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It's underfoot, but important


When they purchased their new Forest Hill home, Jack and Jean Summers could have just settled for the basic package of carpet and vinyl.

But when looking at their floors, they wanted more. So they upgraded, from the foyer to dining room, from door to door - even if it meant paying about $7,500 extra. There it was: rustic oak.

"It's prettier than carpeting, easier to clean and more durable than carpeting or vinyl," Jack Summers said.

Practical reasons for sure, but for the Summerses the bottom line was, "we just think it looks better," he said.

"At least 75 percent of our customers upgrade to some combination of tile and wood - usually [for] ceramic kitchens and sun rooms," said Dale Hevesy, vice president of Gemcraft Homes in Bel Air, builder of the Summers home. The average customer pays $3,000 more for upgraded flooring, but a few pay as much as $9,000.

"If they want it, they'll spend it," said Gail Heagerty, flooring consultant at Carpet World in Timonium. "People choose flooring based on color and style. Then they consider money."

The $20 billion flooring industry offers so many natural and synthetic products - distinguished sometimes only by nuances - shopping can feel more like studying for a chemistry exam. Pinpointing the desired feel of the house is probably the first step in making a flooring decision, according to interior designer Cynde Frankel of Frankel Design Associates of Baltimore.

"The floor is the base. In a symphony it would be the bass. It gives a pulse to the room," she said.

Because it is the foundation, it's important not to choose a floor with too much personality, she said. Too much pattern means clashing with wallpaper or furniture - and the floor can overwhelm.

"Like the bass, you know it's there; it needs to be there - but it's not going to carry the room by itself," she said.

Today's most popular styles have veered from highly polished marbles and woods to warmer, textured floors in natural, knotty woods; textured ceramics or laminates; and even textured stone.

"We've gone from people wanting more of a Colonial look to more of a rustic look," said Baltimore Flooring Supply manager Robert Logan. Even the width of tiles or floorboards can dictate formal vs. casual, he added. Planks are rustic; thinner boards are for more formal uses.

Flooring should also complement the family's lifestyle.

Installing a polished marble floor in a busy great room full of children isn't the best idea because it could quickly get scratched or marred. Such a floor can also be more dangerous if someone falls.

"One of the basic mistakes people make is that they don't take into account the task of the space, its use, how the flooring will assist them aesthetically and functionally," Frankel said.

Flooring also affects physical health. Many physicians say harder floors lead to more aches and pains for those with circulatory and orthopedic problems. That's especially true in areas such as the kitchen, where people stand longer than they do in other rooms. For homeowners with such medical problems, it's better to go with a softer wood, vinyl or laminate floor with proper padding.

Today it almost takes a jeweler's scope for the layman to distinguish between many types of natural and synthetic flooring. Often, it comes down to taste and what a person is used to.

"Would you want an imitation diamond for your wedding ring?" said Joe Vinci, president and owner of Vinci Stone Products in Marriottsville. "You'll never ever create anything as beautiful as natural stone or wood. It's nature. How can you find something wrong with that? Yes, marble can crack ... so can tile. What's the advantage of tile?"

"We like marble for smaller, accent rooms; it classes them up," said Steve Churchman of Baldwin, who installed a white marble floor in his foyer and master bath. "It's been two years in the bathroom, and we haven't slipped."

Maryland has plenty of flagstone and building stone available at local quarries. Marbles and granites often come from South America, China, Taiwan, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. Vinci has great expectations for Russian materials, which he expects to get soon.

"I see awesome stuff coming out of Russia," he said. "Their natural resources are immense and untapped."

For that popular, warm-casual look, many of Vinci's customers are opting for tumbled marbles and limestones - which have a rougher, textured face. They're generally low-maintenance and durable. So durable, Owings Mills Mall installed a French limestone on its floors. Vinci uses limestone throughout his home.

"Limestone isn't all soft, like people sometimes think," Vinci said. "It's been used for years in Washington and Baltimore in 100-year-old buildings."

John Hawks and his wife, Faith Nevins, feel the same way about authenticity, but they lean toward wood.

"Wood is what I'm used to. It's about authenticity and how you were raised," Hawks said. "Growing up, we felt wood on our feet in the morning. A good long run of gleaming hardwood floor is just about as beautiful as anything."

Nevins, a principal architect with Marks Thomas & Associates, designed her new Monkton home with Brazilian cherry throughout the interior - from bathroom to kitchen. Outside on the sun porch, she used a South American ipe cut into thin planks, to resemble a ship's deck.

'Wood is warm'

"It's a very hardy, dense wood ... like bamboo," Nevins said. "A marble floor is icy; hermetic. Wood is warm."

Some woods, such as ipe, are naturally scratch-resistant. Among the toughest, tightest-grained woods are exotics from South America. Hawks and Nevins let their two dogs run over their ipe and Brazilian cherry wood floors with no problems. And the wood is so rot-resistant they installed it on their stair treads, kitchen, pantry, countertops and even the bathrooms ... right to the tub.

