Choosing Healthy and Durable Floors
A list of the pros and cons, durability,cost and lifespan of flooring materials. Find healthy and durable flooring that is right for you, and protect your indoor air quality (IAQ).
Naturally finished red oak floors. © Mirage Floors
The floors you choose really create the atmosphere in your home and give it its identity. The first considerations should be to choose a durable and non-toxic floor to ensure safe indoor air quality (IAQ). When you are making choices, find out the estimated lifespan and what maintenance is required to keep it in good condition.
Just a note, when you read 'FSC wood', that refers to Forest Stewardship Council, an international certification program that promotes the sustainable and responsible harvesting of wood. Choosing FSC products promotes the market for responsible forestry management.
Engineered wood. © Céline Lecomte
Engineered wood is comprised of several layers of plywood forming the core of your flooring, with a top layer of hardwood. When finished, engineered wood will look like any other hardwood floor.
Pros: Solid and stable; relatively good soundproofing; looks like any hardwood floor; helps reduce demand on forests by using leftover scraps of wood in the laminate core.
Cons: It will often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the lower layers; less durable than a floor made of solid wood only.
Cost: Between $3 and $12 per sq. ft.
Worthy of note: Engineered wood floors lend themselves well to in-floor radiant heat.
Solid wood flooring. © Céline Lecomte
Wood flooring can come either raw or pre-finished. Traditional raw wood flooring usually requires as much work in finishing as it did to install and that’s certainly true if you finish it with polyurethane.
After installation you will need to sand it and for a nice finish that can take a lot of time. This is something you can do yourself. You can rent a sander from most big box supply stores.
Pros: You can usually find local and FSC woods; wood floors are natural looking and can be quite durable.
Cons: They will get scratched, there is no way around that, but less so with harder woods like maple or oak. Pine for example is very soft and will unquestionably pick up dings and scratches through normal wear and tear. Wood floors are susceptible to UV rays and will start to yellow over time; they can leave colour variations around furniture and area rugs that don't move
If you choose to oil your floors rather than using polyurethane, they will be much more easy to repair and can leave you with a much healthier final product.
Cost: Between $3 and $12 per sq. ft., depending on type of wood and dimension.
Floors made from reclaimed barn boards.
© Appalachian Woods
Depending on your taste and what you do with it, reclaimed wood can give you a floor with a lot of character. You can find and reuse old flooring, even use old barn boards for a beautiful and rustic look. Barn boards are usually much wider and have a rich colour and history.
Under the category of 'reclaimed' I would include wood reclaimed from rivers and lakes. Transportation of logged wood in previous centuries was often by waterways, and much of it sunk. There are salvage companies that dive down and pull these trees up, and mill them into finished wood products.
Diving for logs. © Divemi, Flickr
Being submerged in deep water can actually benefit wood. Low levels of oxygen reduces the rate of rot and the water pressure forces the sap out of the trees. It seems counterintuitive, but wood that has been submerged in water often for hundreds of years is considered to be of superior quality with richer colours than wood straight out of a forest.
When it comes to finishing and maintenance, treat sunken timber as you would any other hardwood or softwood.
Bamboo floors. © UKFlooring
Though it is often thought to be wood, bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass that needs no pesticides or fertilizers. Bamboo plantations provide bird and insect habitat and have a turnaround time of 5 years from planting to harvesting.
Pros: Bamboo is renewable; sustainable; very strong; durable and antimicrobial. It's now available as FSC certified as well as formaldehyde-free.
Cons: It has a sizable carbon footprint since it comes from Asia, and there have been questions raised regarding working conditions for those in the industry.
Cost: Between $3 and $8 per sq.ft.
Cork Floor. © Creative Commons
Cork is another durable and renewable flooring material. Cork is harvested from the bark of trees, so the tree itself is left alive, and flooring will usually contain recycled content from exactly where you would guess — wine bottle corks. Finish it the way you would a wood floor, and it will require about the same maintenance.
Pros: Natural air pockets make cork soft, well insulated, and give it excellent acoustic properties for absorbing sound; very durable.
Cons: High carbon footprint for transportation as it doesn't grow in North America; the core is often made from a high-density fibreboard, so if you don't specifically source non-toxic brands, you will likely find it contains VOCs.
