A comprehensive guide to sustainable flooring
You’ve settled on a timber-look floor. But, at the shop, you’re inundated by brands, colours, grains, sizes, finishes and species of wood. There’s also engineered wood, floating wood, reclaimed wood, wood look-alike vinyl and tile, and environmentally sustainable bamboo to choose from. Overwhelmed by choice, you go home and attempt to study the brochures. Sound familiar?
Ronny Matzat is a Brisbane-based Director of The Green Building Institute and holder of a master of architecture and engineering from German university as well as a green building designer and founder of DSGN Kartell (a sustainable design collaboration). He recommends those considering flooring options start by assessing their individual needs and priorities. “A lot of people go cheap straight away and for the look,” he says. “They don’t look ahead. That’s very dangerous in terms of sustainability.”
Hardwood timber continues to be the best timber flooring option in terms of low toxicity, durability and lifespan.
Along with your budget and style preferences, consider function, durability, toxicity, installation, comfort, cleaning and ongoing maintenance, sustainability, your climate and life stage. For instance, if you have young children in the home, something low-tox and hard-wearing is important.
Matzat, who is originally from Germany, strongly advises all consumers to consider the health impacts of any flooring products. He warns that Australian industry standards can be misleading and lead to a false sense of security. “There’s a lot of greenwashing out there. The reality is they [manufacturers] fulfil certain numbers and tick certain boxes, and that’s why they get the green certification. It doesn’t mean they’re 100 per cent healthy.” Globalisation of products adds to the difficulty of obtaining information about them, he adds.
Matzat recommends requesting the product data sheet of any flooring product you’re considering. “The manufacturers and suppliers have to provide it if you ask for it,” he says. “A lot of consumers don’t know about this.” The product data sheet usually contains all the components used in the making of the product, including the types of glues used.
The popularity of timber flooring has spawned an ever-widening range of products. While they’re popular, Matzat suggests consumers avoid engineered timber and laminates.
Engineered hardwood flooring is a plywood base with a thin layer of solid wood on top. Laminates are pressed fibre board printed with a timber look-alike pattern. Such products use toxic glues which outgas chemicals into the home, Matzat warns.
Hardwood timber continues to be the best timber flooring option in terms of low toxicity, durability and lifespan, he says. However, one problem with timber is it involves chopping down trees.
Cork is naturally insulating (cool in summer and warm in winter) and easy to clean. Cork flooring is made from the granules left over from producing cork for the wine industry.
A more sustainable option is reclaimed or recycled wood. This can be obtained from demolition yards, old houses and some specialist outlets. However, the labour-intensive nature of reusing recycled wood deters many. “You need to take the old nails out, and take it [the wood] out of the house,” Matzat explains. “Depending on the quality, you have to sand it a bit, cut it to size, varnish and nail it to the floor.” This is where YouTube video tutorials can help out, he suggests.
“The biggest issue with timbers in general is the glue and finishing,” he says, suggesting 99 per cent of those on the market contain toxic chemicals. “You can have the greatest timber in the world, even locally sourced, but if you finish it off with something toxic, which normally happens, that’s an issue. Nobody really talks about this in the industry.”
One option is to install raw hardwood timber boards and apply your own bio-friendly finish.
Timber can be used in all areas of the home, however, you need to take great care in wet areas, he says. Others suggest avoiding timber in wet areas such as bathrooms.
A more sustainable product is bamboo. It’s typically harvested every four to six years and pruned rather than clear-felled, according to Richard Lock of Bamboo Floors. By comparison, European oak takes 200 years to grow to maturity. Bamboo is also hard-wearing, durable and easy to clean and, except for wet areas, is suitable for all rooms of the home.
According to Matzat, there are good and bad bamboo flooring products, with the best products the high-end ones. “It comes down to the quality and how it has been treated,” he says.
Glues are also an issue in bamboo floorboards, which are produced by fusing strands or strips of bamboo together using high pressures, heat and glue.
Along with looking at the product data safety sheet, Matzat suggests requesting a sample. “Bend it, see how it’s structured, hammer it a little bit to test the durability. If it’s a soft surface it won’t last long and will scratch easily.”
Most modern carpet is manufactured from synthetic plastic fibres like nylon, polypropylene or polyester, produced from the petroleum industry, Matzat says. Additionally, carpet requires glues to attach it to the flooring beneath. Another issue is it’s difficult to clean and maintain and can be a breeding ground for dust mite. While more expensive, pure wool carpets can be obtained from some carpet suppliers.
“In Germany and Scandinavia, nobody uses carpet,” Matzat says. “They use timber floors, they use polished concrete and put a rug on. I have never seen another country that does as much carpet as Australia or the UK. I always bring it down to being a British thing. British people love their carpets and that’s why it’s so established here.”
Like synthetic carpet, vinyl (technically known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is a plastic produced from petroleum. “Vinyl has been banned in Europe years ago but is used here for commercial spaces, even kindergartens and public hospitals,” Matzat, who has a background in plastics, says. “In my mind that’s highly illegal.” Vinyl outgases chemicals during application and gluing, but also on an ongoing basis to those living in the spaces. Outgassing is particularly enhanced by big temperature differences, he adds.
Once removed, vinyl is also toxic to landfill. “They can’t recycle or process it,” he says. “It stays on the planet as a toxic resource to the soil. Any plastic product we produce will remain on the planet for at least another 500 years.”
