Green Design: Green Flooring Materials

Choosing Right Floors

The variety of floor materials is so broad that taking your time and making a right choices is very important. After you single out possible options, evaluate your choices for their environmental performance and how they fit in a concept of Green Design.

Think of your floor as the soil of your garden. Without embellishments and ornamentation, if it is rich and wholesome, it will be a proper background for new growth. Simplicity is always the heart of elegance. Whether you have a wood, tile, marble, brick, or cork floor, an organic material will be the most satisfying. If your floors require little maintenance and are easy to clean, you will feel better, because people walk on them, often with wet and muddy shoes. The surface shouldn't be too rough, since many people enjoy walking around barefoot or in socks.

One hundred years ago it was unthinkable not to have hardwood, French parquet, stone, marble, brick, or tile floors to enhance the architectural presence of each room. Floors are architectural, and should feel permanent. The most successful floors are those that appear to be part of the structure of the building. In traditional buildings, flooring was generally made of a material appropriate to the surroundings - brick, ceramic tile, or flagstone in a country area; wood planks for homes near a wood. In an urban area, a stone related to the building material looks best. However fine a material may be, it may not look right if it is out of context with its surroundings.

One of the best solutions to improve indoor air quality and to diffuse VOCs (volatile organic compounds, some of them are harmful when inhaled) is to install the flooring materials three to four weeks before an interior is occupied. Recognizing that in many situations this is next to impossible, it is wise to consider installing flooring materials late in the week and then opening the building or home to the fresh air over the weekend. Many businesses are closed on weekends and residential clients possibly could relocate for a weekend. In general, designers should look for labels that mark the product as "low emission" and remember that natural products are generally a more renewable resource.

Stone Flooring

Few homes today have beautifully designed stone or marble floors. In the public spaces of grand houses, where the owner wants a formal look, stone and marble floors are appropriate. Marble and stone floors are breathtakingly beautiful.

Limestone, marble, and travertine are commonly used for flooring. Limestone is a sedimentary rock containing mostly calcium carbonate, and ranges in color from cream to beige to gray. Marble is metamorphic, crystallized limestone (though some limestone that can take a polish is also classified as marble), often streaked with dolomite, a sedimentary rock similar to limestone. Marble comes in a variety of colors, including earth tones as well as shades of green, red, and bluish gray. Often limestone or marble tiles are tumbled in a rolling drum with a chemical medium to produce aged or softened edges. Travertine is often quarried near natural springs and is characterized by a porous surface containing sand holes, voids, veins, and lines of separation, giving it an open texture when left unfilled.

Marble floors, because of their hard and highly polished look, always make a grand statement. If your lifestyle is characterized more by the outdoors and nature than by formal dinner parties, a classically patterned marble floor will seem incongruous underneath your hiking boots. Marble floors are definitely black tie. A stone floor with irregularly shaped hand-cut tiles has more integrity in a more relaxed country house. Most beige travertine looks ordinary but in rich blue shades this stone looks elegant in powder rooms and bathroom floors.

Stone flooring (including marble, granite and slate) is one of the most beautiful and environmentally friendly of all flooring materials. If possible, select a stone that is relatively local to avoid using energy in its transport. It has no adverse effect on internal air quality and satisfies most environmental criteria:

- readily available

- requires little energy to produce

- give off no polluting emissions in production

- immensely durable and can be recycled again and again

- even if discarded, it won't cause pollution.

Ceramic Flooring

For centuries, fired clay has been used all over the world to make floors, in forms ranging from simple sun-baked bricks to elaborate glazed tiles. One of the most attractive features of traditional ceramic tiles made of local clay is that they bring regional characteristics to interiors - think of tiled floors in French farmhouses or Italian palazzos. The primary appeal of ceramic tile floors lies in their striking color and pattern. Ceramic tiles are composed of clay that is baked in an oven or kiln at extremely high temperatures and then glazed or left unglazed.

Ceramic tiles can be used in all rooms with success, as they have a great deal of charm and decorative advantages. They are also easy to clean with water. Ceramic tiles rate very highly from an environmental point of view. Ceramic material (clay) exists in abundance and its processing is generally simple, relatively clean, and uses few chemicals. In large-scale commercial production, gas-fired kilns are often used, but in "native" production, wood fires are more common. Small quantities of heavy metals are used to color glazes, but the total level of pollution is relatively low compared to that associated with many other building materials. In terms of indoor air quality, ceramic material is stable and quite safe.

Ceramic floor tiles create a relaxed and come in such a wide range of styles, it is hard not to want to put them on your floors.

