Archive for the ‘Floor materials’ Category

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A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

February 6, 2011

AFTER: Here's how the west kitchen will look after the remodeling. This side of the kitchen features wheelchair-accessible counters and sinks, and there's a handy counter where the kids can eat.

BEFORE: Here's what the west kitchen looks like now. It houses six refrigerators. In the new design, triple-wide, side-by-side commercial style refrigerators will as hold just as much food while taking up far less space.

I recently volunteered to redesign the kitchen of a domestic violence shelter. Quite a challenge!

Picture your own kitchen after a party, a potluck where a dozen people prepared different dishes. Now, imagine how it would look if it were used by 50 people every day! That’s roughly how many people use the kitchen in a domestic violence shelter, which provides a safe haven to as many as 25 women and their children all at once.

A shelter’s kitchen needs to be as tough as a restaurant or hospital kitchen. But considering the tough times the residents been through, I didn’t want it look or feel institutional. Having taken some similar lumps myself, I think I know how these women are feeling. They want to feel safe, cared for and valued. They need a warm, welcoming space.

Architectural plans and interior designs can’t fill all those needs, but the spaces in our homes – even temporary ones like this one – do carry strong messages. I wanted this one to deliver a very positive message.

I hope to do it with the golden glow of maple cabinetry, Formica 180 FX backsplashes, and counters that look like rosy granite. (A tip of the hat here to kitchen designer and fellow blogger Paul Anater, who suggested using Formica FX for backsplashes.) A handsome floor of Daltile Passagio Nocino ceramic adds an Italian flair. I opened up windows and let the light pour through, and opened doorways and pass-throughs to link the rooms.

Giving Back

I did this pro-bono job over the Christmas holidays. It was an offering I gave in recognition of the good souls who helped me through a crisis similar to those experienced by the residents of SAVE. SAVE, (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments), is located in Fremont. California, but the address is kept secret to protect its resident women and children from stalking and further violence.

As I told Diane Anderson, Grant Writer and Counselor at SAVE, “What goes around comes around. I know that good will come from this for many people, me included.”

AFTER: The southwest corner of the kitchen will feature a pass-through that enhances safety by reducing kitchen traffic. A newly widened doorway and pocket door on the south wall will open the kitchen for wheelchair access. On the west wall, a Dutch door will prevent collisions and allow moms to keep an eye on kids in the dining/living room.

BEFORE: Here's how this cramped corner looks now.

My kitchen design is a contribution to SAVE’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, an accessibility and remodeling effort that began in 2010. I hope that my plans and drawings will help SAVE win a reconstruction grant from the City of Fremont, and to raise funds from private donors. If there was ever a kitchen remodel that deserved doing, this is it!

As SAVE writes in their grant application:

The kitchen was last renovated in 1998 after a fire destroyed it.

Since then, the kitchen has been used by about 25 people daily (resulting in more than 120,000 uses) and is in need of significant upgrading.

Our kitchen is also not wheelchair accessible, but this renovation will significantly improve our accessibility.

A New Life for the Kitchen

The SAVE kitchen is part of a large house that originally was home to a doctor’s practice and family. The kitchen wasn’t originally intended for the amount of traffic it now receives, and the strain is showing. The counter around the cook top has cracked and there’s a big gap in the surface. The vinyl flooring is curling and pulling up around the edges. Cabinet hardware is loose, and the cabinets are nicked, bumped, and bruised. The finishes and surfaces throughout the kitchen look very, very tired.

In addition, the kitchen suffers from accessibility and traffic problems.

SAVE’s leaders have been gradually upgrading the house to make it accessible to those who are disabled. The shelter usually serves two people each year who are wheelchair-dependent, and many more who have mobility limitations. As they write:

These residents can remain with us for up to 90 days. We recently had a resident who decided not to bring her teenage wheelchair-dependent daughter into our shelter because of the kitchen accessibility limitations. This event really highlighted for us the need to do what we can for all our residents to be as accessible as possible.

The need is especially keen because none of the other three other domestic violence shelters in the area are accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

To fill the gap, SAVE has already installed ramps in the house and built an ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. The kitchen is next. My plans will enable SAVE to  make the kitchen wheelchair accessible with widened doors and passages, a pocket door and a wheelchair-height sink and cooking area.

SAVE: Providing More than Walls

The damage that is inflicted on the body in cases of domestic violence heals faster than the emotional, social and financial wounds. As one woman told me eloquently years ago, “The bones have long since healed, but the nightmares remain.”

This visualization was created by the author, interior designer Nicolette Toussaint, using the Revit software program and Photoshop.

Women who muster the courage to escape from their abusers must often leave behind friends, family and jobs, severing ties for their own safety and that of their children. (Although men do sometimes suffer domestic violence, more than 90% of the victims are women.) To survive, some women must leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

To understand how hard this is, I ask men and women to visualize the process: Put your wallet, your keys, your credit cards, and all your money on the table. Now walk out of your house. Leave your car. Keep walking. Could you do that? Could you go to a new city where you know no one and start over? Could you leave all your friends and family? Call no one? Ask for nothing? And could you do it without using any part of your identity – education, licenses, business contacts – that could enable your abuser to track you down?

Tools for Starting Over

Because the clients of domestic violence shelters face the daunting task of re-creating virtually every aspect of their lives – as well as those of their children – domestic violence shelters try to offer far more than the safety of their four walls. Here, again quoting from the grant application, is what SAVE has to say about the enormity of the challenge, and what they provide:

Victims of domestic violence suffer hunger, homelessness, underemployment, psychological trauma, substance abuse and a range of mental health issues secondary to the abuse. Children suffer too, with a myriad of problems from poor academic achievement to increased rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Our program addresses the barriers that victims of domestic violence face on their path toward safety and self-sufficiency.

Formica has changed! This handsome surface is the new FX 180 from Formica, Red Montana pattern. Extremely beautiful, but durable enough to stand up to lots of kids.

Daltile Passaggio 12 x 12 Nocino, a beautiful floor that will withstand traffic and water.

We provide safe housing, food, clothing, financial literacy, employment readiness, and counseling among many other services.the period between July 2009 and June 2010 we received over 4,000 calls to our crisis hotline and provided more than 7,500 shelter and motel bednights. We served about 250 women and children where 94% of the families served had an annual income below $35,000.

Putting a Face on the Issue

Who are these women?

Statistics say that nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. I was once one of them, despite having two university degrees and the social privilege that comes with white skin.

The fear sparked by that experience led me to leave my home state of Colorado, severing ties with all but one friend and my parents. I moved to Illinois. Years later, I became a domestic peace advocate and spoke and wrote publicly about the topic in California and other states, but I always remained wary of publicity in Colorado.

The physical bruises fade, but the emotional ones can linger for years.

