Category: Flooring

Flooring: Leave No Stone Unturned

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

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.

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:


Making Floors Concretely Beautiful

By Marcy Tate, Guest Blogger
Guest Blogger Marcy Tate

Most people associate concrete flooring with commercial flooring, imagining the gray floors in warehouses or the super-shiny floors in department stores. However, this association is quickly changing as concrete flooring is becoming an accessible, affordable and beautiful residential flooring option.

The benefits of residential interior concrete floors are vast. From endless design options to durability and low maintenance, concrete flooring is the rising star of residential flooring.

This striking inlaid look comes from a stained concrete floor. Photo credit:

Two myths associated with concrete floors are that they are louder or more echoey than other hard floors and that they are slippery. They are no louder than other hard floor surfaces and area rugs can be used to offset any noise. Concrete installers add a non-slip additive to the finishing of residential floors.

The Benefits

Concrete flooring is a smart and sustainable interior flooring option that offers many benefits:

  • Durability – Concrete floors can last a lifetime if maintained properly. There are no tears, staining, flood damage or signs of wear associated with concrete flooring.
  • Low Maintenance – Depending on the amount of traffic, concrete floors need to be resealed about every two years. This inexpensive process will help ensure a long life for your floors. Cleaning is easy; simply sweep and wash with vinegar or a gentle floor cleaner.
  • Economical – Concrete flooring allows you to save by eliminating the need to purchase an additional floor covering. When you choose concrete flooring the floor slab is the floor covering.
  • Improves Indoor Air Quality – Unlike carpeting, concrete floors do not harbor dust mites. For allergy sufferers, concrete floors can be a blessing.
  • Eco-Friendly – Less energy is used in production of concrete than any other flooring type. No trees need to be cut down and concrete is recyclable. Choosing concrete floors helps minimize waste. Other flooring types create lots of waste, such as the waste from carpet padding and carpet scraps. Concrete floors do not contain harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as many synthetic carpets do.
  • Stamped concrete floor looks much like slate for a fraction of the cost. Photo credit:

    Polished concrete floor with matte patterns takes on the look of marble. Photo credit:

    Concrete overlay floor. Photo credit:
    Living in Comfort and Joy is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marcy Tate to this post.Marcy Tate is a home improvement blogger at She has been working with concrete contractors for more than a decade.

    Living in Comfort and Joy does not sell advertising and receives no payment from the products and services that appear in its posts. Guest bloggers must meet the journalistic standards of this publication and are solely responsible for the content they write.

  • Energy Saving Capabilities – Concrete floors reduce energy consumption. Because they can make one feel cooler, there is less of a need to use the air conditioning. During the winter, concrete floors absorb the heat from the sun, helping to keep your home warm. Concrete floors work well in conjunction with radiant floor heating systems. These systems get installed under the concrete floor and are energy efficient. They decrease the need to use forced-air heating systems.
  • Cost-Efficiency – The average cost of concrete flooring is more than other residential flooring types but the return is higher as the floor will never need replacement. The higher costs are from the finishing of the floors, often completed by a concrete artisan. The average cost for concrete floor installation (including the decorative finishing) is about $15-$18 per square foot.

Beautiful Design Options

There are literally endless design options. Concrete floor artisans can design and create a floor to your specifications.

There are five ways by which concrete floors are finished:

  1. Polished Concrete – Also known as honed or burnished concrete, polished concrete floors have that shiny, waxed look. This is the most basic type of concrete floor installation. Dyes can be included in the finish to add color.
  2. Acid Stained Concrete – Acid and water are mixed with metallic salts. This method can be applied in a variety of colors.
  3. Scored Concrete – Scored concrete is a popular choice for homeowners who install concrete flooring. Circular saws are used to create shapes and patterns by making shallow cuts in the surface.
  4. Stamped Concrete – This method results in a textured appearance to resemble other flooring types such as tile, wood, stone or brick. It’s often used for outdoor flooring (such as for patios). Stencils can also be used to create distinctive shapes and patterns.
  5. Concrete Overlays – Overlays consist of polymer coatings or overlays onto an existing concrete floor. This option is only for structurally sound floors.


