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Choosing Sustainable Flooring

Updated on June 26, 2016
Durable cast stone tile
Durable cast stone tile

Many of us can contribute to an environmentally sounder world by selecting sustainable resilient, wood, concrete or carpet flooring the next time we want to redo our kitchen, bath, basement or game room. But what constitutes a sustainable floor? And how will we know one when we see one? Let this architect explain.

Sustainable flooring begins with sustainable, or rapidly renewable, materials. Rapidly renewable materials are those that can typically be expected to be harvestable within the relatively short time period of 10 to 15 years. Rapidly renewable flooring materials can therefore include bamboo, cork, wheat straw, Monterey pine, fast-growth poplar, and a variety of linoleums and carpets, among others. Added to rapidly renewable materials are those that are considered readily available (and presumably of such quantity that exhaustion is extremely unlikely). Limestone is one of the readily available materials used quite often, particularly in the manufacture of vinyl composition tiles, and concrete is readily available almost anywhere.

The next factor affecting the overall sustainability of flooring’s raw materials is their place of origin, and thus the distance they must travel to manufacture and to eventual installation. It obviously requires far less energy and fuel to make use of raw materials close by than those that are distant. Most green standards used by industry now peg a locally sourced material as being obtainable within a radius of 500 miles or less.

Greater sustainability also results from greater use of pre-consumer and post-consumer waste product streams, as well as recycled products and materials. Pre-consumer waste is any waste generated by a manufacturing or fabrication process prior to the final product reaching the consumer. For example, trim ends removed from tongue-and-groove floor planking prior to it being packaged for sale would be pre-consumer waste. The tongue-and-groove floor planking removed from my outmoded kitchen would be post-consumer waste. Recycled products and materials may be of either pre- or post-consumer type, or may even be new product scrapped or salvaged without ever encountering a consumer. Find out more at rickzworld.

The use of pre- and post-consumer waste and recycled products places obvious burdens on manufacture and design. The varied, irregular, and inconsistent nature of waste products complicates manufacture. So too do practices aimed at minimizing scrap and waste from the manufacturing stream. And, for products like flooring, where finished surface appearance may be of paramount concern, waste and recycled product must often be limited to lower hidden layers of tiered or laminated products, or refinished with more appropriate surfaces or coatings.

Increasingly today, vinyl floorings are incorporating such disparate elements as reclaimed auto parts and recycled carpet materials. Many linoleum products are considered fully biodegradable, while most rubber floorings are manufactured from recycled post-consumer waste material. Flooring companies are also becoming much greener. Many are trending toward materials whose manufacture is less energy-intensive, and are seeking energy from such sources as clean renewable fuels, geothermal systems, and solar power.

An additional means of identifying a sustainable flooring product is to seek out manufacturers that practice sound resource stewardship and effective green principles — paying appropriate attention to all aspects of resource management: optimizing manufacturing efficiency, reducing resource and material waste, minimizing energy consumption throughout the entire product cycle, minimizing water use, minimizing hazardous waste, and reducing the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

But, in addition to their obvious economic goals and evolving environmental goals, manufacturers and installers of sustainable flooring should seek social goals as well. Are they committed to the social equity that commands fair business practices, fair wages, safe working conditions, tolerable work schedules, and such benefits as health care coverage, profit-sharing programs or pensions for employees?

How sustainable a flooring product may be is meaningless if no one uses it. The product must therefore offer the styles, sizes, shapes, colors, textures and designs that consumers seek. It must provide such features as durability, fire safety, ease and speed of installation, quietness, slip resistance, and relative ease of maintenance. (Maintenance is a significant factor, as up to 75% of the life cycle cost of resilient flooring may be attributable to maintenance alone.) It must not release VOCs or adversely affect indoor air quality. It must be a positive addition to the architects’ and designers’ palettes, aiding them in creating attractive and functional spaces. It must not place upon its owner or end-users an extreme or costly maintenance regimen over its life cycle. Floorings that place a minimal maintenance burden are generally those that are scuff or scratch resistant, can be dry-buffed, require minimal wet mopping, and require no polish, wax or stripper.

Bamboo, ipe, recycled wood, or fast-growth poplar?
Bamboo, ipe, recycled wood, or fast-growth poplar?
Cast, color, stain and polish concrete? or set tile?
Cast, color, stain and polish concrete? or set tile?


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    • rickzimmerman profile imageAUTHOR

      Rick Zimmerman 

      2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks, Ashley! The recycling of carpet fiber and even backing materials is a growing industry.

    • Ashley LeAnn profile image

      Ashley LeAnn 

      2 years ago

      Bamboo is an great product! At my company, CS4 Flooring, we have also been selling a lot of Carpet that is manufactured partially from recycled materials!

    • Maria Harris profile image

      Maria Harris 

      8 years ago from Houston

      Sustainable products are getting more attainable every day, and you can really create some beautiful room designs with them. Thanks for the great info.


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