Thus, I feel a kinship with the women of SAVE. I met a few of them in the process of measuring their kitchen and drilling a few exploratory holes in the wall. The women’s names, like the address of the shelter, must remain secret to ensure their safety. But profiles of some of them are sketched on the SAVE website, and I have taken the liberty of reprinting them here, so that my readers can meet them. Please meet:

  1. Sara, who graduated from SAVE’s transitional housing program,  got a great job with the County and is raising her son in a violence-free home.
  2. Elena, who told SAVE that the first night she spent in our shelter was the first night she had slept without fear in 10 years.
  3. Annie, who got her son back and who told us that the people at SAVE were the first people who believed that she could be a good mother.
  4. Hosina, who told the staff at SAVE so matter-of-factly about all the terrible things her daddy had done to her.
  5. Shelly, who just today got the keys to her new apartment, after 17 years of abuse and almost a year in shelter.

If you would like to help these women, and others like them, I encourage you to visit SAVE’s website and make a donation. The shelter could certainly use your help. Last year, SAVE served more than 4,500 clients while having to cut staff due to loss of funding. What’s more, they desperately need a new kitchen (plans below)!

Floorplan for new SAVE kitchen. Designer: Nicolette Toussaint

I encourage any reader who has a friend or relative who has suffered from domestic violence to donate in the name of their loved one.

If you’re a contractor or manufacturer of appliances, cabinetry, tile or stainless steel countertops, you could do a good turn by making an in-kind donation of your products (hint, hint).

You will find links to SAVE’s website below.

Links for SAVE

Links for Author Nicolette Toussaint

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Roundabout: All About Round Tile Options

June 10, 2010

“Round, round, round,
I get around…”

I wish!

Given the economy these days, my summer travels have been taking me more to design blogs than to exotic locales. But design blogs are wonderful places too; you’ll find many of my favorite design destinations in the blogroll at right. Coincidentally, several of those blogs have recently caught my attention with posts on unusual round tiles.

Pennies on the floor in the Standard Hotel. Design by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this striking image on the Dornob blog. It’s a hotel entry where the floor has been paved with old copper pennies! An interestingly literal take on the idea of “penny-round tile.”

I’m not sure this application is entirely legal. Then again, I doubt that Uncle Sam would bother to go after these designers when he ignores all the tourists who are engraving little images of the Bay Bridge onto pennies with currency-crushing devices here in San Francisco every day.  In any case, I’m sure that the cost-per-square foot for this hotel flooring was pretty easy to calculate.

I would love to try this with mixed coins. It would be a great accent for someone who did a lot of foreign travel. (Sigh. I recall a time when I came back from Europe at least once a year, my pockets loaded with centimes, pence, and lira – dozens of interesting coins too small to merit putting back through the currency exchange process. They would have made a very interesting floor.)

This tile is from the 4mm Stainless Steel Collection. Photo courtesy of Remodelista.

Penny Round Makes a Comeback

Penny round tile is a classic, and one that’s appearing in some modern new guises, in part thanks to some new materials, including ceramic, glass, stone, cork and metals.

Metals other than copper can add panache to round tile, as the version at right attests. These penny round tiles are created by wrapping a thin stainless steel around porcelain and then mounting it on a mesh backing that is forgiving of imperfect surfaces and makes for easy installation.

Iceberg glass mosaic tiles from Evit, an Italian furniture company.

For its sheer beauty, my favorite round tile is a glass tile mosaic from Evit. This is high-end stuff and it comes with a high-end price tag. Because Evit is located in Italy (ah, to be in Tuscany this summer, or anytime, for that matter) their tile has to be shipped across the Big Pond. That means that it comes with a carbon footprint and it requires lead time to get here.

But, che bella! The mixed sizes of the round tile glass tile give this  mosaic a fanciful bubble-like quality. The subtle blue-green hues handsomely accent the cool steel shades of the modern faucet in Evit’s bathroom design.

Round Tile from Recycled Materials

A wall at an Australian winery "tiled" with bottles filled with water. In 2007, the winery received a grant from that state’s Sustainable Energy Development Office to study how the thermal properties of the wall help control temperatures in the winery. Photo by Treehugger.

For creativity (sans currency) my prize in the round tile category would have to go to an organic winery in Western Australia that built a wall from more than 13,500 wine re-purposed glass wine bottles filled with water. The winery’s owner, Peter Little, a fomer architecture lecturer at Curtin University and long-time passive solar design advocate, noted that, “Water… can store more energy, heat, or cool than any material we know.” The winery received a government grant that has been used for a thermal imaging program that studies how the wall helps to control indoor temperatures.

Another interesting use of materials coming round to a second life is the recycling of wine corks into floor tiles. Although the corks can’t be used in wine bottles a second time, there’s no reason not to use them in flooring, and that’s just what Jelinek Cork does. The penny round cork tiles even come in a mixture of colors. Jelinek cuts the corks into discs about 1/4″ and glues them onto a special paper that is then afixed to a subfloor and grouted like tile. To seal it, the floor is covered with urethane.

Floor made from recycled wine corks by Jelinek Cork. Photo courtesy of Inhabitat.

More Round Tile Options

Emperador Dark Penny Round Mosaic; Mission Stone & Tile

Red Bubbles from the Tile Store Online.

Bubbles glass mosaic title from Italian firm Evit; available in 12 colors.

3/4" glazed porcelain Penny Tile from Subway Ceramics

Unglazed porcelain penny tile in sage from PennyTile.com

Glazed ceramic penny tile in pink from PennyTile.com

River rock tile - it's everywhere!

These choices barely begin to scratch the surface of the options I found when I made the rounds on the net, searching for interesting round tile.

Mission Tile offers a penny round mosaic tile called Emperador Dark Penny Round that is made of tumbled stone. The naturally mottled color of the slate gives this tile a handsome texture that would provide a handsome surface for bathroom floors or shower walls.

The Tile Store online offers a glass bubble tile, somewhat like the Evit tile featured above and at right. The Tile Store’s version comes not only in the red version shown, but also shades of green, blue and smoky grays. (Be careful about installing glass tile on floors; it’s easy to crack, and it’s also slippery. It’s much safer to save it for walls and back splashes.)

PennyTile.com offers both glossy glazed porcelain penny tiles in six colors, and matte porcelain penny tile in five more. (Porcelain is extremely hard and one of the most durable flooring materials you can install.) PennyTile also offers classic black and white versions.

Finally, this web walk-about would not be complete without mentioning the popularity of naturally rounded river stones and pebbles, which are now used as both flooring and back splashes. Because the manufacturers split them in half and adhere them to a backing, they can be installed and grouted with a reasonable minimum of fuss.

I’m seeing river rock everywhere. It’s being used for shower walls, bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds. While I love the look, I would never recommend installing such an uneven surface as a kitchen backsplash (a cleaning nightmare) or as a shower floor (many tender-footed types would be unable to shower without wearing rubber thongs).  It would be great on a porch, on a fireplace, or on a bathroom wall that isn’t in the shower. It seems to be widely available, even at Home Depot, and comes in a rainbow of natural stone colors.

