6 different kitchen floors that are healthy and green

Millie on Marmoleum
CC BY 2.0 Millie on Marmoleum / Lloyd Alter

Are you buying for looks or for function? It can be a tough call.

After publishing Pros and cons of 6 different kinds of wood floors I was asked "What about kitchens?" It has taken a while to get around to it because it's not easy picking a kitchen floor. It has to do so many things.

Functionally, you want a kitchen floor to be:

  • Water-resistant or waterproof to handle spills and regular washing
  • Durable because there is a lot of traffic in a small area
  • Resilient and shock absorbing because people are standing a lot, and you don't want everything that drops to break instantly
  • Attractive, particularly for those open kitchens where the flooring goes everywhere

Vinyl

sheet vinyl flooring60s ad for vinyl flooring/Promo image
The first material that pops into mind that meets all of these criteria is sheet vinyl. Alas, TreeHugger is a vinyl-free zone; it is made from fossil fuels and chlorine, it is softened with phthalates, and its manufacturing process is toxic. Other than that, it is the perfect floor.
vinyl asbestos tilesTwo of our favorite things, vinyl and asbestos, together!/Promo image
The only way to make vinyl better was to mix in asbestos! Now you have a floor that is durable and easy to maintain. Alas, it was even more toxic. So the search is on to find something that has all its wonderful properties without the problems.

Wood Floors

Wood floorEngineered wood floor in kitchen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Lots of people are using wood in the kitchen these days, primarily because there is no easy way to transition from living space to kitchen space in trendy open kitchens. Wood is easy on the feet but fails the durability test: people walk the same route between the fridge and sink and you see the wear quickly. It also fails the water tests. Don't get me started on engineered wood floors; they should not be allowed anywhere near a kitchen. (I did it in the upstairs apartment in our house because I needed to float a floor for noise suppression, and after three years you can see discoloration from water towards the sink on the right)When it comes down to it, most wood floors these days are really plastic floors, with layers of urethane finish on top of the wood. So if the kitchen is not getting seriously heavy use, a solid wood floor is not the worst choice one can make. Just make sure it is sustainably harvested and local, like maple, oak, or salvaged wood.

Tile Floors

Ceramic and other tile floors are durable, water resistant and easy to clean, but are really hard underfoot. If you do a lot of cooking, a gel mat can make a big difference in the work areas. If you drop anything hard and heavy, something is going to break, either the object or a floor tile.

Concrete and Terrazzo

Painted concrete floorPainted concrete floor/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
If you have a slab on grade and can do either of these, they are durable and easy to maintain. Concrete can be finished with durable epoxy paints; that's what I have on my lower level floor. Concrete can also be polished and sealed; on its own, it is enough.Some sites advise that it can be greener by using fly-ash; don't do it. It might be fine behind walls or under floors where it usefully replaces Portland cement, but fly ash is toxic waste full of heavy metals and mercury, and I do not believe you want to be in close contact with it.

Rubber

There are a number of companies making rubber tile or roll flooring, from both natural rubber (which some people are allergic to because of the latex) and synthetic rubber (made from styrene.) It is used a lot in hospitals because it is easy to maintain and is softer underfoot. Many meet the Red List of the Living Building Challenge and are free of any toxic chemicals. But they are expensive.

Linoleum/ Marmoleum

Millie on MarmoleumMillie on Marmoleum/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
What's not to love about Linoleum? It is among the greenest of floors, made from natural materials, a mix of linseed oil, pine rosin, wood flour and cork dust, with a jute backing. About the only knock against it is the energy intensive baking of it.I have had it in my kitchen and bathroom for thirty years; it still looks good. I was told not to put it in the bathroom because the backing might separate if it got too wet; it hasn't happened yet.

Cork

In a past life when I was the developer of Kensington Market Lofts in Toronto, I chose cork as the standard floor. It was affordable, it was sound absorbing, it installed quickly and easily, and as the Toronto Loft ads show, it still looks good.If I were doing my kitchen now, I would definitely go cork. It is durable, it is resilient, it is a renewable resource. Some might complain that it is not local, but it doesn't fly across the ocean. The flooring is actually pressed together from the pieces after wine corks are stamped out, so it is using every scrap. Its harvesting is carefully regulated, and its forests provide habitat for endangered species like the Iberian Linx. It is even anti-microbial thanks to suberin, which fends off mold and rot.It is available in sheets, tiles or engineered planks. Avoid the planks; they suffer from the same issues as all engineered floors. It looks good enough that it can go everywhere in your open kitchen and living area.

Are you buying for looks or for function?

This is a problem with modern open kitchens – what you want in the living spaces is not necessarily what you want in a kitchen. Realistically, people have to think about how much they really cook, how much time they actually spend in the kitchen, and then chose a floor that works in both living and cooking spaces. That's why I love cork so much; it does both so well.

And this is another reason I believe the open kitchen should die.

6 different kitchen floors that are healthy and green
Are you buying for looks or for function? It can be a tough call.

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