While it looks similar to vinyl, linoleum is manufactured from natural materials, including linseed oil, pine resin, wood flour, cork flour and calcium carbonate. According to a paper presented to the 41st International Association for Housing Science World Congress (in Portugal in 2016), linoleum is durable, antibacterial and hypoallergenic, easily cleaned and maintained, recyclable, has good sound insulation and low environmental impact. It’s great for high-traffic areas such as kitchens and is suitable in any part of the home. Modern linoleum comes in many funky colours and designs. On the downside, linoleum requires glues to attach to the floor beneath.
Ceramic or porcelain tile
These come in a wide range of patterns, colours and textures attractive to many sprucing their nest. On the flip side, this gives them a tendency to outdate, Matzat remarks. The gaps between tiles — often a good place for bacteria and mould to grow — can make them more difficult to clean than other flooring types, while they’re also susceptible to cracking and chipping, he says.
Both porcelain and ceramic tiles are made from clay, sand, water and other materials and fired in a kiln. Porcelain is just slightly less porous to water and considered the harder of the two. The tiles are generally applied to the surface atop a bed of mortar.
Ceramic and porcelain tiles are popular in bathrooms, kitchens and laundries, and suit any area including wet zones but, as they can be slippery and feel cold, aren’t commonly used in bedrooms and living areas.
Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree, common in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Morocco. According to Rob Harris, NSW state manager of Premium Floors Australia, “Cork is beautiful looking, soft and sound underfoot.” However, its biggest positive is it’s environmentally sustainable. “The tree we harvest the cork from goes on living,” Harris says. “Some of these trees can be thousands of years old.”
Cork is also naturally insulating (cool in summer and warm in winter) and easy to clean, he adds, explaining that cork flooring is made from the granules left over from producing cork for the wine industry.
While cork tiles generally need to be glued down, Premium Floors offers a floating floor that doesn’t use glues but clips together. Cork is suitable for all rooms of the home except wet areas, Harris says.
The most low-maintenance flooring is polished concrete, Matzat says. “It lasts forever. And, you don’t have to glue.” Polished concrete can be used in any floor of the home. It’s extremely durable, hence useful in commercial-grade floors, warehouses and garages, and, providing it has been properly finished, in wet areas.
Polished concrete is simply concrete that contains a chemical hardener to densify it. After being laid and cured, the concrete is polished with a sanding plate to bring the grain, gloss and smoothness out, then varnished, Matzat explains. It’s important to choose an environmentally friendly product, he says.
As it conducts heat well, polished concrete works well with radiant floor heating systems. However, it can also be very cold in winter and hard, a Choice article notes.
While non-toxic and very beautiful, natural stone tiles, such as slate, travertine, shellstone, limestone and marble, are unfortunately less seen as an indoor floor covering. Depending on the type of stone, it may come with a high price tag.
Healthy floor finishes
Deb Preston, founder of eco-friendly paint store Painted Earth (in Byron Bay), has spent 20 years researching the best non-toxic finishes on the market.
Finishes are applied to timber to protect it from staining, wear and tear, and enable cleaning. While oil-based polyurethane finishes are popular, they contain a cocktail of highly toxic ingredients. “They’ve been banned in Europe for quite a long time, but still possible here,” Preston says. “If you read the information on it, it says you should wear a full oxygen suit when you’re applying them.” When it comes to toxicity, the solvents (used to thin the oil and aid penetration into the timber) do the most offgassing and affect people the worst, she says.
Preston recommends either a natural oil finish or water-based polyurethane. “Water-based polyurethanes have improved a lot since they were first put out about 15 years ago, and are now equally hard-wearing as oil-based polyurethanes,” she says. Go for the lowest-VOC product you can find. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are chemicals that outgas at room temperature and are harmful to human health and our environment. VOC content varies considerably between products.
Unlike water-based polyurethanes, which form a protective film on top of the timber, natural oil finishes impregnate and harden within the wood. This makes for easier repair if you scratch the wood, Preston says. “You’re basically scratching the timber, not the film on top, and you can simply sand it lightly, rub a bit more oil in and repair it pretty easily.”
Natural oil finishes are increasingly popular and growing in choice. In fact, they’ve been around a long time and were the original floor finishes before polyurethanes were invented, Preston informs. Brands such as Livos and Rubio Monocoat are based on flaxseed oil and are certified food and toy safe, she says. “The Rubio Monocoat is more of a matte finish and it’s the only oil finish I know of that is totally solvent free. The Livos has more lustre to it.”
Stains & waxes
Most timber flooring oils such as Rubio Monocoat and Livos come in a range of stain colours, Preston says. A wax is a separate element. “A wax adds extra sheen, lustre and nourishment to timber surfaces that already have a finish on them. Wax is not really designed to be a finish on its own. Some people do that, but it wouldn’t be durable enough for a timber floor,” she says. Natural waxes include natural beeswax or carnauba wax.
Whatever you choose to apply to your floor, read labels and be discriminating. Preston warns that many products dubbed “natural” contain synthetic and toxic ingredients.
Once you’ve sorted your beautiful floor, it needs occasional maintenance. Finishes generally need to be reapplied every five or six years, depending on wear and tear, Preston concludes.