Decorating your home with natural materials brings elements of Mother Nature indoors and lends an earthy, contemporary tone to a room. There is a wide range of natural flooring materials available, but when choosing products for use in a natural home it’s important to remember that natural doesn’t always mean sustainable. Learning more about each natural product you’re considering will help you make wise decisions about the effect your home has on the earth.
Not all natural materials are good choices for floors because some weather better than others. Look for materials that are both durable and long-lasting. Flooring in high-traffic areas should be hard and resistant to long-term wear. Floors in kitchens and bathrooms, where moisture is an issue, should be non-porous and have acid-resistant sealers applied to help prevent stains.
While some types of natural flooring tend to be harder on the earth than others, each individual product is harvested and manufactured differently. A closer look each product’s origins reveals that some manufacturers take extra steps to create a more earth-friendly material, whether it’s by using less-invasive harvesting processes or renewable energy during fabrication.
With our remodeling projects in San Jose, we’re seeing an increase in homeowners interested in both traditional natural flooring materials, such as natural stone and hardwood, and trendy, sustainable flooring materials like cork and bamboo. As you’ll see, each one has its pros and cons as a flooring option, including its benefits and drawbacks for the planet.
Hardwood floors. While wood flooring can make a room look very earthy and natural, it’s not always the most environmentally-friendly option. Wood has remained popular as a flooring material for centuries because it’s long-lasting and adaptable to a wide range of spaces and interior styles. Wood is arguably a renewable resource, but it takes decades, and sometimes centuries, to replenish itself.
Earth-conscious homeowners who want the look of wood floors in their homes can seek out wood planks that were locally harvested and manufactured or sustainably harvested from managed forests. Reclaimed wood is gaining great popularity, and locally reclaimed wood may be available in your area. While not a true hardwood, pine is one of the most plentiful types of reclaimed wood because it was traditionally low-cost and commonly used in old barns and industrial buildings around the country.
Bamboo. Although usually categorized as a wood when it comes to flooring surfaces, bamboo is really just a fibrous plant. Its ability to rapidly replenish itself makes it very popular as a renewable building material, but bamboo also carries some hidden environmental costs. Bamboo floor planks must be manufactured, a process that uses water and energy. Bamboo also requires a lot of water to grow. While its production in the United States is on the rise, bamboo flooring and other home products are mostly manufactured overseas, bearing the added environmental cost of transportation.
Yet bamboo flooring is still a more sustainable choice than most other options. And well-made bamboo planks are just as hard, durable, and long-lasting as oak, making them an excellent alternative to hardwood floors at a comparable price. Beware of inexpensive bamboo flooring, as the cheaper products tend to be softer, easily damaged, and a poor choice for floors.
Cork. Cork has been used in commercial interior design for more than a century but has been on the upswing in homes over the last decade because of its reputation as an earth-friendly product. Cork floors are a good choice for the eco-centric homeowner, as cork is a rapidly renewing resource that’s harvested under strict regulations. Cork comes from the bark of cork trees and can be harvested every few years without hurting the rest of the tree as it continues to grow for centuries.
A majority of the world’s cork is grown and manufactured in Southern Europe and Northern Africa, with Portugal producing more than 50 percent of all cork—so most cork products come with the negative effect of overseas transportation on the environment. Cork is unique from other flooring products as it’s soft underfoot but still fairly durable, naturally stain- and dirt-resistant, and low-maintenance.
Natural stone. Natural stone is one of the oldest flooring materials around and its beauty is unmatched, but it is not considered a renewable resource. It also has a reputation for being high-maintenance, easily damaged, and one of the more expensive flooring choices. Engineered stone is increasing in popularity as it looks more and more like real stone but remains highly durable and low-maintenance. While the manufacturing process requires extra energy, it also uses up waste scraps from natural stone tile and slab production.
If you’re one of many homeowners who want to integrate the look of natural stone into an environmentally-friendly home, consider using reclaimed tiles so your home doesn’t add demand to the industry. You can also choose a product from a quarry and/or manufacturer that reduces its carbon footprint by using renewable energy sources for harvesting and production.
Porcelain and ceramic tiles. Porcelain and ceramics aren’t considered natural products because they require manufacturing, but they’re engineered from natural clay and silt, making them a good choice for a home that wants to integrate earth-based products. Clay and silt are somewhat renewable resources, but the harvesting process can be invasive and the manufacturing process uses energy. As with natural stone products, eco-conscious homeowners can choose certain producers over others or seek out reclaimed materials.
Recent innovations in porcelain and ceramic tile production have given them increased durability, making them great a product for floors. Limitless format and color options make porcelain and ceramic tiles perfect for unique, custom designs, while their no-maintenance qualities make them an excellent alternative for homeowners worried about the upkeep of natural stone.
Jim Kabel is the owner and general manager of Case Design/Remodeling in San Jose, a full-service home repair and remodeling contractor dedicated to earth-friendly design.