A Round Robin on
Blogs Featuring Round Tile

Resource Links:
Where to Find It

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

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Flooring: Leave No Stone Unturned

May 26, 2010

This week, Living in Comfort and Joy welcomes guest blogger Wendy Clarke, the savant of stone and tile. Wendy writes the blog "Art, Earth and Stone Tiles." You will find links to her blog's homepage, and some particularly useful posts, below. Contact Wendy at uniquedesres@aol.com

I believe that tile and stone is sustainable and eco-friendly because it doesn’t have to be replaced during the lifetime of the house. Do it right and do it once.

How to do it Right:
Ask a Lot of Questions

In helping a homeowner to select the right stone or tile, my first questions are all about lifestyle. I ask:

  • Do you have kids? If yes, how many children do you have and how old?
  • Same questions about their pets.
  • How long are you planning on living in your home before selling?
  • Do you cook all the time or occasionally?
  • What kind of feelings do you want to have when you walk into a room?

Secondly, I look at the architectural style of the home and the client. If the home is in search of style, we have an interesting challenge! Lastly, I help the homeowner to consider budgets. Information on what the existing floor is made of, whether the wood frame will need to be reinforced and what the height of existing, surrounding floor that will need to be matched for level will all have an impact on the budget.

I realize that this sounds like a lot to discover, but it all impacts recommendations, and ultimately the choices that are made in stone and tile purchases.

More Choices than Ever, and in More Places

In the last twenty years, natural stone has evolved from exclusive use in mansions, public buildings and office buildings to being available to everyone. Dozens of choices are easily available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Here are some of my favorite picks.

Travertine tile

Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern, shown here, is now available in an oversized version for large rooms or patios.

Travertine is the most widely used stone and is imported from Turkey and Mexico. Travertine loves to absorb everything that was ever spilled on it. Because it is compressed river sediment, it is filled with tiny holes that water used to flow through. Those holes are filled at the factory and the surface is honed so it is smooth. But because those holes are still there, lurking beneath the surface, travertine is not the best choice for homes with  lots of kids or pets. It’s not a great choice for kitchen floors, back splashes or entry floors, but it works well for bathrooms and matching slabs are available.

From cream to chocolate brown, red, pink and grey the colors, found in travertine are amazing. There are many different finishes available, so pay attention to your home’s architecture. A chipped edge works beautifully in a cottage or a Mediterranean design while a straight edge finish is more appropriate a for modern or ranch homes.

If you already have travertine on your floors, buy a steamer. After you vacuum to get the dirt out of the little holes (always do this first), the steamer will be the best way to clean your floors.

Marble stairs in a church in Florence, Italy, show wear pattern from centuries of foot traffic.

Marble can last forever it comes in every color of the rainbow.  Just think of the churches in Europe; they are filled with marble that has been in place for hundreds of years. But as those churches demonstrate, marble wears and weathers over time. It’s tough to maintain a pristine, polished marble floor or counter top.

If you opt for marble, you should understand that it’s going to develop a patina as you use it. It will become a honed surface, and it will look weathered. Carrara and Calacatta marble are very popular counter tops right now, as are creamy beige tones.  I love them, but I know that marble will stain. Vinegar, lemon juice, tomato juice and other acids can etch the stone as well.  My best advice is to love the evolving patina — or if  you want shiny and perfect, pick something else.

Because marble will stain, maintaining a good seal is important. You should avoid using orange or other citrus based cleaners, and soaps, as well as glass cleaners.  Stick to Ivory soap or stone soaps.

Keep in mind that polished marble on floors can be slippery. It’s better to choose honed, acid washed or brushed finishes for flooring installations.  If you happen to already have a slippery marble floor, you can have honing and acid washing done in place. If you want to change the finish of your existing floors to make them safer, you can call a stone professional to have this done.

The wave-like patterns and colors of a granite slab can provide a handsome palette for a kitchen or bathroom.

Granite is by far the most popular countertop material right now. It comes from all over the world, and offers an amazing range of color and pattern. When remodeling or building a kitchen, I always recommend choosing your granite first and let the rest of the finishes and color choices flow from there.

But please know that some stones that are being called “granite” really are not.  I always recommend that you get a sample piece and conduct a few science experiments. Dump some wine on it and find out if it will stain. Set a hot pan from right off the stove on it and test the results.

Don’t spend thousands of dollars unless you totally love your choice, because it will greet you every morning, and it will be one of the last things you see every night.

Make your choice from a full slab, and remember that your counters are only two feet wide. Also consider the options for finishing. If you don’t like shiny, any granite can be honed by your fabricator, just be sure to get a sample piece honed. I have walked on granite that has been used for outdoor steps — it’s like walking on ice in the rain! To make it surface less slippery outdoors, or to take the gloss off for a kitchen, granite can be sandblasted to create a handsome and practical finish.

The handsome textures and colors of limestone.

Limestone is one of my favorite materials.  Because it’s less porous than travertine, it isn’t full of tiny holes and doesn’t require fills. It’s more expensive than travertine, but it’s definitely worth the money.

Limestone comes in earth tones that range from beige and gold to grey, and even green, giving limestone a more subtle than some of the brightly colored marbles.

Limestone comes in several finishes. One handsome approach is to mix and match finishes in a bathroom or kitchen. You might have a brushed limestone on the floor, honed limestone on the walls and a polished limestone counter. These different textures add richness to the overall design. (Tip: If you use multiple textures, try to get them from a store that buys from the same quarry so the color is consistent.)

Mixing in a wall of glass mosaics to the shower will change the architectural slant to modern, while adding a chipped edge and pattern will create a look that goes well with Mediterranean styles.

Slate tile floor shows the range of color and tonality available with this versatile natural material.

Slate is used both indoor and out, and it offers amazing color choices.  Slate works well if you have indoor rooms that open out onto the patio and want the areas to flow together. Multicolor slates are definitely a personal choice, so if you are selling you home in the near future, you might want to go with something else.

Remember that slate doesn’t like freezing snow so if your patio is white in the winter use something else.  Indoors or outdoors you want to find a gauged slate, a little more expensive than natural but more consistent in height and easier and cheaper to lay so you’ll save the difference in installation costs.  For matching counter top material I’d go with Brazilian slate which is best honed and comes in slabs. Colors are limited to grey, black, green and purple.  There are also honed and brushed tiles to match.  This is my favorite to use in Arts and Crafts homes for both tiles and counters.

Onyx

The translucence of onyx.

Onyx is found in both Turkey and Mexico, and it can be used to make some beautiful design statements. Because Onyx is translucent, it can be back-lit, making it glow. Underlighting for a bar or under-lighting a countertop creates an amazing focal point. I have seen under-lit floating onyx sinks in powder rooms, kitchen islands that glow in the dark, and plant pedestals that light up outdoor patios.

