Eco-Friendly Flooring

Q: We’re planning to install a new wood floor and want something eco-friendly. Our house is modern, so reclaimed boards won’t look right. What contemporary choices are there? — N.M., Briarcliff Manor

A: Bamboo, which is actually a grass, tops the lists of most eco-conscious designers for a few reasons: it grows so fast, it can be harvested after five or six years; it’s usually grown without pesticides; and the high-quality stuff is harder than oak and maple, so it’s very durable as well as nice-looking. That’s the good news.

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Paul Savino, of Savino Brothers Hardwood Flooring Contractors in Ardsley, delivers the bad news. “They often use a whole bunch of formaldehyde and chemicals to process it — and it’s shipped all the way from China,” he points out. The quality varies widely. Cheaper bamboo flooring, which may not have been thoroughly dried, or was harvested too soon, is prone to denting, cupping, and peeling. It’s also difficult to sand and refinish.

Back to the good news: You can find high-quality bamboo flooring that’s been processed using less toxic products and without exploiting workers in foreign parts. Teragren is one company that has a good reputation, and offers a formaldehyde-free flooring on many models. But Savino suggests it’s more eco-friendly to use hardwoods from managed forests close to home. In our case, that’s probably maple or white oak from one of the Southern states. “It’s gonna last a lifetime,” Savino notes, and can be refinished when it gets worn.

Cork is another green choice because it’s the harvested bark of living trees that respond to having their bark peeled off by growing some new bark — the ultimate in eco-friendliness on their part. It comes in planks or tiles in a range of colors, blocks sound, insulates, and is naturally cushiony, which is also one of its drawbacks — it can dent if your furniture is heavy.

Reclaimed woods are the most eco-friendly, and they’re not all rustic barn beams or old floorboards full of scars and nail holes. You can find unbattered support beams, ceilings, or newer floors salvaged from factories or schools. You can get straight-grain lumber, or laser-cut parquet in any pattern you like. Stains can make them look contemporary (gray looks new just now).

As for finishes, water-based polyurethanes are much more environmentally friendly — and healthier for us — than the smelly, oil-based ones. Better yet, Savino’s company can finish your floors with a green product from Germany called OSMO Hardwax Oil that’s made with plant oils, waxes, and a dash of mineral spirits to make it easier to apply. It won’t blister or flake off, because instead of forming a skin on top of the wood, like polyurethanes do, it soaks in. It’s very durable, with a soft, waxy look rather than a shine. Best of all, you can easily do spot repairs on worn areas — something polyurethanes don’t allow. The Germans evidently tested OSMO’s resistance to wine, cola, coffee, tea, fruit juice, and beer — all our most precious fluids — and it passed. “Vermont Natural Coatings makes a natural finish with whey, a bi-product of cheese,” Savino adds. “I’ve used it a few times; once for a lady whose child couldn’t breathe latex fumes.” And does it … you know, smell? “Well, it has a slight odor, but it dissipates in a day or two,” Savino responds. Natural finishes cost “a couple bucks more,” he says, but are well worth it for the earth-friendly renovator.

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