Sustainability Series: Guide to Choosing the Right Flooring
Updated: Feb 1, 2020
Welcome back to the Sustainability Series, a series created to help educate and inspire action in becoming more sustainable. In the first week we shared 6 Easy Everyday Ways to Live More Sustainably, and last week we discussed how to furnish your home after a renovation. This week we are talking about choosing the right flooring and each one's sustainable qualities. There are a significant amount of variables to consider when selecting flooring for each space of your home and we hope this, admittedly a bit extensive, guide helps you make decisions.
Hardwood vs. engineered wood vs. laminate vs. luxury vinyl planks (LVP) are all big topics of discussion with each client. Solid hardwood is our first instinct selection for flooring overall from a sustainability, durability, investment and aesthetic stand point. We consider solid hardwood flooring the more sustainable option according to its lifecycle assessment (LCA). Ideally solid hardwood flooring starts by being grown in a maintained forest, always responsibly harvested with new tree being planted to take its place. One way to guarantee the hardwood flooring you're buying is responsibly harvested and produced is by checking if that company is a member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Note, many ethical and sustainable flooring companies are not members of the FSC and are great to use, you just have to do a bit of research.
There's a reason you can find 100-year-old hardwood in a home in beautiful condition. It is a solid piece of wood through and through. Hardwood can be sanded down many times and refinished to extend its life. While the upfront cost is more than the other options, its lifespan in your home will makeup the costs of replacing the other materials in the future.
Compatible Applications for hardwood flooring includes your main and upper level living spaces such as the living + family rooms, dining room, kitchen, home offices, and bedrooms. Hardwood flooring can hold up in entryways, mudrooms and powder bathrooms, but rugs are highly recommended to alleviate some of the water, snow and salt tracked in. Hardwood flooring isn't a good choice for bathrooms and lower levels/basements.
In both the Josephine Place and Goodrich Tudor projects we were able to match new hardwood flooring to the home's original flooring and replace where it was needed instead of bringing in brand new everything.
Engineered Wood Flooring
Engineered wood flooring is considered a sustainable option because it offsets the waste from production. Engineered wood is constructed by a wood composite base and thin layer of solid hardwood on top. The wood composite base is created from pieces of scrap wood. This practice can also considered unsustainable because it is often times held together with glues with harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Speak to your flooring specialist to select flooring without carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While it looks beautiful at installation like hardwood and is a less expensive option, engineered wood can only be sanded down once or twice and will have to replaced sooner than hardwood.
Engineered woods have the same application recommendations as hardwood, but since they don't have as long of a life as solid hardwood, maybe swap out for tile or even linoleum (we'll get into that soon) in the entryway, mudroom and laundry room.
Laminate flooring is a sustainable and affordable option for many homeowners. Laminate flooring is produced using fiberboard, comprised of recycled wood fibers and chips, which repurposes and reduces waste. After the fiberboard is constructed an image mimicking hardwood is printed on top to give the appearance of wood flooring. As a designer, laminate flooring admittedly is not my favorite because doesn't look enough or feel like hardwood. However, I do recognize its affordability, durability and sustainability qualities as a good option for many homeowners. Another perk of laminate flooring is that it is recyclable because it doesn't require glues and adhesives with harmful chemicals. If removed carefully laminate can be reinstalled elsewhere.
Laminate flooring is a good application option in wet areas where you want the look of hardwood, such as lower level living areas, bathrooms, mudrooms and laundry rooms.
We opted for laminate flooring in our office, since it's a lease we didn't want to make a long term investment and this space sees light traffic (mostly us glued to monitors:).
Luxury Vinyl Plank + Tile Flooring
Luxury Vinyl Planks and Tile (LVP/LVT) is the least sustainable option we're going to talk about today. Vinyl is made of PVC which emits an array of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when it's manufactured and installed, therefore is harmful for the environment, people making the product, and the homeowners when it's installed in your home. In addition to the VOCs in the product itself, it requires the use of adhesives to install, which include harmful chemicals. The main ingredient in PVC is petroleum, which is not a renewable resource, unlike the other options we have. At the end of LVP/LVT's lifecycle it is nearly impossible to recycle.
Many homeowners are choosing LVP as an alternative to hardwood and engineered wood flooring. If used, its best applications are similar to laminate flooring, such as a lower level living space, mudroom and laundry room.
What, linoleum? Yes! Linoleum is back and is a great sustainable option. Linoleum is manufactured from renewable natural materials: linseed soil, cork dust and wood flour. It's antimicrobial, low VOC, biodegradable, recyclable, anti-static and very durable for a long life. Linoleum is a great option for homeowners who want minimal maintenance, high durability and resilience, and a clean look at an affordable price. There's still some convincing needed to be done in today's building industry of putting linoleum back in homes. I'm not suggesting running linoleum throughout your whole home but, as an example in my own home, our laundry room is in the unfinished part of our basement with concrete flooring. I think linoleum is my plan to give that space a little more life and finished look.
Carpet is important in Minnesota homes, whether by use of area rugs or wall-to-wall carpeting. It is soft, comforting, and absorbs sound. Choosing a natural fiber carpet such as sisal, seagrass, organic wool, and organic cotton versus a synthetic fiber such as nylon, acrylic, and polyester is the start to picking a sustainable carpet. On the flip side of the soft carpet under your toes, is the backing that adheres it to the floor. Find a backing using jute, non-synthetic latex, or wool as opposed to polypropylene. Choosing natural materials for the face and backing will lead to lower VOCs and off-gassing of chemicals, as long as the manufacturing company did not add additional finishes. To help guide your process, look for companies with Cradle to Cradle, NSF 140 (Sustainable Carpet Standard), and CRI Green Label Plus certifications. The Tangletown Attic project had wool carpet installed in their lower level TV area and we recommend wool for most homeowners asking for carpeting.
Tile is a relatively sustainable product in general. Fortunately, a lot of tile is being made with recycled content these days and you should lean into those options when available. Where you can make more sustainable options is by doing more research into where your tile is coming from. Choosing companies manufacturing in the United States or even your local city is a big plus and saves the carbon footprint of transportation.
These days tile flooring is commonly reserved for use in bathrooms, mudrooms and laundry rooms. It is a wonderful flooring option for kitchens, like in the Hillside Lane project. Look at that transition to wood flooring!
Whew, we made it through. Thanks for sticking along. That was a lot of information and we hope this helps homeowners select the right flooring material for their home that not only feels good underfoot, functions for their family, but is also healthy for their family and planet.
-Katie Miller and Jkath Team