Which Sustainable Flooring Should I Choose?
Green floorings aren’t just beneficial for the planet, they can look and feel good, too. Check out these options
To help you choose the right material for you, from bamboo to linoleum to reclaimed timber, we’ve asked three experts for guidance.
Professional advice from: Nimi Attanayake at Nimtim Architects; Kieran Hawkins at Cairn Architects; Helen Peedell at SHP Interiors
“It sounds obvious, but the floor is one of the most extensive elements in a house,” Kieran Hawkins says. “Often, it’s the single largest area of any material specified on a project. Flooring choice is therefore a decision with the biggest impact on the overall sustainability of a new home, renovation or extension.”
In terms of impact, embodied carbon is particularly relevant. “This is how much carbon is released in the extraction, processing and delivery of a material,” Kieran says. “It’s where clients have the opportunity to make a real difference to the carbon footprint of their project.”
Don’t forget about indoor pollution, too – sustainable flooring is more likely to have been treated with fewer toxic chemicals during production, a particular plus if you suffer from allergies (some carpets and vinyl flooring can emit VOCs – volatile organic compounds – for years).
“Indoor air quality is an important consideration,” Kieran says. “Many synthetic materials, particularly those in lower price brackets, continue to emit gases after they’ve been installed. Natural materials, on the other hand, often absorb pollutants.”
More: How to Improve the Air Quality in Your Home
Not just a staple in your wine bottle, cork is produced naturally from the bark of the cork oak tree – native to parts of Europe and Africa. The bark regrows every eight to 10 years, and it lives for up to 200 years.
“The bark of the cork oak tree has a unique honeycomb structure composed of tiny cells filled with air,” Helen Peedell says. “Some of cork’s special characteristics are its lightness, water-resistance, wonderful insulation ability, durability and hypoallergenic qualities. It’s a wonderful, natural flooring product, and also comes as a wallpaper or tiles.”
Prices for cork floors vary, but can be between £40 and £70 per square metre.
Cork’s perks don’t end there, either. “Cork is breathable and free from chemicals, synthetic resins and carcinogenic materials. It creates a healthy environment inside the house,” Nimi Attanayake says.
Still influenced by memories of 1970s orange wall tiles? These days, cork looks lovely, natural and modern, Nimi explains. “We’ve got over our hang-ups from bad midcentury bathrooms, and a lot of ranges now come in different colours and treatments, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be the orangey-beige of untreated cork.
“It’s soft and warm, so it’s good if you don’t have underfloor heating, but can also be used with it [check this with the supplier, as it needs to be bonded to ply in the factory],” she continues. “It’s also really easy to work with and install for builders.”
There are a few cons to cork, however. The texture and patterns won’t be for everyone, and Nimi points out, “It’s not as robust as other flooring types (stone or wood, for example), so think about longevity and maybe don’t use it in really high-traffic areas.”
More: What Do I Need to Know About Cork Flooring?
Genuine lino, as opposed to plastic imitations, is a natural product that’s made from ingredients including linseed oil, wood sawdust, ground limestone, pigments and cork. It can be used anywhere from kitchens to bathrooms or living spaces, and it’s extremely durable and resistant to wear and tear. The smooth surface also makes it easy to clean and mop up any spills.
“Marmoleum [a trade name for linoleum] is a sustainable flooring product made primarily from renewable raw natural resources,” Nimi says. “The top layer is linoleum, a bio-based, ecologically produced material made from 97% natural raw materials. Marmoleum is CO2-neutral, without offset, and PVC-free, with low embodied energy – and it’s allergy approved.”
Not only is it another option that’s soft and cosy to walk on, it’s also cost-effective, Nimi adds. And it’s versatile design-wise, with a wide range of patterns and colours to choose from.
However, there are a few practical things to consider. “Because of its flat nature, lino can show up dirt and dust if not properly maintained,” Nimi says. “It needs to be bonded to a good substrate and, for best results, you may need to use an approved supplier or installer.”
This type of flooring is also not always ideal above underfloor heating because of its insulating properties, so check with your supplier. Expect to pay between £25 and £50 per square metre.
Make the challenge of finding the right people for your project easier by searching the Houzz Professionals Directory.
You might not immediately think of stone as sustainable, but it’s a natural resource that has a lower carbon footprint than you might imagine. It also won’t emit any harmful VOCs internally.
“As a rule of thumb, the less intense the effort required to extract a material, the more sustainable it is,” Kieran says. “Stone quarried from deep in the earth, such as marble, often has a high carbon footprint. Softer stone from nearer the surface, such as limestone or slate, usually has less embodied carbon. All stone should be quarried responsibly and, wherever possible, I’d try to use stone from the UK to reduce the travel emissions.”
Stone is also good-looking, practical and hard-wearing – though it can be cold underfoot and harsh on dropped crockery.
“Bamboo is actually a grass and probably the fastest-growing ‘timber’ on the market,” Helen says. “It’s naturally anti-bacterial, water-resistant and extremely durable. It looks fantastic and gives a home a modern feel.”
Versatile bamboo can be fitted into almost any room, and it’s easy to maintain – plus its pale natural colouring tends to add a feeling of space.
“It’s generally more expensive than laminate, but less expensive than wood,” Helen says. “So it’s a fantastic option for those who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint on a tighter budget. Prices for bamboo can range from £30 to £70 per square metre. From an installation point of view, it’s recommended to use a professional installer for the best finish.”
Experts also say bamboo deals with extremes of hot and cold weather better than some wooden flooring options. However, bear in mind that bamboo “is likely to be shipped from China”, which counts against its green credentials, Kieran says.
More: What Do I Need to Know About Bamboo Flooring?
“This is one of the most sustainable options available,” Kieran says. “It has character, and the level of sanding you carry out can be balanced with the amount of wear from its previous life you’d like to see.”
Reclaimed wood is also warm underfoot, and looks great – plus you can enjoy the fact it has a rich history. “In my own house, I’ve laid a maple floor with boards reclaimed from a school gym. It makes me very happy,” he says.
A word, however, on wood finishes, which also impact on sustainability and indoor pollution. “Always check the VOCs in any varnishes or finishes applied to a floor,” Kieran suggests. “These can be toxic and continue to emit small amounts of gas for a long time. The manufacturing process should also be checked.”
More: What Do I Need to Know About Laying a Wood Floor?
Want the look and feel of carpet without a synthetic or wool finish? Think about options such as coir and sisal – they might be a little more ‘scratchy’, but they look natural and light, and have sustainable credentials (though they won’t be grown locally).
“These are all grasses with different characteristics,” Helen says. “They’re natural and grow as native plants in countries such as China and Vietnam through to Mexico, Brazil and Africa. Most natural grass flooring has a latex (rubber) backing, which makes it sustainable and biodegradable.
“As it’s a natural fibre, it doesn’t like water and is inherently absorbent,” she continues. “We always recommend having materials INTEC-treated. This is a water-based treatment that reduces the impact of spillage and adds to the life of the product.
“Grass flooring prices vary from £30 to £100 per square metre, depending on the material, design and so on,” she adds.
Carpet might have fallen out of favour in recent decades, but it can be green – and it’s still the cosiest choice in a bedroom. Shop around for sustainable carpets made from recycled yarns, and backings made from old plastic bottles.
Wool carpet is another sustainable option to consider that’s natural, durable and luxurious underfoot. “Probably the most warm and cosy of all of the flooring options, wool is renewable, insulating and hardwearing, and it can look extremely traditional or totally modern,” Helen says. “Wool carpets range in price from £20 to £200 per square metre.”
What type of sustainable flooring has worked well in your home? Share your thoughts and photos in the Comments.