Environmentally Friendly Wood Floors
Good looks, long life
If you have an older home, check underneath the carpeting. It may be concealing a high-quality wood floor that just needs sanding and refinishing. If it isn’t, consider using wood salvaged from old buildings or old factories and barns. And then there’s virgin wood, which can be either solid or “engineered,” with a hardwood veneer glued down over plywood or fiberboard. Regardless of its source, the beauty and warmth of wood will add value to your home.
When shopping, look for
- Good wood. That means reclaimed lumber from local buildings, or, if it’s virgin lumber, make sure it’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). (Certified wood is often more expensive, though.) Never buy virgin products made from tropical or old-growth forests or trees harvested from ecologically sensitive areas unless they are FSC certified. See if you can find flooring made from trees harvested in your region (or at least domestically).
- Healthy finishes and adhesives. Buy flooring that is factory finished, so finishing chemicals cure in the factory not your home. If you do apply the finish at home, use low-VOC stains and sealants (preferably with less than 275 grams per liter of VOCs). Plant-based finishing oils may have a lower petroleum content than synthetic wood finishes, but are not necessarily low in VOCs. If buying engineered wood flooring, choose a product made without urea formaldehyde adhesives.
- From a resource-conservation perspective, engineered wood flooring makes good sense: the rarer and more valuable hardwoods are used in smaller quantities for the veneer, while the bulk of the material comes from fast-growing plantation trees. Solid wood flooring uses more high-quality wood than engineered products, making it particularly important that any solid wood flooring you buy comes from FSC-certified or reclaimed sources. Reclaimed wood flooring keeps valuable materials out of landfills and reduces pressure to harvest trees.
- Be sure you know whether you are buying a hardwood or softwood species. Hardwood floors better resist scratching and denting. Some reclaimed wood floors sold today are softwoods, such as Douglas fir and pine, that will easily scratch and dent. This can be fine for people who like the character of a well-worn floor, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
- Many wood floors are nailed down or installed as glueless floating floors. If using a wood flooring adhesive, choose an adhesive with less than 100 grams per liter of VOCs.
- If you have in-floor radiant heating, check with the flooring dealer. Not all wood products are designed to be used with these systems.
- Buying laminates. Don’t mistake laminate flooring for wood flooring. Laminates are made with a printed image that’s glued to fiberboard and then sealed with a top coat to reduce wear and tear. Laminates are inexpensive, but you can’t refinish them and they don’t provide the beauty and long life of real wood. If you do choose laminate, look for products with no added urea formaldehyde and no vinyl. A few manufacturers use FSC-certified wood for the backing.
- Buying faux “vintage.” Reclaimed flooring is big business these days and dealers throughout the country specialize in providing it. Make sure you’re dealing with a reputable company and not with someone who’s buying cheap new wood, banging it up, and passing it off as vintage.
- Underestimating labor costs. When buying reclaimed wood flooring, check its condition carefully; it may require considerable work to install and refinish it.
…to your health
Factory-finished flooring and healthy finishes and adhesives help protect air quality in your home.
…to your wallet
Solid wood flooring can be sanded and refinished many times and can last for a hundred years or more if well cared for. Many engineered wood floors are also refinishable, depending on the thickness of the veneer.
…to the Earth
FSC-certified wood helps ensure that your flooring materials were not logged in a way that scars the landscape and displaces wildlife. Engineered or salvaged wood minimizes your use of precious natural resources.
- Solid and engineered wood flooring is widely available from floor dealers and home improvement centers. For FSC-certified flooring or products made without urea formaldehyde, however, you may have to go to a green home store, or flooring company, or lumberyard that specializes in eco-friendly products.
- Find reclaimed wood products at local building-reuse stores and flooring dealers that specialize in reused woods. You may find some of this wood available at discount prices (usually in poor condition), and some that is quite expensive, especially if it is a rare or extremely high-quality wood.
- Ask any potential installer the following questions:
- How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing wood floors?
- Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you’ve chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.
- If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.
- For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.