Terra-cotta Tile Floors. Terra-cotta, the most popular ceramic tile, is a hard-baked porous clay in different shades of red, orange, and yellow that is produced in many parts of the world, including Mexico, South America, Italy, France, Spain, and the United States. On floors, terra-cotta tiles offer earthiness and subtle refinement. Traditional red terra-cotta is fired to a relatively low temperature and makes softer tiles. Although common in Mediterranean-style buildings, soft (unverified) tiles are less practical because they are not waterproof and are subject to frost damage. Soft tiles can be waterproofed by glazing with either transparent or colored glazes. Common examples are glazed bathroom tiles or decorative Spanish tiles. Terra-cotta tiles come in various shapes, sizes, and thickness that allow for much creativity in design.

Glazed Tile Floors. Glazed tiles, ceramic tiles with a glossy, matte, or satin finish depending on the amount of sheen you want, are an excellent option for flooring and can be extremely colorful and decorative.

Tiles are almost indestructible and and can be used time and time again, in fact, they may well command higher prices when worn, further ensuring their reuse. At the end of their life they can be either formed into mosaics of broken tiles, used as hardcore layers on building sites, or crushed to make safe sands.

Wood Flooring

Solid wood is beautiful, practical, and has made the finest floors for centuries. It meets all the requirements for an environmentally sound surface:

- renewable resource
- requires low-energy input
- safe and biodegradable
- one of the easiest materials to recycle

Woods used for floors can be grouped under three headings: 1. Softwoods come from coniferous trees such as pine, larch, European redwood (not the California sequoias), and spruce.

2. Sustainable hardwoods. Sustainable hardwoods grow mainly in North America, Europe, and Asia. They come from broadleaf forests that are managed to ensure a continuity of regeneration and supply of such wood as oak, ash, maple, and sycamore. It is not commonly known that some old-growth temperate forests in North America and Asia are also being destroyed.

3. Protected tropical and temperate hardwoods. Tropical hardwoods come from rain forests in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia. A few are managed for proper regeneration, but others come from unregulated harvesting and should never be used. Teak, iroko, mahogany, and aformosia are among the better known of the protected species. These trees are essential to the stability of the rain forest habitat. Harvesting them causes ecological collapse, resulting in the loss of unique flora and fauna, which causes soil erosion - leading to the eventual transformation of a once immensely rich forest system into desert. This, in turn, destroys indigenous communities, as well as a great source of natural plant chemicals - a gene bank that may disappear before its potential is discovered.

There are various accreditations for tropical hardwoods, but many of them are dubious and are used mainly as marketing aids. The only reliable accreditations are those recognized by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which operates internationally.

Consider these essential points when laying a wood floor:

- Select only certified hardwoods or softwoods and preferably wood that is locally produced.
- Don't use wood in areas where it would require heavy protection against wear or water.
- Use only natural oil or wax finishes
- Use recycled flooring wherever possible

Bamboo Flooring

Although it is a grass, bamboo is as strong as many woods and almost as dense and hard-wearing indoors as oak. Like any grass, bamboo grows quickly - as much as 8 feet per year. This means that pieces of a usable size are generated from crops every 5 or 6 years (that is roughly six times faster than wood).

Other great advantages of bamboo:

- grows on marginal land

- does not need fertilizers or pesticides

- regroups from cut shoots and does not have to be replanted.

For centuries, bamboo has been used in its natural form as strong, flexible sticks. Now that its excellent environmental characteristics have been recognized, bamboo is being used more and more as a versatile and attractive flooring material.

Cork Flooring

Cork flooring from renewable sources is also an appropriate environmental choice. Cork is taken from the bark of live trees that continue to grow after the cork is harvested. Although not appropriate for alt situations, a cork floor is warm and resilient. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak and has been cultivated in Mediterranean countries for centuries. An entirely sustainable crop, it is harvested from live trees that regrow their bark to give a new crop approximately every 9 years. Cork is an excellent flooring material. Its combination of flexibility, high insulation value, and resistance to water is a product of its structure; fatty materials make each cell a watertight compartment. It is ideal for areas where a combination of warmth and some water resistance is needed, such as bathrooms or playrooms.

Cork is a little warmer and softer than linoleum, but less durable. As with so many other natural flooring materials, cork's practicality and its effects on indoor air quality and health are affected largely by the finish. It degrades easily if not protected with a durable hard-wearing coat and discolors if the protection is penetrated by water.