Onyx is very soft and will scratch easily, so you should not install it in high traffic areas or where it’s apt to get scarred.

If you choose onyx for flooring, you should make sure that it has a tumbled finish or is installed as a mosaic so that it’s not too slippery. Onyx mosaic tiles mixed with glass or limestone make for an especially striking surface combination.

Parting Words of Advice

With all natural stone you want to clean it really well and re-seal about once a year, or call a professional to do it for you.

As a tile and stone designer and salesperson, I have worked on hundreds of floors, both bathrooms and kitchens. I’m always happy to share everything I’ve learned over the years.

My best advice is to have fun with stone and to make choices that will become classics.  Use metal accents or glass and patterns that you can install in unique ways.  Stone tiles can be cut into non-traditional shapes to create a custom look. Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern (shown above) is now available in an over-sized pattern for large rooms or patios.  If you’d like to experiment with them, watch for my upcoming website; it will feature more than 200 layout design patterns that you can play with online. The new website will launch before the end of the year.

Thank you to Nicolette for allowing me to share my love of stone. I have told her that posts on ceramic and porcelain will follow soon.

Backlit Onyx bar in Las Vegas. Image by Wendy Clarke.

Resource Links

On her blog, Wendy writes:

After designing hundreds of floors, backsplashes and bathrooms with clients, I left retail to write “Piece by Piece.”…I love sharing what I know with clients and miss sitting down with a pad and sketching out ideas. So please, pick my brain, share your thoughts and designs because this blog is for everyone who loves tile.

Wendy E. Clarke
Unique Design Resource:

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Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

June 6, 2009
Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

If the word “linoleum” conjures up stodgy images of granny’s old gray kitchen, think again! Linoleum has been rediscovered as an earth-friendly flooring that comes in a pleasing range of colors and also can be used to create custom patterns that match the colors of your room. With linoleum what’s old – nearly 150 years old – has become new again as we have become more conscious about the impact our interior choices have on our finite resources and our health.

This post, another in my occasional series on flooring, shows some of the beautiful things you can do with linoleum. I will also review lino’s history and the environmental advantages of this venerable, yet vibrant floor covering.

Today’s linoleum comes in both rolls and easy-to-install click-together tiles. As you will see below, there are also borders that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. Want a floor to set off a collection of African masks? No problem! You can choose an ochre red body mottled with earth tones, and set it off with a primitive patterned border like the one in the Farbo Marmoleum floor shown in the photo at left.

If you want the logo of your business styled into the floor of your home office, you can do that too. Linoleum can be custom-cut with water jets and inlaid to achieve curvilinear patterns like those shown in the Armstrong Marmorette floor below. Then again, maybe you just want a kitchen floor that’s easy to clean, comfortable under foot, and coordinates with that glass tile you got enthused about after reading last week’s blog. Because linoleum can be purchased in sheets, you can avoid the clean-up problems that come with maintaining tile and grout.

The design and color choices for linoleum are vast. The two manufacturers with the widest selection are Forbo, a Scandinavian company, and Armstrong. Forbo offers a palette of more than 100 colors and an impressive selection of 18 patterned borders and corners, which are shown below. Armstrong offers multiple lines of linoleum: Marmorette, a collection of 67 marbled surfaces; Colorette, a collection of 20 lively solid colors; Granette, 18 colors that have a granite-like coloration; Linorette, 18 deeply mottled patterns; and Uni Walton, a commercial collection of 9 strong, modern solid colors.

While linoleum costs more initially than its usual rival, vinyl flooring, it’s far more durable and cost-effective in the long run. A good quality vinyl floor will last around 15 years, but a linoleum floor can easily last 40 years! Plus, linoleum delivers health and environmental advantages that vinyl flooring can’t touch. More about those later. First, I will briefly look at the origins and history of linoleum – an interior material that was invented as the result of a fortunate industrial accident.

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders

Marmoleum borders

Linoleum was invented in 1860 when an Englishman named Frederick Walton failed to seal the linseed oil he was using to thin his paint. Walter was a manufacturer of a rubber flooring called Kamptulicon – a covering that was a cheaper alternative to the wood, tile, and stone floors of the time. Walton was interested in finding something cheaper and more attractive than Kamptulicon. When his linseed oil was exposed to the air overnight, a skin developed on top of it, and he wondered if that film might be useful as a flooring material. He began tinkering.

Walton invented a new floor covering and named it “linoleum” by combining to two Latin words: “linum” which means linseed and “oleum” which means oil. He received patents in 1890 and 1894 for it. Walton’s “floor cloths” were made from oxidized linseed oil, pine resin, and granulated cork on a hessian (hemp) backing. In 1868, Walton established a factory in Staines, England and was soon exporting to Europe and the US. By 1877, Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the linoleum capital of the world, with six manufacturers in that one town.

The first US company opened on Staten Island in 1877. In 1887, Scotsman Sir Michael Nairn founded another company that in time became Congoleum.

The popularity of linoleum floors continued to grow for decades. It was widely used in homes, and also in schools and hospitals. The lino floors installed in the thousands of schools built for the post-World-War-II Baby Boom crowd definitely stood up to traffic. Having visited many aging primary schools, I can testify that many of them still remain serviceable.

By the 1960’s, vinyl flooring became widely available, and linoleum faded from vogue. Armstrong, which had produced enough linoleum to pave a six-foot path to the moon and circle it four times, stopped manufacturing linoleum for a period of 25 years.

Some US companies even allowed their patents to lapse, an oversight that they came to regret decades later when ecological concerns prompted renewed interest in linoleum not only for flooring, but also for wainscoting, counters, and tabletops.

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

Linoleum and vinyl floors share some common characteristics and are considered as alternatives in similar installations. Along with cork, vinyl and linoleum are classed as “resilient floors.” This means that they are somewhat springy, will absorb impact and can “bounce back” to their original shape. (Within limits, however. High heels are the enemy of all floors, and because of the extreme pressure they exert in a small area, they can permanently dent any flooring material other than ceramic tile or stone.)

While these two types of flooring look and feel similar, I think that in terms of environmental impact and personal health, there’s not much of a contest between them. Both are available in a wide range of colors and patterns, and both are produced in sheet and tile forms. Both are good choices for people with dust allergies because smooth flooring, in contrast to carpeting, does not provide a good habitat for dust mites. But each has advantages and drawbacks. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons for linoleum and vinyl:

  • Linoleum is the green choice. Its ingredients make it recyclable and biodegradable.
  • Linoleum is far more durable. A linoleum floor will last two to three times as long as a vinyl floor. The pattern on a vinyl floor is printed on the surface and then covered with a clear “wear” layer. But both the outer wear and the pattern layers are relatively thin and can wear through, showing obvious abrasion in high-traffic areas. By contrast, the color in linoleum flooring goes all the way through. This means that the pattern on a linoleum floor cannot wear away.
  • Linoleum initially costs more, but is cheaper over the long run. Linoleum flooring squares run $6-$8 each while sheet vinyl runs $1-$5 per square foot and sheet-style linoleum costs about the same as high-end vinyl sheet flooring. Installation for linoleum may also be a bit higher. But when you’re figuring the lifetime cost of your flooring, double the price of that vinyl floor, because you’re going to have buy and install two of them during the lifetime of the linoleum floor.
  • There’s a lot of waste with vinyl flooring, and that runs up the cost. To get a seamless installation, you must often buy far more than you need. This is because the width of the sheet often will cause seams to fall in the wrong places.

