See the Sustainable Wood Through The Trees

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Matthew Peterson

Flooring is another of the finishes that will truly set the feel of your home.  It is an important consideration from several standpoints, as well.  Cost certainly, but also in terms of environmental impacts and, our typical, indoor air quality.  We will be look at several flooring types as part of our discussions on finishes but the focus of this article is on wood floors.  

In recent years, wood floors are the big upgrade everyone is making for both new construction and for updating existing homes.  As is the trend – there are good sustainable choices that appeal to most budgets.  In the realm of wood, you have what can be a great renewable resource.  In raw form, wood is non-toxic, energy efficient to grow and manufacture, it is biodegradable and can be recycled.  The production of wood as a “crop” does something that no other major building material can boast of – in production it produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide.  To get the full benefit of this resource, one must make sure that the product has been grown, harvested, produced and finished responsibly.  How can we do that?  It is easier than you would think…

You will hear a lot of terms being thrown around and need to be defined in order make sure everyone is on the same page when you are talking reclaimed “hardwoods”.  Two of those terms are “recycled”, “reclaimed/salvaged.”  At times, they will be used interchangeably, but there is a difference.  Some recycled wood products incorporate by-products from the production of other products – these will typically be called “pre-consumer” or “post industrial.”  Otherwise, recycled wood can be very valuable if taken from an old growth forest and remade into flooring.  Reclaimed or salvaged wood is a bit different.  Reclaimed wood typically comes from the direct use of existing products – like salvaged floors, doors, or timbers from old buildings that have been re-milled and made into flooring.  Salvaged wood would be those that come from various sources such as river or lake bottoms or forests that have been thinned for fire prevention.  Typically, you will find local sources that create these floors and products.  Each can provide a unique look and can create truly imaginative spaces.

Beyond those products, there are several different wood floors that are sustainable, beautiful and affordable.  Chief among these are Cork, Bamboo, and FSC Flooring.

Cork floors come in tiles and can be installed over other flooring or directly onto a sub floor.  Cork is a completely renewable resource that is harvested from the bark of living cork trees that don’t mind having the bark taken – consider it a hair cut.  Cork comes in many styles and colors; it can also be laid out in great patterns.  Because of its biology (basically thousands of air filled cells), cork absorbs sound and impact – making it quieter and easier on the knees of the end-user and because of this – it is a great choice for kitchens.

Bamboo is considered eco-friendly and can be a beautiful floor for a home.  Because bamboo can be harvested eight times faster than hardwoods and the plants are not killed during the process, bamboo is considered rapidly renewable.  With every good green mainstream product, you need a little controversy – bamboo is not benign to that….the controversy here exists in the agricultural and manufacturing process – including deforestation in order to plant bamboo and the shipping process to bring bamboo to North America from Asia.  Those issues aside, the look is distinct and the floors are quite durable. The United States Green Building Council (who sponsors the LEED programs) still considers this a green product.

An FSC certified wood means that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has verified that the sources these products were harvested from are accredited.  The process insures that forests are managed appropriately and that products are handled environmentally through the manufacturing process.  These products look and feel like most other wood floors – oak and maple floors are the most common.  There is always a label associated with these products that reads FSC.  Should you see this label, you will automatically know that you are making a good decision in flooring.  From a versatility factor, this is the best product.  These floors come in varying plank widths and lengths and can be stained or painted innumerable colors and shades.

As we have discussed before, the installation and finishing of your final selections can make or break your environmentally responsible decision.  Check and make sure that the glues, sealers and stains/paints are Low or No VOC products.  Stay away from the formaldehydes and other harmful products that we discussed previously.  Wood flooring is beautiful, durable and doesn’t trap dust, dirt, dander, and all other fun allergy producing “floaters” – so it is a great IAQ defender your home.  As long as you start the discussion with the above information, you are taking the first step to making the sustainable decision.  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact us.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, August 6, 2009.

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