Resource Links

Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

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.

    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


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.

Bamboo Flooring: Bright Green or Bamboozled?

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


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


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

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

-T.S. Eliot

Another Green Flooring Option: Put a Cork in It!

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:


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

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

Killing Me Softly with Carpet

If you have dust allergies, carpet is a killer! Carpet can also be problematic for those with chemical sensitivities. Because they play on the floor, children may also develop reactions to chemicals in carpeting.

A silk rug from Persia

When I retrofitted my own home with the goal of eliminating the habitat it was providing for dust mites, the microscopic vermin that are the true cause of dust allergies, one of the most important steps I took was to remove the carpeting from both bedrooms.

Indeed, the choice of flooring is key to multiple aspects of your home’s comfort. In addition to the impact it has on the beauty of your rooms (or lack thereof), it affects the ease with which you can move around. Your carpet can quiet noise transmission and it can also help with heating and cooling your rooms.

But carpet can put a major dent on your budget. It also has an environmental footprint that can dig pretty deep — some carpeting will persist as long as 500 years in a landfill!

This post is going to be the first of several that talk about the pros and cons of different kinds of flooring. In this series, I will be discussing not only carpeting – the topic of most of this post – but also linoleum, synthetic vinyl sheet flooring, vinyl composition tile (VCT) and some healthier alternatives to VCT, plus wood, engineered wood and bamboo, and various types of tile, terrazzo and stone.

Let’s start with a magic carpet ride!

 To Carpet or Not to Carpet:
Now that is a Big Question!

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not anti-carpet. Because of my particular health needs, I’m personally better off with hard flooring in my home, and it took a bit of time for me to get used to stepping out of bed or the shower onto a cold floor. I had to learn to put a throw rug next to the shower before I go in and to keep bedroom slippers beside my bed.

A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined
A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined in cleaning

But I still remember fondly the gray and white berber-style wall-to-wall carpeting in my Eddy Street house – not to mention the ivory, brown and russet hand-made Berber rugs I brought back from a trip to Morocco. They were warm and springy, sound absorbent and really beautiful.

A well-chosen carpet, one picked with an eye to your lifestyle, health needs, budget, cleaning habits and personal style, can be one of the bright spots in your décor.

But as I have alluded, there’s a dark side to carpeting. Most conventional carpeting is made with a stiff backing; the fibers are glued and/or woven into the backing. That backing commonly contains around 130 chemicals, 30 of which are known to cause cancer!

In addition, the stain-resistant and moth-resistant coatings that go onto the top of the carpeting also contain chemicals. The carpet’s backing and coatings can include benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde, which get into our lungs and bodies by “off-gassing.” The chemicals vaporize from off of our rugs, and we then inhale them or absorb them through our skin. While the chemicals are not there in huge amounts, they nonetheless are there – and that’s a problem if you are chemical-sensitive.

Sisal rug from Cost Plus World Market
Jute rug from Cost Plus World Market

For those who have “dust allergies”, there’s an additional problem: Carpeting and upholstery provide a great habitat for dust mites, microscopic creatures that like dark, warm places. Humans are not actually allergic to the dust mites, but rather to their lack of potty training. The nasty fact is that dust mites feast on bits of skin and hair that flake off of our bodies, and in return for providing them dinner, they pay us back by sh**ing on our furniture, in our beds and on our carpets! It’s actually the mite’s poo that makes it mighty hard to breathe.

There are a variety of products that can be used to mitigate dustmite dander, and it’s easy to find online at the National Allergy Supply. (I have had very good experiences in ordering all kinds of allergy-management products from this company, which was started by a couple who had a child with allergies.)

