinyl composites.

If using a sealer, select a low-VOC product (less than 200 g/L of VOCs, per SCAQMD Rule 1113).

(See product links below.)
* Renewable resource

* Sometimes has recycled content

* Easy to clean if properly sealed

* Good foot support and sound absorption
* Indoor air quality impacts from some sealers.

* European sources result in higher embodied energy for transport
$3-$6 per square foot* Kitchen
* Family room
Linoleum Flooring

Same ingredients today as when it was invented in 1863: linseed oil, cork dust, wood flour, tree resins, ground limestone and pigments, all pressed onto a jute backing.
Look for "natural linoleum." Vinyl flooring is sometimes generically called "linoleum."

Available as sheet or tile flooring.

(See product links below.)
* Renewable ingredients

* Often has recycled content

* 30- to 40-year lifespan

* Easy to clean

* Good foot support
* Made in Europe, resulting in significant embodied energy for transport

* Odor from linseed oil may irritate some people
$4 per square foot* Kitchen
* Bathroom
* Family room
Rubber Flooring

Natural virgin rubber is derived from rubber trees, a renewable resource. Using recycled rubber made from tires reduces the environmental burden of discarded tires.
Some rubber has a significant odor. Use in well-ventilated areas only.

Synthetic rubber tends to be more durable than natural rubber.

(See product links below.)
* Often has recycled content

* Easy to clean

* Good foot support

* Can be installed without adhesives

* Durable (20-year lifespan)
* Continual off-gassing (particularly from recycled tire rubber) has indoor air quality impact

* Synthetic rubber is made from petrochemicals
$5-$7 per square foot* Outdoors
* Well-ventilated indoor space (e.g., mudroom)
Stone Flooring

Natural resource; durable material.
Look for locally (or at least domestically) mined and fabricated stone; avoid buying imported stone (to reduce transport-related energy).

Look for stone that does not have to be sealed. If using a sealer, select a low-VOC product (less than 200 g/L of VOCs, per SCAQMD Rule 1113).
* Easy to clean

* Durable
* Stone is a finite resource

* High embodied energy if stone is mined or fabricated overseas

* Some sealers produce harmful VOC emissions
$3-$10 per square foot* Kitchen
* Bathroom
* Entryway
* Fireplace
Tile Flooring

Durable material (ceramic or glass), often with recycled content.
Look for locally manufactured tiles with high recycled content.

(See product links below.)
* Easy to clean

* Durable

* Often has recycled content
* High embodied energy (to fire tiles and produce cementitious materials)

* Seek local sources because of heaviness
$1-$6 per square foot* Kitchen
* Bathroom
* Entryway
* Fireplace
Wood Flooring

Natural material; renewable resource; durable.
Look for Forest Stewardship Council certified, or salvaged/reclaimed wood. Ask retailer for a chain-of-custody certification. Avoid products with added formaldehyde (sometimes used in engineered/pressed wood backing or sublayers). Look for sealers and cleaners that are environmentally benign and low-VOC emitting.

You can search the Forest Certification database for FSC certified forests or wood products.
* Renewable resource if from a sustainably managed, selectively harvested forest

* Low embodied energy, particularly if harvested and produced locally
* Clear-cut forestry causes overharvesting and destruction of habitat

* Wood contains some naturally occurring formaldehyde
$3-$6 per square foot* Bedroom
* Living room
* Family room
* Dining room
* Stairs
Other Resources

Another option to consider is an exposed concrete floor. Concrete can be poured with integrated pigments or it can be painted, if color is desired.

For specific product recommendations, see The Green Guide’s Flooring Buying Guide and BuildingGreen’s GreenSpec listings for flooring and floor coverings. To find low-emitting resilient flooring (e.g., linoleum, rubber, cork) products, see Scientific Certification Systems’ list of FloorScore certified products.

Use tack-down, no-glue flooring installation methods when possible. When adhesives or sealants are required, select low-VOC products.

Tagged In: bamboo flooring, cork flooring, linoleum, certified wood, buyer's guide

Willem Maas

Willem Maas

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