Others feel that tile is practically a natural product - made from the earth and baked by man - and has perhaps more endurance than stone or wood.

With three children, two dogs and four cats, Dr. Karl Heldrich and Renee Heldrich of White Hall went with an Italian porcelain tile for their master bath, expecting a material that would combine elegance and durability. The tile's mocha tones offer a rich, textured look. Decorative Italian Listello tile borders the walls and planter. The porcelain tile continues right into the shower stall. Even the grout is a creamy mocha, to resist looking dirty and old.

After two years, the bathroom looks clean and new. No one has slipped, either, because of the textured tile.

"I was concerned about that, but it's not a problem," Karl Heldrich said. As for upkeep, "there's very little. We have three kids and it's heavily used. We've had trucks and cars and toys in that shower. I'm a veterinarian. I once put a patient in that shower to keep an eye on him overnight. There were no problems. It's very sturdy."

Still wondering about how tough ceramic tile is? Just take a walk into Chesapeake Cadillac-Jaguar's showroom and look at the floor.

"They run those cars over porcelain tiles, and they've been down nine years," said Frankel, who designed the showroom and the Heldriches' bathroom. "It's still pristine. There's not a mark. It's a testament to tile's durability."

"As many times as people try to come out with new things, ceramic tile and wood rule [when it comes to upgrades]. They're the staples," Gemcraft's Hevesy said. "Gemcraft doesn't offer laminates at all. We don't get the requests."

That being said, Hevesy installed laminate in his dining room after his wife spilled a gallon of paint on the old carpet.

"I priced it out, and it was nearly half-price to do laminate. It doesn't look quite as good, but you get some of wood's effect," he said.

Hevesy is joined by thousands of others who want light upkeep, easy installation and lower cost - and plenty of people feel the high-quality, properly installed floors look great.

When Tim Tarpley of Cockeysville drops a knife onto his kitchen floor, it doesn't make a dent. The reason: high-quality laminate throughout the kitchen, dining room and foyer.

"You drop a knife straight down on wood, it'll ding. Not with laminate," Tarpley said.

Besides, he and his wife hated dingy-looking tile grout, didn't want dings and dents that come with two kids and a dog on hardwood, and knew someone who'd experienced curling and peeling with supposedly "quality" vinyl. After five years, their warm, cherry laminate still looks great. It also cost about half as much as a comparable hardwood - and fools most of their friends.

Laminates are made of three basic layers: an outer-wear surface, the decorative paper just underneath that resembles wood or stone, and the core that absorbs moisture and impact.

The layers are fused under high heat to form a single sheet. Nicknamed "floating floors," laminates are laid down without actually touching walls. They're separated from the walls by quarter-inch pegs hidden by rounded edges. Floating, along with the tighter seams, allows laminate floors to breathe with various humidity changes, to avoid buckling.

Vinyl floors are still among the most popular, especially in wetter areas.

Today's vinyls have ventured into the natural look with some very good results. Armstrong's collection, for example, includes crushed color chips layered into the vinyl for texture and a more natural or elegant look. Vinyls can also emulate wood floors, slate, marble and tile. Even a classic black and white checkerboard style is available.

Pros and cons

Talk to enough floor people and every product seems best and toughest, but they do have general pros and cons.

"We live in a society that wants a cure-all. There's nothing that has it all," Vinci said.

"Nothing is bulletproof," said Ken Riley of New York-based BHK of America, one of the country's major laminate makers.

Even Mother Nature isn't without weaknesses. Yes, wood and stone last generations, but they take maintenance and periodic freshening up.

"Everything scratches. It's a matter of how easily," Logan, of Baltimore Flooring Supply, said about wood floors. "Scratching is determined by the finish. You need a good finish. You don't paint your own car. You need a good contractor to finish the floor."

Even so, standing water, as from a leaking refrigerator, can stain, bow or cup hardwoods, making many homeowners avoid putting it in bathrooms or kitchens, though Logan insists a good finish makes kitchen uses "no sweat." Engineered wood floors, made with a thick veneer over plywood, are a fast-growing part of the wood industry and don't readily cup or bow.

Natural stone also needs care. Like wood, some stone is softer than others. Marble is among the softer grades, while granite is harder. A "haze" can appear on older marble, marring its sheen. It can be honed instead of polished, which creates a duller but less slippery floor. Interior designers urge clients to be careful where they put it within the home. High-traffic areas aren't the wisest places for this stone.

Even tile takes maintenance. Terra cotta is a low-density natural clay fired at a low temperature. With that beloved old-world look, terra cotta tiles still require care because they're very porous. A sealer is usually recommend to avoid staining.

