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Even your floor can kill the environment. It’s an unsettling thought, the idea that furbishing your living room in mahogany over oak, say, or African wenge over Asian bamboo could decimate the rainforests and, by extension, untold numbers of living species. A floor is not just a floor. To be truly green, one must consider not only the floor’s top layer — the surface you put your foot on — but all the other components that go into making and maintaining it: What kind of underlayer cushioning is there? What type of glue is it bound with? What kinds of cleaning products will you use? Are those toxic? And what of the floor made in a factory that employs slave labor, or one whose manufacturing process emits toxic byproduct? In an ideal world, all man-made materials would have zero impact on the environment. We are far from ideal. That said, healthier, more responsible options do exist.
In terms of aesthetics, bamboo is popular lately as a type of sustainable flooring. Bamboo and water go together like, well, water and water. Bamboo is dimensionally stable (i.e., it won’t warp or curl) and harder than maple, with twice the tensile strength of oak, which makes it extremely durable. It is dirt-proof, kid-proof, dog-proof, cat-proof and very nearly nuclear-winter-proof. After the 1945 Hiroshima atomic blast, bamboo survived closer to ground zero better than any other plant or animal. It can be stained different yummy colors —from a natural light honey or ashy carbonized caramel to a dark chocolatey charcoal. Texturally, the grain on “vertical”-cut bamboo looks like long strands of superstraight, fine-combed flaxen hair. In the processing stage, its shoots are sliced into strips, then boiled, dried, glued together, laminated and preserved. Much of the bamboo flooring sold in North America comes from China’s southern Hunan region, known as “the bamboo sea,” where the forest is so thick it stretches on for miles. As far as wood flooring goes, bamboo is considered the most ecologically friendly alternative. Except bamboo technically isn’t even wood — it’s grass. You cut it and it grows back fast — in a scant three to five years, as opposed to hundreds in the case of some exotic hardwoods.
But then people started worrying about pandas. Pandas eat bamboo. I, for one, prefer that my floor not kill pandas. Thankfully, it turns out the pandas — of which, globally, only 1,600 wild ones remain — eat a different species of bamboo, which grows at a higher elevation than the one used for flooring.
Another option is cork. Because it comes from the bark of the cork oak tree, cork is a renewable resource — harvesting just the bark doesn’t harm the tree. Underfoot it feels warm and cozy. It also resists liquid penetration, which makes it ideal for powder rooms, bars and kitchen areas. Because of its elasticity and sound-dampening qualities, people often use it for upstairs kids’ playrooms or home gyms — folks who fall on a cork floor will typically have less severe injuries than those who fall on a hardwood floor. You can get it in tiles, sheets or planks. Cork is naturally insect resistant and fire repellent, and hypoallergenic in the sense that it resists the growth of mildew and mold. The Library of Congress, for God’s sake, has cork floors.
Hospitals, on the other hand, use Marmoleum, a fully biodegradable variety of linoleum made from linseed oil, pine rosin and wood flour. Because it is so incredibly water repellent, Marmoleum inhibits the growth of bacteria, including MRSA, the most dangerous bacteria on the planet, for which only one effective antibiotic remains. (How many other floors can claim that?) It can be easily cut into intricate geometric patterns, and as such, it has been co-opted from medical use by maximalist-designer types who wish their floors to be the main attraction. I have seen kitchen floors swirling with Marmoleum flowering vines, living rooms with Marmoleum tiles cut precisely into curves and ellipses and hexagons, and hallways bordered with the thinnest strips of Marmoleum carved into delicate Celtic-inspired borders.
Recycling also plays a part in the labyrinthine world of sustainable flooring. You can do floors in recycled artisan-style glass tile, or even in tiny broken-up chunks of glass embedded in poured terrazzo. Brick, marble, granite, limestone and slate also come in recycled versions. If you prefer wood, there are planks cut from woods salvaged from dry riverbeds and lakes, old bridges, railroad ties and telephone poles. Unlike the brand-spanking-new, there is a kind of history and romance to these reclaimed materials. They come with their own past in tow and make for excellent conversation pieces.
Carpet lovers, skip the noxious VOC (volatile organic compounds) that come from gas-laden nylon crap. Go for cotton, sisal, coir (from the coconut) and hemp. For the seriously hardcore, soft carpet (and carpet underlays) can be made from wool, or goat and camel hair.
And for you sinful lot who simply must have your South American tiger wood or Brazilian teak, exotic hardwoods are available from manufacturers who draw timber only from renewable-resource plantations rather than from ancient old-growth forests. Be wary, however, of “greenwashing,” or bogus claims to eco-friendliness by untrustworthy (and at times nonexistent) certifying outfits. Real eco-friendly operations are usually approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. Like Tolkien’s solemn Ents, the council manages the world’s forests and is charged with the difficult task of making sure we don’t harvest our trees, and eventually ourselves, into oblivion. No floor, no matter how sexy, is worth that.