Beyond Bamboo

The Baltimore Sun

Searching for another way to lighten your environmental footprint? Look under your feet.

Whether redecorating, renovating or designing your new home, opting for one of the many varieties of sustainable, eco-friendly flooring can lighten the load on Mother Nature. With the increased demand for green features, upgrading a house with bamboo or cork flooring can also make it stand out when putting it on the market.

With eco-friendly flooring, the emphasis is on sustaining the original source of the product. Traditional hardwood flooring can come from many types of trees. The problem? It takes a considerable amount of time for a new tree to be planted and grow to the same size.

Enter bamboo, a popular eco-friendly flooring alternative largely due to the fact that the plant can quickly replenish itself. But simply slapping down bamboo in the kitchen may not be the most environmentally aware move a homeowner can make. Instead, consumers need to look at the flooring material and see how it was grown and processed.

Rob Brennan, owner of Alter Ego, a sustainable building materials store in Catonsville, says bamboo is a favorite for homeowners because it offers a look that is similar to traditional hardwood. When you factor in bamboo's short regeneration period in nature and its ability to sprout a new stalk from the same plant, using it in the home just makes sense.

"Why cut down a 100-year-old tree to make floorboards?" says Brennan, who also runs an architecture firm. "Bamboo is essentially a grass that regenerates and reaches full maturity after only 6 to 9 years."

It may grow back quickly, but Brennan says consumers need to know that those few years are important for bamboo. If it isn't given enough time to grow before being cut, you get a thinner, less durable stalk of bamboo and in turn, a lower-quality product. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international conservation group, has come up with quality control measures and a certification process for hardwood flooring; however, few bamboo producers have received certification. Most of the bamboo products on the market today have not been FSC-certified, making it more difficult for consumers to know exactly what they're buying.

"Make sure to do your research," says John Gasparine, owner of JG Architectural Supply in Linthicum. "Ask around, find a reputable company and most of all, buy it from someone you trust."

But bamboo isn't the only option. According to Brennan, cork is another one of the most popular eco-friendly flooring options. The source of cork flooring is the bark of the cork oak tree. The tree grows thick layers of bark and sheds them as a natural part of its life cycle. The bark is then cut into tiles of varying sizes that can either be glued down as new flooring or locked in place over an existing floor.

But unlike bamboo, Brennan says that cork has been around for a while.

"Cork was big in the '20s and '30s, because they didn't have synthetics," he says. "With the re-emergence of cork, we're going back, in the material sense, to what people used to do."

Just because cork flooring was used in the early 20th century, don't think that it will cramp your style. Many homeowners who have opted for cork and other eco-friendly alternatives such as marmoleum - the natural and organic alternative to synthetic vinyl flooring - have found that you have just as much choice in design and color as any other type of flooring. In fact, going eco-friendly can give a house a contemporary look that may help when it comes time to sell.

According to Catrin Davies of Passport Realty in Baltimore, even if eco-friendly flooring doesn't cut down on your energy bill, it can make a house stand out among the competition.

"Eco-friendly flooring won't necessarily raise the value of a home, but it can really spark the interest of a perspective home buyer who can't necessarily afford a home that's entirely eco-friendly," says Davies. "I've found that many home buyers, especially those with children, are interested in buying a home with a lot eco-friendly elements."

Susan Shofer Baron was one homeowner who was pleasantly surprised with how well her cork and marmoleum flooring worked for her family.

While remodeling her kitchen and living room, Shofer Baron knew that she wanted to go green and put a modern spin on her mid-century Pikesville home, but she wasn't exactly seeing eye-to-eye with her designer.

"They wanted to put Brazilian cherry down for flooring," says Shofer Baron, a corporate detective with Concord Background Investigations. "I didn't feel right about it. Besides, I didn't want to make the house look dated."

Shofer Baron decided on earth-tone cork for the living room and sleek grey marmoleum in the kitchen. She couldn't be happier with the finished product, not only because of the look, but because she was creating a healthier environment for her two young children.

Eco-friendly doesn't just refer to the impact that the product makes on the environment outside, but inside the home as well.

"Green building materials are only the icing on a big green cake," says Kim Schaffer of Terra Logos Architecture in Hampden. "You need to create a healthy indoor environment first and foremost."

Many common flooring options emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a toxic gas caused by the chemicals reacting with the air. The VOCs often produce a strong odor - sometimes referred to as "new carpet smell" - that can cause an adverse reaction in some people.

Jenny Michalak, a Building Biology Environmental Consultant for Healthy Home Arts based in Baltimore, says that products such as synthetic vinyl flooring or stains or sealants used in other types of floors also emit VOCs. Depending on their strength, VOCs can continue to be off-gassed, or released, for years.

"If you go for eco-friendly flooring, it's pretty counterproductive to choose a sealant that's going to off-gas VOCs," says Michalak. "Green building centers have a range of different sealants that are low-VOC or VOC-free."

Shofer Baron says she was a little worried when it came time to seal her new cork floor. Although the product she chose claimed to have no VOCs, she asked her contractor to be certain the sealant was not harmful in any way before he put it on.

"He dipped his finger in the sealant and put it in his mouth," she says. "The contractor said that he wouldn't sauce his spaghetti with the sealant, but he was comfortable licking his finger to prove his point."

Walking on the green

Below are a few eco-friendly flooring options, along with some cost estimates. Prices are only indicative of the flooring itself and do not include sealants and installation, which are additional.

Bamboo // : It gives the feeling of hardwood. Comes in a variety of styles and can be stained a multitude of colors. Price: From $5-$6 per square foot

Cork // : Warm and soft anti-microbial flooring that offers great acoustics. Made from the regenerative bark of the cork oak tree. Tiles of various sizes are either glued down or can lock in place over an existing floor. Price: From $6-$9 per square foot

Marmoleum // : These tiles are a natural, organic and biodegradable alternative to vinyl flooring. They're soft, warm and easy to clean. Price: From $3-$6 per square foot

Reclaimed hardwood // : Locally sourced, reclaimed wood is a viable alternative to freshly milled hardwood. It's possible to find a wide variety of styles of reclaimed hardwood. It is the most eco-friendly flooring product because most of the toxic sealants have been released and it eliminates the need for transportation, unlike bamboo and cork, which are harvested outside of the United States. Price: Varies, depending on the style of wood. Reclaimed wood will cost about $6-$12 per square foot. New FSC-certified hardwood flooring will range from $4-$12 a square foot.

Source: Prices courtesy of Jason Holstine of Amicus Green Building Center in Kensington.

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