Monday, June 8, 2009

Be Careful What You Step On

6 ways to set the stage

What's underfoot is a big deal. Your floors cover hundreds--maybe even thousands--of square feet, affect the look of every room, can use heaps of materials, and therefore come with a big price tag. Fortunately, they also offer you a chance to make positive esthetic and environmental changes. The key is to start by asking the right questions about materials, installation, durability, and maintenance. Soon you'll be on your way to a home that is as healthy as it is beautiful.

Top Tips

At home

  • Take a second look at your old floor. Often the greenest approach is to keep using what's already in your home. Pulling out and discarding the old floor takes its toll on the environment. If your floor is made of wood, can it be sanded and refinished to restore it to its original beauty? Does the carpet need to be torn out or would a deep cleaning brighten it? Can your stone floor be polished to its original luster? Can cracked tiles be chiseled out and replaced?

When shopping, ask about
    Green flooring options

  • Materials. What are the raw ingredients? Are they primarily renewable or nonrenewable resources? Where did the materials come from and where was the product made? Think twice before choosing products made from materials that were harvested or mined in countries with lax environmental laws. Also, products that come from far away use more energy for transportation than local products. What kinds of additives, glues, finishes or other chemicals were used in making the product? Will the flooring send potentially harmful chemicals into your home? Does the product bear a seal of approval from a reputable certification agency that vouches for the material's low emissions?

  • Installation. Consider the costs, not just of the materials, but also for the labor to install it, including preparing the subfloor if necessary. Some materials, like floating wood and bamboo floors, go in relatively easily and quickly and are forgiving about imperfections in the subfloor. Others, like sheet linoleum or concrete, require an experienced installer.

  • Durability. Is the product durable? Can you refinish it if it becomes scratched or worn? Long-lasting flooring products are better for your wallet because you're less likely to have to replace them and better for the environment because they're less likely to wind up in a landfill or incinerator.

  • Maintenance. What are the manufacturer's recommendations for maintaining and cleaning the product? Can it be easily cleaned using nontoxic, biodegradable soaps and does it have low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the finish?

Benefits... your health, and the Earth
Of the options we examine here, carpet has the most potential health issues. Most of the other choices can be compatible with high indoor air quality if you choose the right finishes and adhesives. As to their effect on the Earth, see individual sections on Bamboo; Carpet; Concrete, Stone, Terrazzo and Tile; Cork; Linoleum; Wood. your wallet
Measured by costs per year of the floor's life, linoleum is probably the least expensive of all the above flooring options. Its initial cost is moderate ($4 a square foot), it is low maintenance and can last half a century. Concrete can also be a low-cost option depending on the condition of your slab and what kind of finish you want. Carpet might look economical at first because you can find "bargains" for $3 a square foot or so. But good quality carpet costs more (up to $13 a square foot) and lasts only a decade or two. Most of the other options we'll explore here fall somewhere in the middle economically. Cork costs $5 to $9 a square foot. Hardwood floors run $5 to $12 a square foot and can be sanded and refinished many times. Tile and terrazzo are also long-lasting, but cost $8 to $35 a square foot. And don't forget installation costs, which can add an additional $4 to $10 a square foot to your flooring choice.

Common Mistakes

  • Ignoring the subfloor. Don't forget the environmental and health impacts of what's underneath the finished floor. It's usually plywood, oriented strand board (OSB), or another sheathing material laid over the floor joists. When installing a new subfloor, choose wood-based products that have no added urea formaldehyde, which can irritate your lungs and may cause cancer. If you can't find subflooring material that's specifically labeled as having no added urea formaldehyde, consider exterior-grade plywood. It's made with phenol formaldehyde, which emits less than urea formaldehyde. Or use oriented strand board (OSB), which is usually made with a (safer) polyurethane adhesive. Also look for wood subfloor materials with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

  • Using tropical hardwoods. Sometimes another layer is added beneath the floor to make a smoother surface. Often it's made from lauan and other tropical hardwoods likely to have been unsustainably harvested. Avoid such products unless FSC certified.

Getting Started

  • Before you move ahead, take time to find an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the old floor. Solid wood floors, especially from older buildings, are much in demand by organizations that specialize in deconstruction: they'll come to your home, dismantle the flooring (and other materials if you're doing a full-scale remodel), and resell the materials in their stores. If the deconstruction outfit is a not-for-profit organization like Habitat for Humanity's ReStores, they'll give you a donation receipt that you may be able to use to take a deduction on your income taxes.

  • If the floor isn't salvageable, is it recyclable? Most flooring materials are hard to recycle, but it's worth a call to your local recycling department, or check out

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing the type of flooring you've chosen? Just because a contractor has installed stone floors, for example, doesn't mean he or she will do a good job with a concrete floor. Linoleum installers should be certified by the linoleum manufacturer.

    • Call references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • Many handy homeowners do their own installation of floating floor planks. The planks have tongue-and-groove edges that snap together, and they go down right over the old floor (except carpet) without nails or glue. Floating floor planks are available in wood, bamboo, cork, and linoleum. Carpet, concrete, stone, tile, terrazzo, and sheet linoleum are typically professionally installed.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

  • Follow these links to find out more about flooring options:

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