Tips on Common Carpet Problems:
First, Choose the Right Fiber

If you don’t have health problems that mitigate your choices and want to carpet a room (or rooms), what kind of carpet should you choose? The answer to that depends a lot on your lifestyle. Below are some carpet-choosing tips that will help solve common problems.

Kids, dogs, cats and accidents – the most durable, cleanable and dirt-hiding carpets are nylon, specifically the newer formulation of nylon that the fine print identifies as 6.6 nylon. (Nylon is a man-made fiber and the number designations refer to their molecular structure.) Nylon is also advantageous in that it repels mildew. If you’re sometimes clumsy like me, you might also want to avoid carpets that contain olefin, particularly in any area where you might spill something oily. Olefin is a man-made fiber that is durable and inexpensive, but “oleophilic.” What that means is that this fiber loves oils and just eats them up! I had to replace the wall-to-wall carpeting in my dining room after knocking over a bottle of salad dressing. The carpeting contained olefin and three different professional carpet cleaning firms were unable to persuade the carpet to let go of the vegetable oil in that salad dressing!

Another good fiber choice is polyester. It wears well, is easy to clean and repels water-based stains. Polyester is man-made and has been engineered to look and feel like wool, but it is much less expensive. Polyester also wears well.In high-traffic rooms, a good solution may be the choose carpet tile rather than wall-to-wall carpet, because if “sh** happens” or other spills occur, you can simply pull up and replace the damaged sections of the carpet. (It’s a good idea to order 10% more carpet than you actually need for the initial installation if you plan to do this. That way, you’re not in danger of being later unable to match the carpet tile that is installed on your floor.) Carpet tile comes in lots of beautiful colors and patterns; look around when you’re in a hotel, auditorium or restaurant, and you’re very likely to see carpet tile.

Warmth, softness and durability – I would definitely recommend choosing wool or a wool blend! Most synthetic fibers have been created to mimic wool, a fiber that is naturally buoyant, and contains lanolin, a natural oil that sheds dirt. Wool is also reasonably easy to clean, provided it’s done correctly. (I unfortunately destroyed my ivory-colored tribal Berber rug in the process of trying to remove a stain left after my cat deposited a hairball on it.) For some good tips on caring for a true Moroccan Berber rug, I recommend the information on the Building Materials 365 website. Because wool traps pollutants in its fibers, wool carpeting acts as a natural air filter and helps to keep indoor air free of contaminants. Wool is also a good choice for moisture areas because it discourages the growth of bacterial growth. Except for the problem of dust mites living in it, it is non-allergenic.

Avoiding toxics – Again, wool is a good choice, as is silk. Cotton is usually a bit too soft for carpeting, and it can be hard to get stains out of even all-cotton throw rugs. Of course, every natural and every man-made fiber has strengths and weaknesses, and often the best choice is a blend that combines the advantages of multiple fibers. Most of the toxics in carpet come from the backing and/or the glue used to secure the fiber to the backing. You can avoid the chemicals by choosing a carpet in which the soft fibers – which might be a combination of wool and nylon or another synthetic – are woven through the backing. The backing can be made of jute, or a blend such as jute and nylon. Carpets constructed in this way cost a bit more, but they are extremely durable and tend to last because they avoid the problems that sometimes occur when the glue breaks down and begins to flake off the backing. There are two brands of carpeting that are made in this way, without glue and without toxics in the back itself. They are Nature’s Carpet and Earthweave.

Bamboo, which is actually a kind of grass, is another fine, natural choice. Bamboo is eco-friendly because the plant grows quickly and thus quickly replaces itself after it is harvested. Fiber area rugs are also biodegradable, which means they won’t sit around in landfills for centuries.

