Interest in eco-friendly products such as bamboo and cork flooring is on the rise. So is tried-and-true hardwood flooring — especially that which has been repurposed from deconstructed buildings. Concrete — acid-washed, color-stained and highly polished — is another long-lasting and inexpensive option. Advances with ceramic tile make it increasingly versatile. And although carpeting is used less often, when it is, low-VOC and stylish commercial-grade carpeting is the way to go.
For any homeowner, figuring out what floor is the right floor requires a bit of thought. Establish the performance criteria first, says Chicago architect Kevin Pierce of Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure. "Be honest about how much wear the floor in each area will have to withstand. Will there be water in the area? How much maintenance are you willing to do?"
Pierce says seeing a nifty new flooring material sometimes prompts a homeowner to say, "Oh, I'd love that on my floor!" But before rushing to that result, it's best to analyze what about that material made it so pleasing to you. Finish? Color? Texture? "There may be a way to get the look you're after more affordably, or sustainably," said Pierce.
Aesthetically, Pierce recommends working within the character of the housing space. Choosing the same floor materials throughout can help lend continuity.
For high-traffic areas where water is not an issue, many architects and builders say they are doing bamboo, cork or hardwood. In the kitchen or bath, while some say carefully sealed hardwood is fine, most prefer ceramic or stone tile, or engineered floors.
When choosing to cover floors with common materials like oak or concrete, special stains and treatments can elevate the ho-hum to how'd-you-do-that? The oak floor that architect Dana Terp specified for a condo on Lake Shore Drive was stained black multiple times and then waxed with white and clear wax for a graphically-stunning effect. "This technique is used for furniture and looks like liming, but this is the first time we've done it on a floor," said Terp, who worked with SNPeck Builders and Apex Wood Floors on the project. "It's a great example of using a standard, inexpensive product — oak flooring — in a way that has very unique appeal," said Terp.
Equally dramatic effects can be obtained by staining and highly-polishing poured concrete. Initially, Tracy Plein, a homeowner in Momence, wanted to use mosaic tile that she had seen on a television show for the floors she needed to redo in her home. "I said, 'Ooh! Lets do that,' " recalled Plein. But the price for the tile alone was beyond what she and her husband could afford. Seeking a suitable alternative, Plein recalled poured concrete countertops she'd seen and liked . A little research convinced Plein to go with concrete for her floors. Acid washed and stained by Crete-based concrete application expert Vince Schrementi, the new high-gloss, radiant-heated floor gives Plein's bedroom, hallway and bathroom a marble-like finish. "The total cost of the project, including labor, was what the tiles alone would have been," Plein said. "My husband wishes we could do concrete floors in the whole house!"
Hardwood. Repurposed wood that's been recycled from a previous use is an eco-sensitive option that can be competitively-priced. Locally, Chicago's new Rebuilding Exchange (rebuildingexchange.org), a recycled building materials dealer, set up shop in February through the Delta Institute. It will be the source for the wood that contractor Dan Orlikoff of DLT Development is using for the second-floor addition to Arlene Brennan's West Ridge home. "We really wanted the materials we used for the addition to be as green as possible," said Brennan.
Reclaimed or not, to add interest to a hardwood floor, designers and architects suggest mixing lengths and widths, staining/treating the wood for special effect, or having it milled differently. End-grain wood (think "butcher block") has been used for generations in applications such as horse barns due to its strength. Rift-sawn or quarter-sawn wood highlights the grain of the wood in clean, linear patterns. Choosing "factory seconds" of oak flooring can also give a fun, crazy-quilt effect.
Bamboo and cork. Next to hardwood, bamboo and cork are the current floor favorites for high traffic areas of the home that are not excessively damp. Because it is a grass that grows very quickly, bamboo is a fast-renewable product. Strand-woven bamboo, which is made by heat-pressurizing bamboo strands, is the strongest variety. Evanston architect Nathan Kipnis is using strand–woven bamboo in the Mid-century modern Glencoe home he is remodeling for Nancy Newberger. "It's got a rich, dark look reminiscent of exotic rain-forest woods, but is renewable, stronger and more flexible than hardwoods," said Kipnis.
Famed New York designer Clodagh likes cork for its look and strength. She points out that cork is available in many colors and forms (tiles, sheets). Plus, "You can mop it, refinish it like wood and it holds up very well," she said.
Cork's renewability prompted Jessie Engel to choose it for the Walter Talley Land Management Co.'s "Homes That Work" development in Evanston, which she is project manager of. Cork is planned for each of the seven town homes' four levels. "Cork is durable, and is more comfortable to walk on than hardwood floors," said Engel, who prefers the material over bamboo. She also likes the fact that cork comes in interlocking panels that are easy to install and don't require nails.
Engineered and laminate. With more people interested in radiant heat in floors, engineered floors are a good option. These are typically made of a thin layer of bambooor hardwood backed by a layer of wood, or fiberboard.
Experts say engineered floors can be more dimensionally stable and adaptable to changes in weather than hardwood floors. They also have very good sound reduction capabilities. Material costs for these are a bit higher than for wood floors, but installation fees are less.
Also good news? "Engineered floors look a hell of a lot better than they used to," said designer Clodagh.
Laminate flooring, pressed fiberboard with a plastic-coated finish made to emulate a wide variety of wood grains, marble or granite, is not as durable as an engineered wood floor. It cannot be sanded, refinished and recoated. But because it's less costly and is water-resistant, a laminate floor can be a good option for areas with high humidity levels such as basements, said contractor Orlikoff.
Ceramic and porcelain tiles. Large tiles, 12-by-12 or larger, are much in demand.
"The days of crazy textured tile are gone. Today, it's more about simplicity, nice crisp edges, larger format, and simple, quiet material use," said Greg Howe, of Searl & Associates Architects.
Ceramic tiles can be used throughout a house, but are especially good in the kitchen and bath. New "nature-inspired" options — tiles that emulate wood or stone — can give homeowners a rustic look in a durable, stain-resistant, low-maintenance format.
"In years past, to get that look you had to use actual stone, which required a lot of sealants," said Wilmington, Del.-based home design consultant Ellen Cheever. "Today, many porcelain or ceramic tiles give you the look at a much lower cost." One caution: Floors need to be rigid enough that tiles won't crack with movement.
Carpeting. Carpet absorbs sound, is comfortable underfoot and insulates well from cold. But builders and architects say not many homes are being builtand remodeled with carpet. When carpet is requested, homeowners want low-VOC carpets with piles that don't hold allergens and are made with recycled products.
Well-designed commercial grade carpet tiles are another oft-mentioned option. "Very versatile, durable and with a great look. We're doing a lot of carpet tiles for playrooms, lower-level gathering areas, family rooms or home offices," said Barbara Rose, co-owner of SNPeck Builder Inc.
Coverings expo. If you're mad about mosaics or have a serious tile thing going, this one's for you. For the first time, consumers are invited to attend "Coverings," the tile and stone wall and floor coverings exposition April 21-24 at McCormick Place. Coverings' "All-Access Program" gives consumer tile enthusiasts the chance to walk show aisles alongside a designer/guide. Register for free at coverings.com/enthusiast.