Can I find flooring that's green, durable, and relatively inexpensive?
April 12, 2011 3:03 PM   Subscribe

We're about to tear up old, nasty carpet and install some new non-carpet flooring. But after way too much time spent researching, I'm still completely confused about the best option that combines sustainability, durability, and appearance without breaking the bank.

Here are my requirements:

* No carpet. We're done with carpet.
* We want to focus on sustainability and overall eco-niceness.
* Appearance-wise, something that looks like nice hardwood is preferable (cork flooring seems like a good option, but I haven't liked the styles I've seen thusfar).
* It should be pretty durable. We've got a dog and a kid.
* We're going to have someone install it for us, so taking that into account, it should be relatively affordable. I realize we're not going to get "cheap," but I'd like to try and avoid breaking the bank.

We'll be redoing approximately 450 square feet downstairs. The laminate flooring in the hallway and kitchen will stay.

I'm looking for suggestions on type of flooring (and things I should be aware of, like what types of bamboo flooring really aren't eco-friendly... stuff like that) as well as what I can expect to pay for it, roughly.
posted by laze to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard that bamboo and cork are both green, eco-friendly renewable options. Cost is always an obstacle, but possibly see if you have a local flooring company that has some of these options on sale? We have Lumber Liquidators near us who have pretty good prices. Don't know anything about their eco-friendly practices, but they usually have good prices on hardwoods, cork and bamboo.
posted by garnetgirl at 3:45 PM on April 12, 2011

When you say "downstairs" do you mean like a finished basement? What is the room used for?
posted by tetralix at 3:47 PM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: tetralix - Downstairs = first floor. So, high traffic - living room, family room, and dining room.
posted by laze at 3:55 PM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: We replaced our carpet with cork flooring last year. Here are some tips you might find useful. Unless you are doing the labor yourselves, that will probably be your highest cost. We looked at bamboo and other wood floors too. Lumber Liquidators has good prices, and a selection of green options. That is not where we purchased our flooring, but it has some nicer options. This is the brand of flooring we went with, through a local dealer. The dealer carried several brands, as well as zero VOC paint, etc. Some of it is quite beautiful, and isn't what we typically saw when shopping.

What we learned about bamboo flooring: It is soft, softer than most woods, so scratches easily. This can be offset by using stranded bamboo, which is cut into strips, compressed, and glued together. Of course, the stranded is more expensive because of this. The carbonized bamboo is not as hard as the stranded, and the plain finished, while the least expensive, shows marks the most. Since you have a dog, scratches will be a concern.

For the cork, we chose it for several reasons. Not only does it have a bit of give, making it more comfortable to stand on, it also is insulative. Our dog hasn't managed to scratch it so far, and because of the pattern, it would be hard to see anyway.

The underlayment and/or glue used can have VOCs, so be careful with that too.
posted by annsunny at 3:56 PM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

We installed mid-range laminate flooring. In addition to probably being made from scraps found behind Dow chemical, the individual pieces have begun sliding around like a giant puzzle because the internal ridges broke. If I had to do it over again I would have sprung for a wood floor that was nailed in place. Your mileage, vary it may.
posted by mecran01 at 5:41 PM on April 12, 2011

We did our daughter's bedroom in Pergo, and we've been very, VERY happy with it over the five or so years it's been down. If you go the laminate route, the two bits of advice I would give you is to follow the installation directions to the absolute letter, and DON'T CHEAP OUT. Basically, if you can't afford the top-of-the-range Pergo, I don't think I would bother. I've seen a few rooms that look like what mecran01 describes, and I'm convinced our better outcome is simply because we laid out more money to begin with.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2011

Check out Marmoleum click tiles. They are real linoleum tiles, which is about as green as you can get. Super easy install. Comes in many different colors so if your the creative type you can design a really cool floor. As far as price from what I can remember its about $6-8 per sq/ft.
posted by Buckshot at 6:11 PM on April 12, 2011

Cork flooring with the plywood backing that clicks to install is not especially 'green.' Also, it can have a hollow sound. What's under the terrible carpet? I removed all the staples, a laborious job, and painted the plywood in my living room. I love rugs, and live in a cold place, so I have big wool rugs. They're expensive, though lately I see some nice rugs at Homegoods, but they last, and keep your feet warmer. The current trend is small-ish rugs, but I have fit several rugs in to cover most of the plywood flooring. Linoleum is quite green, lasts a long time, and much warmer underfoot than vinyl. I expect to do the kitchen in cork, one of these days.
posted by theora55 at 6:25 PM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: (I always preface these comments by saying that I'm an architect and I used to have a general contracting license as well, so I've had plenty of occasion to study the options when selecting products for clients and myself over the years.)