Rugs made of sisal, seagrass, mountain rugs, jute and coir, though usually too scratchy for some life styles, are also used in making natural rugs that are durable and attractive. Although the fibers themselves are natural and non-toxic, watch out for the backing materials. Find out whether the top of the carpet is glued to the backing, and whether that glue contains toxic chemicals. Also note that rugs made from natural fibers can be damaged by water, and they may need some cleaning. This means that they are not good choices for moist rooms or areas where spills are likely.

A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown
A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown. Bamboo rugs can be very handsome; both the bamboo slats and borders come in a variety of colors.

Mitigating noise – As Paul Simon lamented, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” and that can cause some hard feelings. A good carpet and carpet pad beneath it can definitely help to cut the noise transmitted through floors into ceilings if you choose wisely.

When choosing your carpet, you should buy the best-quality you can afford and also make sure to buy a high quality carpet pad. Indeed, the carpet pad that goes under the carpet and above your sub-flooring is as important as the carpet itself. The carpet pad will support the carpet and insulate the floor, as well as cutting down on foot traffic noise. Your carpet pad should feel thick and resilient, but it shouldn’t be thicker than 7/16 inch, because in some cases, too much cushion can actually void a manufacturer’s warranty.

Moisture-laden rooms or floors – If you are installing room in a basement or a room with high humidity, you need to pay particular attention to what is beneath the pad and the carpet – the subfloor. If the relative humidity is level is over 60 percent, your carpet and/or walls can develop mildew. Moisture vapor will also migrate from one part of the room to another, particularly when different temperatures on various sides of a wall, floor, or ceiling, produce vapor pressure. That vapor, unless prevented by vapor retarders or barriers, can move through floors, walls, and ceilings. If this is a problem in your house, it’s a very good idea – one that will save you money in the long run – to ask a contractor to install a vapor barrier on the floor. Several different types of moisture blocking “substrates” are available in difference price ranges.

Bright sunlight, the need to avoid fading – If your carpet is going to sit where it receives sunlight for long periods of time, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how it was dyed. A carpet that is in front of large sliding glass door in direct sun is going to fade unless you to install some type of sun shade or sunscreen on your windows. However, some carpets will fade less than others. “Yarn dyed” and “solution dyed” carpet fibers are apt to hold their color better than fibers that receive their color through what’s called “continuous dying.” The difference is that, in solution-dyed polyester or nylon fiber, the color is part of the soup that is extruded to make the fiber. In yarn dying, the fibers are colored after the wool is spun, but before it is woven into the carpet. In “continuous dyeing,” the color is applied after the carpet is tufted, and there is experience to indicate that carpets colored that way are less colorfast.

Budget considerations – When determining how much you want to spent on your carpet, you should factor in not just the initial cost of the carpet, but also “lifetime costs” for cleaning and for how long the carpet will last before you want to replace it. Conventional mid-range and high-end carpets will last and look good for 12 to 15 years. But that durability comes at a price: Mid-range carpets range from $25 to $35 per yard, while high-end carpet typically costs upwards of $45 per yard. (For this reason, the lifetime costs of wood, bamboo or linoleum flooring can actually be less than carpeting.) Toxic-free eco-alternative carpets range widely in price from the inexpensive Cost Plus jute rug shown here (under $50 for a 3×5 foot rug) to over $100 per square foot for high end designer carpets such as the Alicia Keshishian and Aga John carpets shown above.To extend the life of your carpeting, you should also carefully consider where it’s placed, particularly if it’s light in tone or single-colored. Experts have found that it takes at least eight steps to knock grit and dirt off the bottom of your shoes, and that means wear and dirt on rugs placed near entrances. If you do want your carpet to last and look good, and you don’t want to ask your guests to take off their shoes at the door oriental-style, then you should consider using area rugs or placing tile in the transitional areas that lead from the outside to carpeted areas.

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A Few Words to Ponder

About some words that were said
There’s been some hard feelings here
And what is more
There’s been a bloody purple nose
And some bloody purple clothes
That were messing up the lobby floor
It’s just apartment house rules
So all you ‘partment fools
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor

-Paul Simon