Wall-to-wall carpet, though not as fashionable in recent years, has many advantages. It can turn an "unfriendly" room into a warm and welcoming space. Soft and comfortable underfoot, it provides warmth as well as acoustic softness. No hard floor is as comfortable for children to play on or for walking on barefoot in winter, and a thick carpet and underlay will also deaden impact noise. In older houses with drafty ground floors, carpet stops drafts and increases warmth. It can also cover floors of a poor or uneven quality.

Carpet can be one of the most costly finishes in an interior and creates a disposal problem when it must be replaced. The Partnership for Carpet Reclamation, created by DuPont, a manufacturer of carpet fiber, is one of the many solutions to this problem. The program reclaims used carpets and recycles them into new carpet fibers.

Another interesting recycling program uses recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known as #1 plastic. Consumer products made of PET such as ketchup bottles and soda bottles are cleaned, ground up, melted down, and then extruded to form new fibers.

Another common problem with carpet and carpet pads is that they may emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, some of which are harmful to breathe. The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRT) has developed an Indoor Air Quality Testing Program, which evaluates carpet, carpet cushions, and floor covering adhesives, and labels products that have been tested and that meet stringent indoor air quality (IAQ) requirements. Carpet pads made of felt or a natural fiber such as jute are the best choice because they are low-emission products. Specifying low-emitting adhesives or selecting the strip method of installation also may limit the emission of VOCs (see Green Design: Indoor Air Quality).

Number of concerns about carpet:

- Carpet is generally considered to be one of the worst culprits in creating poor indoor air quality, harboring particulates as well as dust mites, which thrive in the warmth of carpet.

- Carpet made in an industrial setting, even natural wool carpet, is highly damaging to the environment because of the extensive use of dangerous and polluting chemicals during all stages of production. The yarns in synthetic carpet are made from petrochemicals, with all the accompanying disadvantages.

- Chemically treated natural and synthetic carpets are a major component of waste in landfills. They do not biodegrade, and they leach out polluting chemicals.

Environmentally Safe Carpet

It is possible to find carpet that has much less impact on the environment. So-called "organic" carpet, made from natural plant and animal yarns, is pesticide free and not bleached or chemically dyed. The natural oil of lanolin in wool acts as a water and stain repellent. Wool is also self-extinguishing, so it needs no fire-retardant chemical applications. The yarns are woven onto backings of chemical-free jute or hemp. Hemp is being used increasingly in environmentally sound carpets because it is naturally resistant to mildew, fungal growth, and fading. Generally, nontoxic adhesives are used - often natural latex rubber.

The best way to enjoy a safe floor and the softness and warmth of carpet without actually laying carpet is to use area rugs. Easy to remove for thorough cleaning (areas under furniture collect the most dust), they can also be rolled away at times when lots of dirt is being brought into the home by pets or children with muddy shoes. Flat-weave rugs such as berbers have no pile, so they harbor less dust than those with thick pile. Rugs last longer if placed on top of padding or an underlay. And since the underlay is separate, it is also easy to clean. A point to note is that rug weaving in many parts of the world involves child labor and poor working conditions. Whenever possible, buy ethically certified rugs.

Linoleum Flooring

Once confined to dull colors, this warm, flexible, eminently practical material is now available in brighter shades, thanks to improvements in binder and pigment technology. Linoleum is made from entirely natural ingredients and considered to be environmentally friendly material: Linum is the flax from which the base is woven, and "oleum" refers to the oils used (usually linseed and pine resins). Fillers of cork and ground-up wood waste are also safe and come from renewable sources. Production produces few polluting emissions and linoleum is also biodegradable. High temperatures are required during the "calendering" process, which makes the surface dense and smooth, but linoleum has far fewer environmental consequences than many sheet materials.

In use, linoleum is is an ideal material for the safe home - it is hard wearing, stain resistant, and easy to keep clean. It is suitable for areas that may be splashed with water, although it becomes slippery when very wet. It can be used wherever a flat, impervious sheet is needed and it is slightly softer and more resilient than sheet vinyl or tiles. Linoleum offers many attractive characteristics for use in all areas.

Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl (Polyvinyl Chloride) can produce high levels of VOCs. Natural linoleum is a better choice. In use, vinyl flooring is similar to linoleum, except that it is less resilient.

From Green Design point of view vinyl is most unsatisfying because it is derived from crude oil and requires large amounts of energy and chlorine to manufacture, although some chlorine-free PVCs are becoming available. PVC also contains dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, which vinyl manufacturers claim are "trapped" in the flooring and do not leach or escape during the use of the floor. When it's left in a landfill, it leaches chlorine and heavy metals into the ground. Vinyl flooring is so problematic that a number of German municipalities have banned its use.