Cost: Between $5 and $10 per sq. ft.
Linoleum floor. © Creative commons
It's hard not to think of an old 50's kitchen when you think of linoleum, but in reality it comes in some pretty nice styles and colours and can actually be an environmentally responsible flooring choice. Linoleums can be made from renewable materials including solidified linseed oil, calcium carbonate, cork dust, wood chips and burlap to name but a few.
Pros: Very durable; good ones can be natural, anti-allergenic and anti-bacterial. Be sure not to confuse them with vinyl tiles.
Cons: It comes in rolls, and due to colours and patterns, they will usually need to be installed by a specialist.
Cost: Between $5 an $12 per sq.ft.
Polished concrete floor. © Bala Structures
Concrete production releases a lot of greenhouse gases, but the finished product is incredibly durable and non-toxic to humans. Floors can be acid stained, have colours added, and have patterns cut into it to make it look like tile or stone.
Pros: Excellent thermal mass; as durable a floor as you will ever find; excellent medium for radiant floor heat; almost all homes will have a concrete floor if not as the main floor, certainly as a basement, and polishing an existing floor is among the cheapest finished floors you can get.
Cons: High GHGs during production; concrete itself it is very durable, but any glass you drop on it won't be; it can be pretty unforgiving to kids that wipe out on it; standing on concrete can be tough on your joints so it's a good idea to have cushioned pads where you regularly stand for long periods of time like in front of the sink; verify that any finishes you intend to apply don't contain VOCs.
Cost: Can be as little as $1 up to $12 per sq.ft.
Slate tiles. © Mike Reynolds
Slate is a natural stone, extracted from what was the bottom of ancient oceans, and can commonly be found from Quebec to Newfoundland. Finished floors generally have widely varying colours and texture.
Pros: Excellent thermal properties for heat absorption; very durable; can be locally sourced in much of Canada.
Cons: They will require a sealer or finish when the stone is not polished so try to choose non-toxic finishes.
Cost: Starting around $4 but can go up to $25 per sq.ft.
Ceramic tiles. © Mike Reynolds
Pros: Very durable and highly resistant to water; no adverse health effects, but make sure that the mortar and grout are low VOC.
Cons: Colours and styles change quickly, so you should keep a few extra on hand in case you need to replace a broken one because you might not be able to find it in the future. They have a significant embodied energy, and are mostly imported.
Cost: Anywhere from $3 to 12 per sq.ft.
With the exception of certain area rugs, we really aren't big fans of carpeting. While the industry has set itself on a course of cleaning up its emissions and reputation, overall it still has a poor environmental record in production, not to mention the effects of carpets on the air quality of our homes.
Your carpet can be a warehouse of dust, dirt, pet dander, bacteria and mold. It might get vacuumed regularly but the fibres will absorb and hold any airborne contaminants and chemicals used around the home, including actual carpet cleaners.
A handmade natural wool area rug is a nice compliment to a wood floor. It’s non-toxic and can be brought outside to clean.
Prefinished flooring. © Mike Reynolds
Flooring does come prefinished, most commonly found with polyurethane, but you can find pre-oiled floors as well. A lot of prefinished hardwood floors make for a really easy install, with tongue and groove ends as well as over the length, and a tiny chamfer cut on the top to avoid sharp edges.
This can be a great solution if you are installing a floor in an existing home to avoid the dust and fumes that come from finishing. Maintenance would be the same as any other wood flooring.
We recommend oils over polyurethane, whether the floor is prefinished or not. Oil won’t add pollutants to your home and it will enhance the natural beauty of wood. Oiled floors are much easier to maintain because you can quickly swipe a bit of oil on heavy traffic areas.
Polyurethane is by far the most common wood floor finish in North America, whereas in Europe floors are much more commonly oiled, so the durability is well established.
Be careful with oily rags. If balled up they can spontaneously combust and start fires so make sure they dry out properly.
In the modern age of resource depletion and environmental destruction, it's best if we avoid tropical woods altogether. We lose rainforests at a rate of approximately two acres per second, and we need them to survive. There are lots of local varieties of FSC certified woods that don't have the same devastating impact on the planet when harvested.