See Chapter 15 on Green Flooring in the Green from the Ground Up book for more details.
Flooring Choice Considerations:
- Intended Use
- Does the product off-gas toxic chemicals?
- Is the flooring made from recycled materials?
- Is the flooring recyclable at the end of its lifetime?
- Is the flooring made from sustainably-harvested materials?
There is a wide variety of green flooring in the market place today. What makes flooring green:
- renewable sourcing
The challenge is to determine which of these qualities are most important and how they reflect aesthetically. No product has everything so it often amounts to comparing apples to oranges and making what seems like the best choice.
Finished Concrete Floors
When used as the finish floor, concrete containing high fly-ash content serves several green purposes:
- It saves the expense of installing another flooring material, like wood or carpet.
- Make us of an industrial by-product
- Does not harbor allergens, dust and mold, like carpet
The trick is to look for an experienced installer, not necessarily someone who specializes in sidewalks and driveways and is trying to learn something new.
Linoleum and Vinyl
Many people confuse sheet vinyl flooring with "linoleum", as natural mistake. Linoleum makes a better choice than vinyl because it's manufactured with less toxic materials. Because linoleum does not have the same protective surface, it must be polished occasionally resist stains. Be prepared for an odor from the linseed oil that off-gases an aldehyde, which is not toxic for most people and will dissipate.
Vinyl should be avoided as plasticizers called phthalates used to make PVC soft are a health hazard.
Bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource and also a durable flooring choice. It comes in two grain patterns - flat sawn or vertical grain - and typically with either a blond or caramelized finish.
There are a variety of bamboo but only a few are appropriate for flooring. Of those few, some are better than others in dry climates. Go with a company like Plyboo or Timbergrass, a supplier that has been in the business for over a decade and offers high-quality flooring.
FSC-Certified Wood Flooring
Available in solid wood and as engineered, prefinished varieties, FSC-certified flooring is available across the country. Be aware that some certified engineered flooring contains urea-formaldehyde as the internal adhesive with only the wear layer (4 mils to 6 mils thick) actually made of certified materials. Other brands, however, are made with formaldehyde-free adhesives and are definitely preferable. EcoTimber is one company selling these flooring products.
Cork is beautiful and has natural anti-bacterial qualities, is soft underfoot, is made from recycled materials, and comes from a renewable source. It's typically made from the waste cork left over after bottle stoppers are manufactured. The only downside is that cork trees grow only in a limited geographical area in the Mediterranean. So, it is a limited resource for the future.
Carpeting for a green home should be made of natural materials, such as wool or sisal with jute backing. Although, natural wool sounds great from a green standpoint, its desirability depends on where the wool comes from. Domestic wool is fine, but if the wool is imported from Iceland or New Zealand it has probably been fumigated with a USDA-required insecticide that is off the charts in terms of toxicity.
Wall-to-wall carpet is an anathema to good indoor air quality. A great alternative to conventional residential carpets is to use commercial carpets from Interface or Collins and Aikman. They have a lower pile and tighter weave and are designed for long term use.
Tiles make durable and attractive flooring that's easy to install and doesn't come with a learning curve like some green products. Look for local, then regional, and finally domestic sources. The best and greenest way to install tile is in conventional thickset mortar. The floor will last longer, will be less likely to crack, and has the lowest toxicity.
Recycled Rubber Flooring
Rubber flooring is attractive for its resilience. Most often found in gyms and health clubs, it's also a good flooring option for commercial kitchens. Rubber off-gasses during most of its life so should be installed in places that usually have good ventilation. It is a much better product for outdoor play areas than for children's playrooms inside.
Reclaimed flooring is available locally and through various sources nationally. Vast quantities of old-growth lumber can be found in old warehouse, building, bridges and other structures. Reclaimed wood provides the benefits of old-growth timber without the environmental costs. Another source of wood products is local lumberyards that reclaim urban forests when trees die or are cut down to build new homes and businesses.