The Devil Has Zebrawood Floors!

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.


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?


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.


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.


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website



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

6 thoughts on “The Devil Has Zebrawood Floors!

  1. Too bad we didn’t have your great “Lifecycle Cost…” chart when we made flooring choices in 2008. I’m looking forward to your articles on cork and bamboo. They’re delicious underfoot; hopefully they’re as green as advertised.

  2. Thanks Eve. I wish I had had access to all this information all this back in 2001 when I chose that cherry wood floor for my Downey Street house. If I had known that it was going turn out spotted, I would have chosen something else! Oh well, I suppose an interior designer is supposed to have had some expensive education courtesy of the School of Hard Knocks! And now, I can keep my clients from making those mistakes.

  3. I discovered a wonderful solid hardwood option from Morgan & Teach. Beautiful wide plank floors from certified forests, and an all-natural penetrating finish. No VOCs. The finish can be reapplied to high traffic or wear areas without the need to resand. Wipe on, wipe off. And no “plastic” looking poly finish. A beautiful, lifetime floor.

  4. Does anyone have any customer experience with LA based Morgan&Teach plank flooring? Their product looks wonderful. Are they a supplier who will work well with local installers and back up the product, not blame the installer? My wife is thinking of wide plank Brazilian Cherry, but is this really going green?

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