Sustainable Flooring: Bamboo and Cork
By: Joe Cuhaj
If you’re under the impression that environmentally friendly flooring products, such as bamboo and cork, are little more than the latest fad that will soon disappear, then think again. Though very different from each other, both are high quality products that make beautiful and durable floors. In addition, bamboo and cork are easy to install and cost about the same as traditional hardwood.
What Is Sustainable Flooring?
Simply put, sustainable flooring is a material that doesn’t deplete natural resources when harvested. In fact, both bamboo and cork regenerate themselves and can be maintained indefinitely. Below is a comparison on how each is grown and harvested.
Traditional Wood Flooring
- Sustainable: No
- Material: Wood (oak, pine, etc.)
- Maturity: 30-100 years
- How Harvested: Timber cutting
- When Harvested: Once at maturity then replanted
- Sustainable: Yes
- Material: Grass
- Maturity: 5-7 years
- How Harvested: Cut at ground level
- When Harvested: Every 5-7 years, regrows from roots
- Sustainable: Yes
- Material: Wood Bark
- Maturity: 25 years
- How Harvested: Bark is peeled away
- When Harvested: Every 9-12 years, tree remains alive while bark regenerates
While sustainability is important, a product has to perform well to be a viable alternative. Fortunately, both bamboo and cork have a lot going for them. Here are the pros and cons of each.
Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world and is able to grow up to four feet a day. Most commercial bamboo comes from China, along with a few other Asian countries, but it is suitable to be grown in the southeastern United States as well. Advantages of bamboo flooring include:
- Resembles traditional plank wood flooring
- Can be installed using glue, nails, or by floating
- Comes in a variety of colors, both natural and stained
- Hard and very durable
- Expands and contracts less than solid hardwood
- Noisy, doesn’t absorb sound
- Can bleach if exposed to direct sunlight
While bamboo is considered harder than either oak or maple, the type of bamboo used, the length of time it is allowed to mature, and the way it is processed can all affect hardness. The best flooring is made from Moso or “Mao Zhu” bamboo that has matured for five to six years before harvesting. The stalks can grow up to eight inches in diameter and 75 feet high. After being cut the stalks are split into strips then flattened and dried before being laminated into boards.
Bamboo flooring is available in either vertical or flat grain. In vertical grain boards, the strips are oriented with the narrow wall thickness facing up, resulting in a more even grain. Flat grain boards have the strips glued together horizontally giving it a wider more pronounced grain pattern.
Colors for bamboo flooring range from natural light tones to darker carbonized shades of brown to stained products of almost any hue imaginable. Carbonizing is the process of steaming or boiling which causes the natural sugars in bamboo to darken and turn brown. This process can also cause the fibers to soften, resulting in flooring that is not as hard as natural or stained bamboo.
It is also important to consider the quality of the finish and the formaldehyde content of the glue when purchasing bamboo or any flooring. The out-gassing of chemicals from formaldehyde glue has been linked with respiratory problems. Since manufacturing bamboo flooring is a complex process, you should only buy from a reputable dealer that offers a long-term warranty on their products.
The cork tree is a type of oak that grows in the Mediterranean countries of Europe with Portugal being the largest producer. It can live for hundreds of years, and the bark is harvested by hand every nine or ten years. Advantages of cork flooring include:
- Comes in tiles that can be glued down or planks that can be floated
- Cushions and insulates, feels soft underfoot
- Available in a variety of natural and stained colors
- Quiet, reduces noise
- Can have a very distinctive grain pattern.
- Spills can stain if not wiped up
- Sunlight can cause color to fade
Cork floors are more durable than you might think, and some are still in use after more than 100 years. While it is a very springy material and resistant to dents, it tends to show scratches and scrapes. Due to its soft nature and the fact that it consists of only a thin veneer applied to a tile or plank, it is recommended that cork floors be varnished to protect them.
Much of the cork used for flooring has a bold swirling grain pattern rather than the bland texture of a bulletin board. While this can be seen as a unique and eye-catching design feature, potential home buyers might not share your enthusiasm should you decide to sell your house some day.
The Bottom Line
Bamboo and cork flooring are beautiful green alternatives to traditional hardwood floors. Whichever one you choose, you are sure to enjoy the warmth and beauty it brings for years to come and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping the environment at the same time.