Laminates, which most often resemble hardwoods, are usually guaranteed 15 to 20 years against denting, staining and fading. Because they're made out of tough melamine, much like Formica counters, there's no staining, resanding or waxing involved. Laminates can scratch, but not easily. They also don't absorb water like many woods can - making them popular in kitchens and bathrooms.

Don't expect laminate to hold up two or three generations like hardwoods or stone. It can't be resanded since there's nothing beneath the exterior surface to refinish. It's just decorative paper beneath.

One criticism has been that if a laminate is damaged, the entire floor must be ripped up. Not true now, said Riley of BHK Laminates. With newer, glueless laminates that interlock, just unclick the pieces until the damaged ones are reached, and click in new pieces.

What's on most floors?

Market-share percentages for new-home flooring (from the 2000 Annual Builder Practice Survey, by the National Association of Home Builders):

Carpet: 65.6 percent

Ceramic tile: 12 percent

Vinyl: 11.5 percent

Wood: 9.7 percent

Natural stone: 1 percent

Laminates: 0.2 percent

The floor beneath you

A description of the various materials used in house flooring.

Hardwoods: Solid wood floors are available in everything from common oaks and pines to exotics from South America such as ipe (Brazilian walnut) and Brazilian cherry. Boards are cut in narrow or wide planks, depending upon how "rustic" the look.

Prices range from $6 per square foot to "you name it," according to wood-floor contractor Tim DiPaula, president of Lady Baltimore Floors of Glyndon. He said that among the most expensive is a domestic type - a heart pine, so difficult to obtain that it usually has to be removed from vintage American buildings and remilled for new floors. Heart pine can cost over $30 per square foot.

Wood can be installed unfinished or finished, and fastened with nails or glue depending upon whether concrete is at the base. Companies, such as Bruce, make prefinished wood floors. Some insist that unfinished installation looks best in the long run, while others say the dust and grit associated with finishing floors can be a horrible mess for months.

Wood planks need to "acclimate" inside the home for 24 to 48 hours before they're put in place. This allows the wood that's brought in from a truck to expand or contract with interior humidity. Also, the basement should be dry and leak-free. If the home is moist, allow wood to sit longer, up to a week.

Ornate wooden borders, parquets and medallions are also popular for that finishing touch. Many of these inlays are made with laser cutters for the most precise lines and designs. Such borders and medallions cost up to $25 a linear foot.

Laminates: A growing competitor to hardwood, laminate flooring, which originated in Europe, has wood's look but is often compared to Formica (a trade name associated with laminate counters). It is a replica of wood or stone on top of melamine, which is hardened, sealed and waterproofed. Laminate resists pressure of 4,200 to 9,000 pounds per square inch. Easy care is its main draw.

Don't expect laminates to be significantly cheaper than natural wood. Many are comparable at about $1,800 to $2,800 for 400 square feet. The latest laminates just arriving at the showrooms offer a textured look - available in wood, tile and natural stone.

Natural stone: Granites, marbles and limestones are among the most popular natural stones on the market today.

Costs have actually come down over the last few years because of increased machine-cutting vs. hand work. Prices range from $6 per square foot (not including installation) for more common stone, to $25 and higher for certain types of marble and granite, depending upon rarity. Joe Vinci, president of Vinci Stone Products in Marriottsville, advises clients who are spooked by stone's price to buy a less expensive variety rather than turn to a pulverized-reconstituted product or other "wannabe."

"It's wiser to step down on price, and still get natural stone ... and have the real McCoy," Vinci said.

Vinyl: Vinyl, a plastic product, is available in many new styles and textures at about $4 to $10 per square foot. Easy to roll out and install, vinyl does require a subfloor underneath for support. It does not float like laminate. Ammonia and water cleans vinyl. Today's vinyls can emulate just about everything including slate - with built-in texture and grouting. Vinyl resists pressures of up to 200 pounds per square inch.

Tile: When shopping for tile, look for durability, or breaking strength of at least 250 pounds; and water absorption of 3 percent to 7 percent for wet areas like bathrooms.

Tile costs range from $2 to $100 per square foot. Glazed tiles are usually machine-made clay, pressed in a die and fired in a kiln. To be true "ceramic," a tile must be made from clay or other nonmetallic minerals and fired or baked above "red heat," at least 1,800 degrees. Porcelain tiles can be used inside or outside because they're made of highly refined clay that is "fired" at very hot temperatures. That makes the tiles so dense and hard they don't wear quickly. They're also among the most water-resistant of all tiles.

Quarry tiles are made of clay, extruded through a die, cut and baked in a kiln. They are often made into interesting, unique shapes.

Terra cotta, stone and cement-bodied tiles are not true ceramic. Terra cotta is a low-density, natural clay fired at a low temperature.

Cement-bodied tiles can look like stone, glazed tile or brick. They're extruded or cast in a mold and cured, unfired. They are inexpensive and durable. The rough face offers good traction.

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