    3407-donkey-island

    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”

  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

Since Frederick Walton’s time, the recipe for making linoleum has improved, but the ingredients haven’t changed much.

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat

Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

Contemporary linoleum contains cork powder for bounce and resilience, resins (which come from pine sap), wood flour, and limestone dust for hardness. Various pigments – which may or may not qualify as being green, depending on the manufacturer – are added to create pattern and color.

The basic ingredient is still linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, 80 percent of which comes from Canada, the world’s leading flax grower. To create flooring, linseed oil is oxidized. Other ingredients are then added, making a thick paste called linoleum cement. This is heated until it becomes spongy. Then it’s ground up, mixed with wood flour and other ingredients, applied to a foundation and rolled smooth. It is seasoned in drying rooms, then cured and hardened under ultraviolet light.

After you get it and expose it to light, linoleum will “amber”, subtly changing its color and yellowing slightly. This is most noticeable with white, off-white and light-colored floors. You can preview the effect of ambering, and see how your floor will look permanently, by placing a sample of the flooring in a window in the sun for an hour or so before installation.

Here, as always, are some links that will help you learn more about linoleum and see what’s available.

Links for Linoleum

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school28A couple years ago, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. This was the school I attended during the Eisenhower years – which seemed to last forever! Although Montview has been extensively remodeled, some of the original linoleum floors are still in place and still serviceable.

I remember the floor pattern well because I spent the better part of the third grade on crutches due to a ski injury. During the four months I waited for my broken leg to heal, I had to pay particular attention to where I placed my crutches, avoiding slippery puddles from melding snow. I can close my eyes and visualize many of the floor surfaces to this day!

Those floors didn’t look a bit like the fun and fanciful Forbo Marmoleum flooring shown here, but I bet the kids who play on this floor will remember it – and it may still be there when they come back to visit with their grandchildren in tow.

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Bamboo Flooring: Bright Green or Bamboozled?

March 26, 2009
Plyboo Flooring

Plyboo Flooring

Is bamboo flooring as green as grass, or have consumers been bamboozled by its marketing? That question has no simple answer, because the devil is in the details.

Over the past few years, swayed by durability and sustainability claims, thousands have installed bamboo floors. But a simple internet search turns up complaints like this one:

When my two year old drops a PLASTIC cup on the floor from 2 feet and it leaves a 1/8 inch dent, that’s a soft floor. They’ve done the same on my sister’s oak floor and it doesn’t leave a mark, much less a gouge…

How can experiences like this be reconciled with claims that bamboo is “as hard as oak”?

The answer is that bamboo floors can offer great durability – and even be used on basketball courts – if they are carefully chosen! The thing that makes the difference between fabulous flooring and an underfoot flop is maturity.

While I fully advocate taking the time to investigate the options and make a considered buying decision, I’m speaking here of the maturity of the bamboo, not the buyer. Although bamboo can grow to its full height in six months or less, it can take six years to “lignify” or harden. Flooring that has been made from green bamboo will dent more easily, as will flooring that has been made from the top, rather than the stalk, of the plant. In addition, bamboo flooring that has been darkened by being “carbonized” will be about 20% softer than natural bamboo flooring. Thus, darker colors are probably not a good choice if you have large pets or rambunctious children – an ironic point, since plenty of parents and pet owners have deliberately opted for dark colors to hide the dirt their little dears track in.

How green is bamboo, really?

Fused bamboo floor from Madgascar Bamboo company

Fused bamboo floor from Madgascar Bamboo. The company's bamboo plantation activities offset carbon emissions from its production facility. They purchase giant bamboo directly from local villagers creating significant economic opportunities for an extremely disadvantaged rural population.

There’s no doubt that the bamboo plant is fast growing and easily renewable. Some species can grow up to three feet a day! A bamboo plant – which is actually a grass, rather than a tree – matures in less than five years while many hardwood trees take 40 to 50 years to mature. Those facts give bamboo a leg up when it comes to sustainability.

In addition, the bamboo industry makes a positive contribution to humanity; 6 million people in China work with it and 600 million people worldwide rely on income from it.

On the other hand, bamboo generates a large carbon footprint when being shipped halfway around the world to us. Forests are being cleared to grow bamboo, and that creates a monoculture, plus erosion and loss of biodiversity. Although some claim that fertilizers are not necessary, they are being used to increase yield. And while the sustainability practices of hardwood growers are now reliably verified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), there’s little oversight of bamboo plantations in China.

So when it comes to being an environmentally and humanely responsible consumer, it would seem that the best advice I can offer is caveat emptor. In most cases, neither your flooring’s label nor your retailer is going to be able to tell you what part of the plant was used in making the flooring or how old the plant was when harvested – or anything at all about the people who made the flooring. Knowing the names of some reputable manufacturers, some of whom are named at the end of this post, is helpful.

Price is also somewhat of an indicator, and I would avoid the cheapest versions not only for reasons of sustainability and durability, but also for reasons of health. Bamboo flooring factories often use glues that include high levels of formaldehyde. That can cause serious health consequences, particularly those with asthma or severe allegies. (As noted in my post Killing Me Softly with Carpet, one of the reasons people choose hard flooring is to avoid the allergy problems and chemicals associated with most carpeting.)

How Much It Costs

Prices for bamboo flooring start at under $2 per square foot and can go up to more than $8 per square foot (2009 prices), not counting installation. Manufacturers of cheaper versions of bamboo flooring will “economize” by finishing the floor with less durable coatings. That economy is apt to be fleeting because the floor will scratch and marr, and you’ll find yourself wanting to replace it much sooner.

Horizontal bamboo flooring
Horizontal bamboo flooring
Vertical bamboo flooring
Vertical bamboo flooring

More durable bamboo floors are finished with a UV coating or an aluminum oxide finish. If your flooring has been finished with Klumpp lacquer, which is regarded as an industry standard, you will have an extremely durable aluminum oxide finish that is also certified to be very low in dangerous and toxic substances. Frequently, floors with a Klumpp coating will also feature a longer warranty.

Handsome Choices

Bamboo floors of all stripes are beautiful (and some do have stripes). The way the bamboo is processed creates some different looks, as well as different colorations.