I would like to respectably disagree with annsunny; bamboo is not soft, in fact, it is substantially harder than most woods commonly used for flooring. Bamboo is very durable, but as is the case with most wood flooring, the first line of defense against daily wear and tear (as opposed to significant gouging) is the finish. No wood floor, no matter what the species or finish, is immune to the blows that cause significant gouging of the actual material. A very hard finish will stand up to the scratches dog's nails make as they go peeling out around a corner chasing a kid. But let's just get to the heart of the matter.

You want to be eco-friendly. Which is great. But at the scale of your project, it probably means something different than what many people are led to believe it means. At 450 sf your project is tiny. Really tiny. You are not tilting the eco-scale one way or the other with a purchase of this size. Of course every purchase matters in the grand scale, but at your scale, the most eco-friendly thing you can do is to purchase something that will last a lifetime and not end up being trucked to a landfill. Spend enough money to get something you like enough to know that you aren't going to want to change it anytime soon, and of good enough quality that it will not need to be changed. At 450 sf, buying ONE floor, no matter what the actual species, will be far more eco-friendly than buying TWO floors that have a marketing firm's stamp of eco-approval. For example, bamboo is thought to be eco-friendly because as a resource it is so quickly renewable. It also is manufactured by people making pennies, thousands of miles away, and needs to ride on a container ship, then a truck, then another truck before it ends up at your door. Also, the finish applied is a substantial portion of the production cost. To keep those costs down, they use a sprayed-on finish that is toxic as all get out (both to manufacture the finish itself, and then to the environment where it is sprayed on with few regulations, and to the lungs of the people in the often third-world places it is manufactured in).

The salesmen will tell you how bulletproof the finish is. And it largely is....BUT...look at it more closely. Typically the finish is on the surface, and not on the sides where the tongue and groove are that hold the individual pieces to themselves and to the floor. You spill something on the floor. Does the spill stay nicely on top? No, it travels to the sides where it makes its way down to the unfinished structural portions of the flooring. Eventually, that causes failure. Now you buy another floor. Not eco-friendly. Floors that are finished in place (whether they are solid wood floors, or engineered laminate floors) do not have this problem, as the finish provides a continuous, unbroken seal over the surface. The finish is also of a higher quality than you will find in prefinished products.

My suggestion - find a species of floor that you really love. Like, really love. Like, every time you walk into the room, you are glad to see it. At 450 sf, the price difference between your absolute favorite and your least favorite will be less than you are imagining they will be, especially in the range of species actually available to you. Purchase something you will love, and something of quality. If you love it, and it is good quality to begin with, you will take care of your investment. You won't want to replace it, and the floor will not fail and require that you install another one. At your scale, this is the most eco-friendly way to go about it.

With respect to durability, an applied-in-place water-based "Swedish" finish will offer the best protection you will be able to afford for a wood floor. As a comparison, look at the sprayed-on finish of the prefinished products you come across. Hold them up to the light and look at them across their surface. You will be able to see little "stippling" marks from the spray application. When a floor with this finish is installed, the finish creates a "matte-ish", but very reflective effect. Light careens off it and causes a glare. This keeps this kind of sprayed finish from having any depth. It can look very plastic-y...kinda like old wood-grained formica used to look.

Over the years, the method I have come to use is the following:

1. Pick a species/color that you LOVE.
2. Buy the best quality solid wood floor you can afford. If you buy an engineered laminated floor, but one with the top finished layer to be thick enough to allow at least one resanding.
3. Finish it in place with decent quality urethane finish. I use a semi- or high-gloss.
4. Apply a paste wax finish on top of the polyurethane. Apply several coats, buffing each one out as it is applied. This way, any spills have the wax as a first line of defense. The bullet-proof, hard urethane finish is underneath to provide stability and protection. The wax is the finish you actually maintain. If something happens to it, you can always spot strip it off and reapply the wax. Easy. And here is the nice part...with the high-gloss finish underneath, the wax gives a fantastic softness. Light passes through the wax, and the gloss finish gives a tremendous depth to the finish. The result is a nice "buttery" finish like you see in beautiful, old hand-rubbed floors, but has the hardness of modern finish products. The wax also lets you maintain the floor yourself and you don't need a pro to keep you looking nice.

You may also want to consider concrete or linoleum which are also very eco-friendly, natural, and often more affordable than you would imagine.

Ugh... apologies this got so long-winded. Lord, I can yammer on.
posted by nickjadlowe at 6:37 PM on April 12, 2011 [39 favorites]

I don't know where you're located, but you might look for a place like Second Use or Re-Store in your town.
posted by brookeb at 9:58 PM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'm in Northern Virginia and it looks like we have a Lumber Liquidators not so far away, so that might be a good option.

@nickjadlowe - thanks for the incredibly detailed response. I appreciate it and it will all come in very handy.
posted by laze at 6:30 AM on April 13, 2011

One more point I would like to make. Bring home samples, try them in different times of day to see what finis/type looks best.
posted by annsunny at 10:18 AM on April 16, 2011

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