From Carpeting to Cork

By: Dan McLeister
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Need help in selecting environmentally friendly flooring? Think green.

No, we're not talking Astroturf here. In this case, "green" means the use of environmentally friendly materials that are either readily renewable or made from recycled products. Several green certification programs and directories are available to help remodelers, builders and homeowners make that selection.

For example, the National Wood Flooring Association looks to The Forest Stewardship Council to certify wood flooring products as green when the material comes from forests operated under sustainable forest management practices. Other organizations, such as BuildingGreen Inc. (http://www.buildinggreen.com), publisher of the GreenSpec® Directory and Environmental Building News, qualify and list other green flooring alternatives, such as natural linoleum, cork and concrete.

Carpeting. The carpet and rug industry uses a labeling system to identify materials with fewer lovolatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the carpet fiber or in the adhesives used in installation. Such carpeting improves indoor air quality, a major consideration of green building. The Green Label Plus program, directed by the Carpet and Rug Institute, certifies environmentally friendly carpeting products and recently received a 2004 certificate of recognition from the California Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award program. The award program is a collaborative effort by the carpet industry and partners of California state and local government agencies.

CRI, says Alex Wilson, executive editor with BuildingGreen Inc., Brattleboro, Vt., has done a great deal reduce carpet emissions. He compares their efforts with building codes that define minimum standards for construction. "Both are situations where organizations raise the floor, rather than the ceiling."

Linoleum. Natural linoleum is widely promoted and specified in the green building community, Alex says. Natural linoleum is made primarily from linseed oil, pine resin, sawdust, cork dust, limestone and jute. It is an all-natural alternative to resilient flooring, including sheet vinyl and vinyl composition tile, which are made from polyvinyl chloride. It can get confusing, however, since the word linoleum is still used by some people to refer to vinyl flooring.

Proponents of natural linoleum say it does not require the same level of care that other sheet flooring.. However, Alex says, natural linoleum does have some negatives, such as a higher cost than most sheet vinyl products and a relatively high rate of VOCs.

Wood. Sustainable forest management makes it possible to harvest wood without any serious impact on the environment, because trees are a renewable resource that can be replaced time and time again, according to Ed Korczak, executive director of NWFA (www.woodfloors.org).

Cork. Cork flooring has become very popular with environmentalists and designers alike. Cork can be harvested every nine years from the same tree—a much faster rate of renewal than waiting for a seedling to grow large enough to replace another. It's tough, too, according to BuildingGreen's Alex. "I have been in a home where a cork floor was installed in 1950 and was still in good condition. The cork floor is comfortable for walking and cushions sound."

Concrete. Yet another option for green flooring is to make the concrete slab the finished for by using various types of decorative concrete techniques. Besides a concrete floor's obvious attributes of stability and durability, it can contribute to a home's energy efficiency as part of a passive solar system: It absorbs heat during the day and releases it as temperatures drop at night.

Remodelers even can offer several green flooring surfaces in the same home. A smooth surface, such as wood or concrete, could be used in active living areas and possibly partially covered with area rugs. Natural linoleum could be used in the kitchen, while carpeting is ideal for bedrooms, where it deadens sound and provides a soft, warm surface for bare feet.

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