Bamboo flooring can have either a horizontal or vertical grain, as shown in the images at left. The difference in pattern – with or without horizontal knees – reflects how the bamboo slats were laminated. The grain becomes horizontal when the pieces are arranged and laminated side by side. Vertical grain results from the slats being placed upright on edge prior to lamination.

As mentioned above, darker colors are produced by heating the bamboo. This carbonization weakens the floor somewhat, but depending on your lifestyle, that may or may not be a problem. Popular carbonized darker bamboos are comparable to black walnut, considered a soft hardwood, while tests show that lighter, natural colors are comparable to maple.

Striped or mottled coloration results from a manufacturing process in which long strips of bamboo are woven together and then compressed under extreme pressure and heat. This produces flooring that is harder and denser than traditional bamboo flooring.

Engineered Bamboo Flooring

The higher the ply count of a laminate bamboo floor, the more stability it has, which helps to protect against expansion and contraction from moisture. “Engineered” bamboo floors, such as the Plyboo floor pictured at the top of this post, offer greater durability and less expansion than other bamboo flooring. Engineered bamboo, like engineered hardwood, is the real thing, and it doesn’t look any different. It’s simply layered so that the plant’s grain alternates 90 degrees from layer to layer. This limits the amount the bamboo swells and contracts in response to changes in moisture. (You can learn more about engineered wood floors in my post The Devil has Zebrawood Floors.)

Strand woven bamboo flooring from Ambient

Strand woven bamboo flooring from Ambient

How It’s Installed

Your installation choices are largely the same as with any hardwood floor: the flooring can be nailed down, stapled, glued or “floated”. A floated floor is secured across its width by interlocking edges on the planks, then secured at the edges by the baseboard.

No matter which method of installation you choose, you will need to take some preparatory steps before installation. These include proper floor preparation, moisture testing and allowing the bamboo to acclimate. The moisture content of bamboo flooring needs to be within 2% to 4% of the moisture content of the subfloor, and it’s a good idea to let the bamboo sit at the site for about a week to make sure it adjusts to that degree.

While a click-together floated floor is relatively easy to install, you will need a contractor’s help to ensure that your subfloor is up to par. Poor preparation is frequently the reason for later problems with bamboo flooring. Your subfloor should be flat while with no more than 3/16 inches in variation over a span of 8 to 10 feet.

It’s also advisable to engage a contractor if your flooring is going to be nailed, stapled or glued. Gluing can be a bit tricky. The manufacturer’s recommendations for adhesive should definitely be followed, and water-based glues should be avoided, no matter who does the installing.

Caring for Bamboo Flooring

It’s best to vacuum or sweep to remove dirt and grit prior to cleaning the flooring. You should use a specially formulated wood cleaner rather than wax, oil soap or other household cleaners. When a spill occurs, soak up the liquid promptly.

resident of a bamboo forest
Resident of a bamboo forest.

You should protect any hardwood, bamboo or cork floor by putting coasters under furniture legs, using area rugs in high traffic areas, and allowing at least eight steps of transition tile or rugs at outside doors. Avoid walking on your bamboo (or linoleum) floor in high heels. A 100-pound woman in a stiletto heel actually exerts more pressure than a barefoot, 6000-pound elephant, which explains why high heels are the number one enemy of wood, bamboo, cork, linoleum and even some forms of tile flooring.

You should also be aware that sun and ultra-violet rays can accelerate the natural oxidation of bamboo. Dark-colored, “caramelized” bamboo products will lighten while uncolored bamboo products will tend to darken over time. To ensure that this natural process doesn’t leave tan lines on your floor, it’s a good idea to periodically rearrange rugs and furniture.

Good Sources of Bamboo Flooring

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Rhapsody on a Windy Night
(excerpt – full poem here)

…The lamp said,
“Four o’clock,
Here is the number on the door.
Memory!
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
Mount.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life…”

-T.S. Eliot

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Another Green Flooring Option: Put a Cork in It!

February 28, 2009

53a_cork_bigwickThis post is another installment in my series about flooring choices. Cork is a great “green” choice for those interested in a picking a sustainable and beautiful material that avoids the health and environmental problems I wrote about in “Killing Me Softly with Carpeting.”

Why Cork is Sustainable

No trees were killed in the process of making the beautiful floor shown at right! That’s because cork is actually the bark of a cork oak tree, genus Quercus suber. It can be stripped off of the tree every nine years or so without damaging the tree.

Cork oaks live up to 200 years, and their forests — “Montados” — are treasured and have been passed down through families in the Mediterranean areas where the trees grow. Most of those forests are concentrated in Portugal, which is home to 30% of the world’s cork trees and 70% of world cork production. (The trees have been grown in California, but they haven’t produced bark with the same qualities as the European trees, which come from Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco and France, as well as Portugal.)

In fact, you can feel good about choosing a cork floor, because in recent years, a flagging demand for cork — much of which was used to stopper wine bottles — has devalued the forests. As wine corks have been replaced with metal screw tops or plastic stoppers made from petroleum products, families have sold or abandoned cork forests and land, shrinking the trees’ available habitat.

Harvesting of a cork tree

Harvesting of a cork tree

That’s a shame, because the business of growing cork has been around for centuries. The first Portuguese regulations protecting cork trees were written by Portugal’s King Dinis in 1320, and cork floors have been used in churches and libraries since 1898, long before they were used in private homes.

Cork’s Natural Advantages

Cork contains a natural, waxy substance called suberin, which is not only waterproof, but also resists insects, mold and mildew. That’s great if you or you loved ones suffer from allergies. Suberin is fire resistant, and cork doesn’t release any toxics when it burns.

Cork is pleasantly springy under foot — much kinder to your back than a cement or tile floor — and because it’s filled with little air pockets, it insulates and absorbs noise. It’s also naturally flame-resistant. Structurally, cork bark is a cellular honeycomb structure of 14-sided polyhedrons; inside they are 90% air. Those qualities make it a nice choice for a kitchen.

Because cork is rather elastic, it can take foot traffic or heavy furnishings and still recover. The cork honeycomb contains about 40 million of cells per cubic centimeter, and they allow cork to be compressed up to 40% and still spring back to its original shape. That elasticity also makes cork forgiving enough to install over rather uneven surfaces. You can mount cork on top of a wood or linoleum floor, or you could also use it as an underlayment for ceramic, wood or stone.

Cork wall tile in Pumpkin color from AmCork

Cork wall tile in "Pumpkin" color from AmCork

Cork can be purchased in rolls or in tiles, and it can be mounted on walls, as well as floors. (I’m currently eyeing some beautifully colored cork tiles for a bedroom wall. The wall is cold because it’s poorly insulated and it’s on the outside perimeter of the house. That particular wall is also showing some cracks and has old, uneven plaster, so cork tile might be just the answer.)

Cork also comes in an astonishing range of colors and patterns, so it can enhance not only the tactile and audial qualities, but also play a starring role in a room’s design.

