Written by Jill Connors
Styled by Adam Fortner
Photographed by Eric Roth
Produced By Ann E. Collins
Green is the new trend in floor coverings—earth-friendly materials that are as easy on the environment as they are on the eyes. Not only are the options presented below—adobe, bamboo, certified wood, cork, and linoleum—primarily made from sustainable resources, but they also emit little if any volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxins that can cause adverse reactions ranging from dizziness to asthma. (To retain these environmental benefits, be sure to specify that the flooring should not be installed with adhesives that give off VOCs or have finishes that contain them.) Once sealed, our quintet of materials are bacteria-, mold-, mildew-, and stain-resistant. And although some are sourced from afar and their transport results in fuel expenditures and carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, each is still gentler to the earth—and kinder to your health—than other standard flooring materials. Following is a breakdown of the selects.
Description: A durable mixture often consisting of clay, sand, and straw. Installed in three layers: a thick, tamped-down base; a thin, troweled-on layer; and a brushed-on topcoat. Sealed with natural oils and beeswax. Colors range from concrete grays to brick reds to barrel browns; custom tints available.
Pros: Retains heat very well. Insulates and does not fade in sunlight. Offers a truly seamless look and can tightly abut—or even continue up—walls and stairs. Can be laid over existing subflooring. Typically sourced locally, therefore little fuel expenditure.
Cons: Installation is expensive and labor-intensive. Not do-it-yourself friendly, yet few adobe specialists available. Can take up to a month to install and dry. Cannot be laid over an existing slab. Susceptible to cracking. Standing water can cause surface oils to blister; can erode when exposed to continuous moisture. Not good for extremely wet or humid climates, for heavy-traffic areas, or for kitchens and bathrooms. Time-consuming to repair.
Maintenance: Keep dry and sweep weekly, damp mop monthly, and oil and wax annually. Scratches and cracks can be sanded or patched with wet adobe, then reoiled, rewaxed, and buffed.
Price Range: $15 to $20 per square foot (installed).
Description: Wood harvested in a way that preserves biodiversity and natural habitats, and meets the standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council, a third-party watchdog group. Wide range of colors, patterns, and species available.
Pros: Long lasting. Available in unfinished and prefinished forms, and in nail-down, glue-down, and floating versions. Can be laid over existing flooring. Most repairs easy to do.
Cons: Difficult to install and refinish yourself if using solid hardwood. Costs more than conventional lumber. Can expand or contract in extremely humid or arid conditions. Can fade in sunlight. Limited stock and poor distribution systems can mean a three- to six-week wait time. Like uncertified wood, some species contain resins that can cause contact dermatitis and respiratory distress. Importing exotics results in significant fuel expenditures.
Maintenance: Keep dry. Sweep with a fine-bristle broom or vacuum with a soft brush attachment weekly; damp-mop regularly. Refinish at first sign of wear. Repair cracks and gouges with wood filler, then stain and seal.
Price range: $4 (soft woods like pine) to $8 (exotics like teak) to $12 (premium grade hardwood) per square foot.
Description: Slabs or tiles made from the ground-up bark of cork oak trees. Hues and patterns vary, from uniform beige to woodsy walnut swirls to deep red. Can be custom-made.
Pros: Extremely durable. Helps insulate, maintain room temperature, cushion steps, and dampen sound. Water resistant; retains shape in humid, dry, hot, and cold climates. Will return to form if compressed. Available in unfinished and prefinished versions, and in glue-down and floating types. Can be laid over existing flooring; appearance close to seamless. Easy to install and repair.
Cons: Can be torn by sharp objects, so not ideal for homes with pets. Can be bleached by sunlight. Not suited to very wet areas like bathrooms or kitchens, or anywhere there is standing water. Demand beginning to outstrip supply, boosting costs and wait times. Imported from the western Mediterranean, resulting in large expenditures of fuel.
Maintenance: Keep dry and vacuum weekly; wipe down with an antistatic cloth to discourage dirt and dust. Reseal wax floors and recoat polyurethaned floors once a year. Price range: $5 to $8 per square foot.*
Description: Biodegradable mixture of powdered cork, wood flour, ground limestone, linseed oil, pine rosin, and pigments typically affixed to a jute backing. Wide variety of colors, patterns, and textures, from solid primaries and pastels to wood grains to mock crocodile skins.
Pros: Easily available. Long lasting and retains shape in damp, dry, hot, humid, or cold conditions. Resistant to fading; near seamless appearance. Ideal for bathrooms and kitchens. Can be laid over existing flooring. Cushions steps. Strengthens over time. Available in glue-down and floating versions. Tile form is easy to install and repair.
Cons: May show drag marks, abrasions, and scratches, so not suited for homes with pets. Hot water can discolor surface. Sheet versions can be difficult to install and repair. Often shipped from Europe, which requires significant fuel expenditures.
Maintenance: Sweep or vacuum frequently and damp-mop as necessary. Remove marks with a nylon kitchen pad; use a scouring brush on stubborn stains, then reseal. Recoat as needed.
Price range: $5 to $9 per square foot.*
*Not including installation, which varies by specific product and region.
NOTE: All five materials are compatible with under-floor radiant heating.