Pros and cons of 6 different kinds of wood floors

maple flooring
CC BY 2.0 30 year old maple flooring in my house/ Lloyd Alter

Chapter 1 of our look at flooring alternatives.

What’s not to love about wood, especially if your site name is TreeHugger? Wood is a renewable resource and, if sustainably harvested, is replanted and absorbs CO2 as it grows. The problem with wood flooring is that it is mostly hardwood, which grows more slowly. Much of it comes from old growth forests and is often harvested illegally; even if it is sustainably harvested, as Grace Jeffers has noted, replanting a tree is very different than replanting a forest.

"Yes, we cut down trees, replant them, they grow, and in this way wood is a renewable resource. But by cutting down trees, we are destroying forests and their unique, unquantifiable ecosystems; therefore, a forest cannot be renewable."

Solid woods

solid maple Maple floor/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are many different names for woods; sometimes they are made-up new names for old woods to confuse people. It is hard to know who to trust; in 2016 Lumber Liquidators paid $13.2 million in fines after it was caught selling flooring imported from China that was made from protected Siberian Tiger habitat in Russian Far East. Grace Jeffers tells us that we have to ask three questions every time we specify wood:

  • What is this wood’s conservation status?
  • From where did this wood originate?
  • What is the state of the forest from which the wood was harvested?

This is not easy to determine. After drugs and counterfeiting, illegal logging is the third largest crime, accounting for about US$ 157 Billion annually. One manufacturer, Gaylord, writes that “with illegal timber costing $140 per cubic meter and legal wood selling for between $490- $690/ m3, honest people can’t compete.”

You could spend your time studying the Red List of threatened and endangered woods, and even if your vendor says wood is sustainably harvested, it is hard to know for sure; the hot stuff can be mixed in and it is impossible to tell the difference. Even the best certification systems have problems with this, particularly with imported woods.

It gets so confusing that in the end. Gaylord writes:

18,000,000 cubic meters of wood crosses the border annually by rail and trucks into China where middlemen wait with suitcases full of cash. This material is made into flooring then sent to North America as being Sustainable and Green not mentioning anything about ruining the habitat for the last 500 remaining Siberian tigers.

They are in the local wood business and are not an unbiased source of information, but make a good point:

Would you buy a stolen car? Why walk on a floor made with stolen wood? Make the right choice and close flooring from forests that are sustainable.

The only way to be absolutely sure that your wood is good is to buy North American woods certified by a reputable third party system; that probably limits your choices to maple, oak, cherry, and ash. The travel distance is shorter, too, and it supports a local industry.

More on good wood: Different types of wood timber: the A-Z of good wood

Reclaimed wood

This wood is recovered from buildings, piers and warehouses being demolished; they were often built with huge beams and structural elements that can be sliced up into flooring. It is often full of character. It can be expensive because it is a lot of work pulling out nails and preparing it.

The trouble with reclaimed wood is that, in many places, old buildings have more value as materials than they do as buildings, so local structures that are part of the cultural heritage are being demolished. In North America, barns disappear from the landscape; in the Far East, teak is so valuable that entire generations of buildings are demolished for their wood. It’s wonderful that the wood is not going to the dump or the fireplace, but as we keep saying, the greenest building is the one already standing.

Another form of reclaimed wood is from underwater logging, recovering dense trees that sank after harvesting, which are pulled up from the bottom of lakes and rivers. In some ways, it would appear to be the most sustainable wood; even the toughest certified logging on land leaves a mark. (I am writing this from a cabin in the middle of a forest that was sustainably harvested; the logging roads were supposed to be blocked and grow back, but instead have become an ATV playground.) However, underwater logging leaves a mark too; the logs have been been there for decades and are now part of the ecosystem, and are part of the natural habitat for marine life. Removing the logs can stir up and degrade the marine habitat, and being underwater, nobody will ever know how bad the damage is.

So even though reclaimed wood has a lower impact, it is not without its issues.

More in TreeHugger: New Logging Equipment Harvests Underwater Forests

Salvaged wood

This is wood milled from trees, often urban, that are blown down in storms or are dangerously old. It is as local and green as it can be, but the supply is inconsistent. In cities like Toronto, Canada, the aging tree canopy seems to be constantly falling down; in other areas, the emerald ash borer and other invasive species are unfortunately creating a good supply, although the boards are short because the trees are being harvested prematurely.

More on Ash: Library Built From Diseased Wood Hauled Out By Horses

Bamboo

It’s really a grass rather than a wood, but is pressed together with resin and cut into floorboards and installed like conventional wood flooring. There are tremendous green positives to bamboo; it grows quickly, stores a lot of CO2, harvesting is actually good for the environment because it regrows faster, has long roots that prevent erosion and is not harvested in the higher territories where the cute pandas live.

The main problem with it is that the bamboo is pressed together with a resin, which often contained formaldehyde. Like hardwoods, the cheapest flooring is made in China (where most bamboo comes from). According to BuildingGreen, “poor manufacturing processes and installation practices can compromise the durability of bamboo flooring. Unfortunately, price is currently the best marker of quality with these products.”

More on Bamboo in TreeHugger: Is Bamboo Flooring Really Green? We Still Don't Know.
"Fossilized" Bamboo Flooring Is Hardest Wood Flooring Ever
Teragen Bamboo Flooring, Panels and Veneer

Palm wood or coconut timber flooring

Durapalm© Durapalm

Palm wood flooring is made from trees in coconut plantations; it is a byproduct of coconut production. The wood varies a lot in density and is difficult to work with. Smith and Fong was one of the first to figure it out with Durapalm:

Palm lumber looks a lot like wood but possesses some key differences that require a fresh approach. Palm, for example, is soft at its core and dense at its perimeter where a tree is densest at its core and softer towards the outside edge. To address these and other fundamental differences between palms and trees, we have developed new practices, processes and specialized equipment.

This looks like a really interesting alternative.

Engineered wood flooring

engineered wood flooringEngineered wood flooring after the cat peed on it/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Engineered wood is a brilliant invention; a thin veneer of wood is glued to a substrate, usually MDF these days, which click together. It “floats” over any kind of subfloor, can be installed over sound and shock absorbing materials, and there are lots of different woods available. Since it is just a thin veneer, a little bit of imported wood goes a long way. It installs quickly and easily.

I cannot talk about it dispassionately; I hate the stuff. When I first used it in a condo I built 20 years ago, a small water leak destroyed an entire floor; there is no sealant over the joint so water could get straight through to the substrate, which then swelled up and destroyed the floor.

When I put it in a big prefab home on top of radiant flooring, even though the vendor said it was fine for that use, every single piece warped and had to be replaced.

When I put it into parts of my own home when I subdivided it and wanted a floating floor for noise reduction, a little cat pee destroyed a big section of it, soaked right into the unfinished edge of the veneer.

Meanwhile, the solid 3/4” maple floor I installed on the ground floor 25 years ago survived children, falling dishes, pets, parties, you name it; it certainly has signs of age and wear, but it still looks good. Every ding tells a story.

In conclusion:

Lots of people have good things to say about engineered floors and the manufacturers are selling it by the square mile. But this TreeHugger’s advice is that if you want wood, get the real thing, made from wood that is certified to be sustainably harvested, preferably close to home. If you can’t install solid wood then consider some alternatives, to be covered in the next chapter.

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