Care, Feeding and Lifespan

Cork floors, like cork trees, can be remarkably long-lived. With fairly straightforward care, your cork floor should last for a very long time. Your cork floor will be dressed with a wax, acryllic or ceramic coating, and it’s primarily this coating that you will be maintaining. (Ceramic is the most durable of these choices and UV-cured wax is the greenest.) Here’s all you need to do:

  • Vaccuum or sweep weekly
  • Damp mop monthly, but don’t use a lot of water
  • Use a mild soap that is PH-balanced, and make sure the surface is free of grit and sand
  • Avoid abrasive cleaners and oil or ammonia-based cleaning products
Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Downsides to Cork

You will note that the cautions above mention both grit and abrasives, and there’s good reason for that: Cork flooring scratches! The scratches usually marr the coating on top of the cork rather than the cork itself, but it’s still a problem.

Cork is soft – its Janka hardness rating is 200, harder than balsa but softer than pine. But cork is so different in character that it’s not entirely comparable. For example, cork actually has the ability to spring back and “heal” a cut so that you later can’t find it!

For this reason, you should pay attention to the durability of the coating on top of the cork. The wear finish on a cork floor may either be applied at the factory or in your home, and it’s usually varnish, oil or sealer that is hardened with ultraviolet light.

Cork is not a good choice for bathrooms because it will buckle when exposed to too much water. In addition, the darker shades can be prone to fading, particularly in sunny areas.

The Fine Green Print

The question of sustainability is always complex, and although I have extolled many of cork’s green virtues above, there is one notable drawback. The cork we buy must be shipped across the ocean, making for a large carbon footprint.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also a green material. The image above is cork. The one below is cork combined with other materials. Click the image above to visit Brainworks gallery.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also green. The image above is cork and the one below is a combination. Click the image to visit Brainworks' gallery.

The processing of cork is fairly simple. Cork sheets or pieces are cured, boiled and pressed. Scraps are collected for reuse, so almost nothing is wasted.

But toxics can definitely come in to the equation! Some cork flooring is made with binders, finishes or substrates that contain carcinogens. I would avoid cork composition floors because cork is sometimes combined with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) to make a resilient flooring that looks like linoleum. But while linoleum is a green material, vinyl is not! The vinyl manufacturing process may hazardous byproducts and the disposal may leach toxins into the environment. (The U.S. Green Building Council has acknowledged “strong environmental and human health concerns” with vinyl.)

The cheapest cork comes from China, and because it is subject to very little environmental regulation, it is likely to contain toxic glues.

Installation of Cork Floors

Like pre-finished wood floors, cork floors can either be installed as “floating” floors from panels that snap together with a tongue-and-groove system, or they can be glued down. Having your floor glued down will save you on material costs, but you will pay more for labor, and it can be harder to repair a glued-down floor should you later need to do that.

Some floating floors can be installed over hard surfaces — vinyl, wood or tile — but cork needs more stability that you would get from a carpet or soft floor. If you don’t have such a surface, you will need to have a contractor install a stable subfloor.

Cost and Suppliers

The cost of having a cork floor installed in your home runs from $5 to $10 a square foot, with the flooring itself priced about $2.50 a square foot (2009 costs). The best quality, non-toxic versions are within that range. The European Union’s standards for toxics are 100 times stronger than those here, so one good, non-technical way to find a cork floor that doesn’t contain harmfull chemicals is to search out European flooring.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

Here are some manufacturers and suppliers whose websites you might wish to browse:

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A Drunkard cannot meet a Cork
Without a Revery –
And so encountering a Fly
This January Day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in –
The moderate drinker of Delight
Does not deserve the spring –
Of juleps, part are the Jug
And more are in the joy –
Your connoisseur in Liquours

- Emily Dickinson

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The Devil Has Zebrawood Floors!

February 7, 2009

Hardwood Flooring: How Pricey? How Green?

I promised to write a series on flooring, and this is an installment on hardwood and engineered wood. In a later post, I will talk about cork and bamboo flooring. With hardwood floors, the devil is in the up-front details.

Inlaid wood floor made of reclaimed pine by Clark's Antique Wood in South Carolina

Inlaid wood floor made of reclaimed pine by Clark's Antique Wood in South Carolina

All four of the woody-feeling materials I just mentioned have a similar visual appeal and colors that range from pale blond through browns and reds to almost black. All four feel similar underfoot, and they are generally regarded as fairly pricey. However, whether they are truly expensive really depends on what time frame you reference. If you consider just the initial cost of installation and materials, chiefly the wood and an underlayment, then a wood floor is costly.

If you consider the “lifetime cost” of your flooring – not just how much it costs initially, but also how soon you will have to replace it – then a wood floor becomes one of the more economical flooring options. The Sharf-Godfrey Division of Phoenix Engineering in 2005 conducted a study of lifetime flooring costs, including labor, materials, maintenance and replacement. What they found is shown in the table below. Wood floors place in top third when it comes to long-term cost effectiveness!

Similarly, Sue Tartaglio, an interior designer at Burt Hill, a Pennsylvania architectural firm, also compared life-cycles cost of synthetic and natural flooring products in 2006. She found that the average installed costs for common types of flooring range from $1.45 per square foot for vinyl composition tile to $12 per square foot for bamboo and hardwood. Costs for linoleum, cork, rubber, fell in between. When useable product life, maintenance, replacement and labor were compared for a dozen flooring materials, hardwood, rubber and bamboo flooring had the lowest total cost after 15 years.

lifecycle-costs

Why such a range of costs?

The initial installation and lifetime costs of a true “hardwood floor” – one that is made of nothing but 100% natural lumber – can vary greatly depending on what kind of wood you choose and how it is finished. Your hardwood can be finished “on site” by a contractor who sands, stains and seals it in place, or it could come from the factory with all of that work already done.

If you suffer from allergies or chemical sensitivity, I recommend choosing a pre-finished hardwood floor. You will miss all the mess and dust of sanding, the smell of stains and finishes, and a week-plus of not being able to use your room. (You probably won’t miss it very much though!) A pre-finished floor for an averaged-sized bedroom or dining room can probably be installed in a day, but don’t forget that you will also need to allow time to move furnishings out of the room and to have the contractor put in an underlayment if your floor doesn’t already have appropriate subflooring.

Which wood to choose?

woodfinishes

Much of what’s at issue in choosing a specific type of wood depends on your personal taste. , and the color of a specific kind of wood, such as oak, can vary depending on the first. You have no doubt seen furniture offered with both an “antique” or “Mission” oak (brown) finish and also a golden oak finish. The chart at left shows very different shades for “light cherry” and “medium cherry.”

It’s also wise to think about durability and environmental considerations as well when making your choice.

You could pick a very soft wood like pine that will wear quickly, or a very hard wood like pecan or hickory. (Here’s a comparison of different species of wood as measured by the “Janka hardness test”.)

