Making Green-Safe Floors

There are several floor-covering options available for green-minded consumers who are redecorating or building homes; here’s a brief look at some of them

06-01-2007 // Gabrielle Redford

WHEN PAUL SHAHRIARI bought a house under construction near Atlanta in 2006, he wanted to install different flooring than that offered by the builders. As founder of Greenmind Inc., which counsels clients on green building strategies, he preferred products that are in keeping with his professional environmental standards. But when he went looking for eco-flooring materials, he discovered that choosing them wasn’t as simple as he had hoped.

“The biggest debate in the industry is what it means to be environmentally friendly,” says Shahriari. “You can say bamboo is rapidly renewable and prefinished, so it won’t off-gas harmful chemicals into my home. But some bamboo manufacturers cut down hardwood forests to plant bamboo, and getting the flooring to my home requires burning a lot of fossil fuels. So you have to ask, ‘At what point does the good offset the bad?’”

That’s an important question—one that green-minded consumers are increasingly facing. “If people go looking for the perfect green flooring material, I’m not sure it exists,” says Nadav Malin, a resources expert with the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group that encourages construction of buildings using renewable resources, energy efficiency and few toxic chemicals through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

While the perfect green floor product may never exist, there are a number of good options available to homeowners who take time to investigate the marketplace. To help get you started, following is a brief rundown of some of the available eco-friendly flooring materials:

  • Hardwood: Consumers can be assured of installing sustainably produced wood flooring by buying products that carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. Such products are made from trees harvested in woodlands certified by the FSC—an approval process that requires forest operators to grow trees using sustainable practices to protect wildlife habitat. To date, the FSC has certified more than 200 million acres of forestland worldwide. “Customers can find engineered and solid wood flooring options in a wide variety of domestic and imported options,” says FSC official Katie Miller. For a list of available products, visit www.fscus.org.
  • Bamboo: An alternative to hardwoods, bamboo is actually a grass that can be harvested without killing the plant. Some species reach maturity in as little as three years and are so hardy they can be cultivated largely without pesticides or fertilizers. As Shahriari acknowledges, though, there are some transportation and fair trade issues that detract from bamboo’s environmental friendliness. Look for products made with nontoxic adhesives and preservatives. For more information and products, see www.buildinggreen.com.
  • Rubber: Recycled rubber flooring is made from chopped up old tires—and with 270 million tires discarded every year in the United States and Canada alone, there is no shortage of raw material. To Market, an Oklahoma-based company that specializes in eco-friendly flooring, manufactures products made from 100 percent post-consumer-waste rubber and other recycled materials that can be cut into interlocking pieces, so they can be installed without using toxic adhesives. “We’re talking about tire rubber, so it’s easy to clean and long lasting,” says Flori Hendron, the company’s vice president of design. The downside? “Some chopped up tires release chemicals into the air that you might not want to breathe,” says Malin. If possible, check the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) a flooring product emits. (To Market’s products release little or none, according to tests conducted by an independent laboratory; visit www.tomkt.com.)
  • Cork: When done properly, removing the bark from the cork oak tree does not damage the plant itself. “Harvesting should occur only when the tree reaches maturity, after about 20 years of growth,” says Cees Slegtenhorst, director of Naturo Vloeren B.V., a venerable Dutch cork manufacturer. “No more than 30 to 40 percent of the bark should be removed during the process to ensure that the trees are protected.” Floor covering made from the bark, adds Hendron, “is naturally hypoallergenic and has exceptional properties, including thermal insulation, durability and resistance to mold.” For more information, see www.buildinggreen.com.
  • Modular carpet: Carpet traditionally has been an environmentally unfriendly product, requiring large quantities of fossil fuels to manufacture and emitting high levels of VOCs and other toxins. But in recent years, some carpet manufacturers have been changing their practices to produce products made with recycled materials that don’t emit elevated levels of contaminants. “The point is to be so successful at this, in an environmental and an economic sense, that we become a model for other industries,” says Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface, a leader in the industry’s environmental movement. Interface sells residential carpet tiles, which are manufactured with as much as 80 percent post-consumer recycled content and require no adhesives to install (see www.interfaceflor.com). Other companies also now manufacture carpeting made with high percentages of recycled materials. To find products that have been tested for emissions, look for the Carpet and Rug Institute’s “Green Label” and “Green Label Plus” certification mark (see www.carpet-rug.org).

For his part, Shahriari decided to use bamboo flooring for the master bedroom, Green Label carpeting for his daughters’ bedrooms and FSC-certified hardwood flooring on the main level of the home. “The builder kept saying his flooring is included in the price of the house. And I kept saying, ‘Yes, I know. But this is what I want,’” says Shahriari. “Even as someone knowledgeable about this industry, it was difficult to walk my builder through these changes.”

Gabrielle Redford is a senior editor at AARP magazine.

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