Environmentally Friendly Flooring

Today John and Matthew answer a viewer question from Nanaimo, that asks what types of environmentally friendly flooring alternatives are available for residential homes.

  • Li-Na

    Nowadays, I tune out what is usually greenwashing on products. I find that everything being labelled “green” just results in the word not really meaning anything so I end up having to do my own research (unfortunately this takes up loads of time)!

    Your discussion today raised a few questions for me…

    1) Do you use regular concrete or a special concrete product?

    2) Are the cracks you’ve encountered in concrete superficial? Have they ever been serious enough to affect the hydronic heating system? Also, if there’s ever an issue with the heating, I’m assuming it means you have to break the floor open?

    3) Does terrazzo *tile* count towards LEED much? To be honest, I only ever thought that terrazzo came in tiles, LOL! I had no idea that ubiquitous flooring was terrazzo or that they installed it like concrete!

    4) How does cork flooring hold up to water? Would you advise using cork in areas like kitchens or bathrooms? When you talk about expansion problems with cork flooring, does that also apply to cork that is installed with the click system (like hardwood)?

    BTW, if anyone out there is looking for locally sourced hardwood in the Ottawa area, here’s a company you could check out: http://www.logsend.com They focus on salvaging wood lost in the Ottawa River. I don’t work for them nor have I seen their products in person, I just think it’s really cool!

  • Matthew North

    Hi Li-Na – to answer your questions, we have used both regular concrete and a special light weight version of concrete called gyp-crete. You can also add color to concrete to darken it or if you use a white ad-mixture it will cure lighter. If “regular” concrete is ordered it will be the standard mid grey color. The cracks that occur in concrete are superficial and hair line in appearance. They are also normal and to be expected because as concrete dries, it releases moisture and shrinks, resulting in some cracking. The amount of cracking can be minimized by slowing down the rate at which the concrete dries. This is achieved by keeping an even heat and “watering” the the surface to keep is moist as it cures. And yes, if there is an issue with the hydronic heating, the only way to access it is to break through the concrete. Fortunately this is very rare. We would love to use terazzo, but have not been able to find anyone to do it in Calgary. It would hold the same points for LEED as concrete with the additional half point if recycled content was used for the aggregate. Cork is not recommended in wet areas like bathrooms as it can swell but can an acceptable flooring in the kitchen. And yes, even though cork is “clicked” together, it still expands and contracts and the joints can open up from season to season.

  • Li-Na

    Thanks for the answers, Matthew. I vote for “crack-averse” as today’s Matthew’s Word of the Day. ;)

    Speaking of cracks in concrete, I just came across this article:

  • Paul C

    You could spend quite a bit of time surfing on the topic of “green”. The “what makes it green” tab, at this site is a good companion to John and Matthew’s synopsis.


    Not sure if this is urban legend but with respect to concrete or very hard floors, one should familiarize themselves of the potential effects on the body over an extended period of time.

  • Brad W

    Excellent seminar today gentlemen!

    One of the fundamental values on this site is practical sustainability. I like that. It avoids the green extremism that would have me living the pioneer lifestyle. I mean I do not mind occasionally helping out in my wife’s vegetable garden. I am just not going to sweat it if I need to use my car to go to the grocery store to pickup produce grown who knows where cause some damn bunny ate all our veggies! Advocating for locally produced stuff I can get on board with but if that means paying more, which it mostly does, it is gonna be a tough sell. It is not that I am cheap but I like to get value. It does bother me greatly that we do not manufacture more products in Canada but my despair at this is not so much motivated by great environmental concern as it is by the fact that my last Big Mac was flipped by a guy with a bachelor’s degree. Many moons ago when I was an idealistic young man, as opposed to the cynical old bastard I am now, we cared about the environment too. Projects were undertaken, technology improved, stuff became more efficient. For as long as humans have been messing up the place, some have been concerned with environmental consequences and have engineered solutions. This is nothing new. What is new is the unprecedented scale of our ability to mess up the place. Hence, the green extreme that is being marketed today. This really dances around the real elephant in the room. It is not planes , trains or automobiles. It has nothing to do with technology, where stuff is made or how we live. The elephant is us. That is a problem that none of us can solve so in the meantime practical sustainability is a reasonable objective and do not sweat it if the bunny eats your lettuce.

  • Brad W

    The above rant had nothing to do with flooring but I feel much better! Regarding floors, in light of my above comment, do not feel too bad if you really want carpet.

  • Mid America Mom

    Good evening slow home !

    I envy the folks with older homes that can strip away that musty old carpet and find wider wood planks in decent condition.

    Concrete is a good product to go with if you think you may change flooring in the future. Matthew tell me if I am wrong but at least hardwood or carpet can be added on top with proper preparation.


    Here the sigh coming from me now. Cork sounds great and has a unique look but I really wonder about cleaning and also thinking about it – durability.

    Kids who wear black soled shoes and leave marks. Big dogs with their big claws- would I have pot marks? Spills of oils or food ( salmonella ). Muddy boots! Folks who shuffle- would they peel away some of my floor?

    I looked at cork for kitchen years back and the flooring dealer was not helpful on giving me a good idea on how well it performed on these points. Anything you can share on them?

    Mid America Mom

  • Terri

    Everything I’ve read about cork flooring is positive, because of the same qualities that John and Matthew speak of–totally renewable, warm and replaceable in sections. I’ve also read that it could be used in bathrooms, which they don’t endorse. I have not read about durability, but I assume it has a finish which would endure most of the day-to-day wear and tear. I saw some in a home a couple of years back, and it has a high-gloss finish, which suggests to me something in line with laminate or vinyl.
    Maybe John and Matthew could say what the cork is protected with–what’s on the top surface?

  • Jude

    Everyone commenting on this topic must be SO young! Here in Australia in the 70s cork was the ‘must have’ flooring in all family areas (kitchen, family room (your ‘great room’??), laundries, even bathrooms). It was cheap-ish, friendly, and we all had it.

    It was laid as 12inch tiles and then sealed with half a dozen coats of high gloss 2-pack clear finish, which sealed against damp, as well as damage by scratching (dogs, children).
    Cork performs pretty much the sames as a wooden floor, except it’s much quieter and softer underfoot. So, yes there are black marks from sneakers, and dog claw indentations, but they are spot treated, just like a wooden floor, until they wear/gloss level becomes unacceptable, and then they are sanded back and refinished with a couple more coats of clear, to be as good as new.
    The only colour back then was a honey or darker brown, although a couple of years ago a product came out with various shades like a sort of lime-washed effect and some darker tones, with names such as Cappuccino, Espresso etc. I think- but don;t know-that this must have been a surface colouration, so one would have to be careful to maintain the protective top layer.
    Here in Oz cork has fallen out of fashion, the rage now is ‘floating floors’ and polished boards. One of the main problems with that, and trend to have so many hard surfaces is the dreadful noise level which has to be contended with (and never seems to be discussed by architects).
    Just my 2 cents worth, from a non-expert

  • Expat

    I’d like to second Jude’s comments. You can get cork in a wide variety of colours now and in a matte finish as well.

    My sister at one stage had cork in a kitchen and a breakfast area and loved it. It was about 20 years old, but still looked great. (The previous owners might have had it re-surfaced before they sold, of course.) It was very comfortable to walk on and I remember seeing a dropped glass bounce slightly and roll on it – not something you get with ceramic tiles! It got the occasional dent, but the dents just filled themselves in as the cork expanded again. When they sold the house 7 years later, the floor looked just as good, despite the best efforts of the large-ish dog and 2 kids.