A rare wood like zebra wood – which used to be used inside Mercedes Benz cars – will be costly, of course, and choosing rare woods may have social as well as ecological consequences. Here’s a cautionary tale about that: A few years ago, while the Devil was wearing Prada, Prada’s flagship store in Manhattan was wearing a lot of zebra wood, which comes from an endangered tree in West Africa. Although some reforestation efforts have been made, they haven’t begun to keep pace with consumption of the wood. The store became the site of environmental protests for “crimes of fashion,” and the hubbub eventually led to a promise from Prada to never use wood from endangered forests again!

In addition to availability, you should also consider the possibilities of deforestation and transportation issues. The ecological impact of your choice also depends on how far the lumber has been shipped as well as the forestry practices used in growing and harvesting it. (More about green versus brown lumber harvesting later in this post.)

How much does a wood floor cost?

A standard solid-strip hardwood floor averages about $8 a square foot for materials, insulation and site finishing, and up to $12 a square foot for wide pine planks. That comes out to about $1,150-$1,750 for a 12 by 12-foot room. A pre-finished wood floor, which arrives from the factory already sanded, stained and sealed, will start around $8 a square foot installed, but is more likely to run $10-$14, which comes to about $1,140-$2,000 for a 12 by 12 foot room.

Custom borders and patterns are beautiful, but do significantly add to cost — as much as $1-$2 or more a square foot, adding at least $144-$288 for a 12×12-foot room. The more custom the project, the higher the additional expense. If you have to pull out old flooring, moving furniture, or have the contractor cut and trim to fit odd shapes or stairs, that will also add to the installation cost.

images-1

What kind of wood and style of boards to choose

The types of wood flooring we most often see are oak, walnut, pine cherry, teak and maple. The boards in those floors are usually less than three inches wide and are classed as “strips.” Wider boards, called “planks” are also available, and they generally look best in larger rooms. Wood floors also come styled as tiles too; you will see these most often as parquette. Parquette may be simple squares, or it may be set into more complex patterns, as shown in the photo at the right.

If you looked at the Janka hardness test link above, you know that hardwoods such as hickory, pecan, hard maple, and white oak are the most durable. White ash, beech, red oak, yellow birch, green ash, and black walnut also make floors that will last for generations. Cherry is softer, but still makes for a beautiful floor.

Some knotty problems

  • Cherry can change color - While most of the choices you will make about wood flooring are matters of personal style, you should also be aware of a few potential snags. Cherry wood, while beautiful, tends to “oxidize.” That means that it can change color when exposed to light. Years ago, before I learned all of this information about wood and other interior design materials, I chose it for a bedroom floor. About six months after installation, I was astonished to discover, when vacuuming my floor, that light colored rectangles had formed under both my bed and dressers! This fading stops after about six months, so it’s not likely that those silhouettes will even up later or go away. (Luckily, the room severely limits furniture placement, so it’s also not likely they will been seen by anyone who isn’t intent on vaccuuming the floor.)
  • Pine will dent and scratch because it’s soft. Then again, if you like a rustic look, you may find that a distressed texture adds to the floor’s character. Southern yellow pine is the hardest of the pine woods and works well in high-traffic areas. Heart pine, from the center of old-growth Southern longleaf yellow pine, is expensive and rare; for environmental reasons, I don’t encourage you to install it new. However, you may be able to find reclaimed heart pine, and it can be stunning.
  • Water is the enemy of wood. All natural wood shrinks and cells and swells in response to moisture, and that size change can cause gaps or buckling in a wood floor. Along the length of the plank, the change is only around one percent, but horizontally, perpendicular to the grain, the board can shrink or grow as much as 12 percent! This is why you should never install a hardwood floor in a bathroom or “below grade” in a basement. This is also why it’s important to consider whether the way the wood is cut will work well in a particular room. Because wood shrinks as a percentage of the size of the board, planks and parquet will cause larger shrinkage/expansion gaps than strip floors. (You’ve probably seen parquet floors that have cupped and buckled where water has leaked or spilled onto them. For that reason, parquet has proved to be a less than ideal choice for the coffee area of my church’s social hall.)

Is “engineered wood” flooring real wood?

Floor made of reclaimed wood by Black's Farmwood of California. They tear down old barns and recycle the wood! You can click on the image to visit their website.

Floor made of reclaimed wood by Black's Farmwood of California. They tear down old barns and recycle the wood! You can click on the image to visit their website.

Yes, engineered wood is the real McCoy, and there are some very good reasons to choose it. Chief among those is moisture. As mentioned above, wood contracts and expands in response to water. For that reason, you should never install a hardwood floor “below grade” – in a moist area like a basement – or in a bathroom or a kitchen. But an engineered wood floor can work effectively in any of those humid places.

Engineered wood is composed of layers of wood that are stacked, then glued together under heat and pressure. Most manufacturers use three or five layers and position them so that the grain of alternating layers run perpendicular to one another. This creates an equilibrium that ensures that engineered wood does far less shrinking and swelling. You can feel perfectly secure about how an engineered wood floor will hold up in your bathroom or basement den.

The fine green print

I’m sure you’ve shuddered at photos of clear cutting and aerial photos showing the devastation of a forest behind a scrim of trees that border the highway. The good news is that you can have a wood floor without becoming party to that. With a little planning, you can be sure your wood floor is eco-friendly. Here are two good ways to do that:

1) Choose a recycled wood floor. A couple generations ago, when forests were plentiful, many midsize buildings were constructed from old-growth lumber. That lumber can be reclaimed and will offer you a durable floor with exceptional grain and coloring. This spares the cutting of living trees and keeps old lumber out of landfills.

2) Don’t get “greenwashed.” Lots of timber producers and traders are making environmental claims. Some of them are true, but others are misleading or exaggerated. You and I can distinguish a genuine ecological forest product from one that has been “greenwashed” by depending on credible, independent certification for forestry and forest products. Forest certification is a voluntary process that ensures consumers that the wood products they buy were grown and harvested in a way that protects forests for the long term.

The Forest Stewardship Council is a not-for-profit organization that accredits suppliers whose programs conform to its internationally recognized Principles and Criteria,. They watch the “chain of provenance” for the wood, from the time it’s grown until the time it’s delivered, to ensure that ecological principles are followed. By providing a consistent and credible framework for independent certification efforts worldwide, they give us a seal of approval that we can count on.

A final note about health

Hardwood floors help improve indoor air quality because they don’t harbor dust mites or molds. That creates better air quality for everyone, but especially for the estimated 35 million Americans like me who suffer from allergies and/or asthma. (See my post, “Killing me softly with carpet.) In addition, an EPA study found that pesticides used in gardens and homes accumulate on floors and other surfaces in the home, but that wood floors greatly reduce the accumulation of toxins.

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Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website

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Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

- Robert Frost

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