4 things to consider when choosing green flooring

When you're choosing flooring for your green home, there are a lot of factors to take into account. You want to use eco-friendly materials that are sustainably sourced and will stand up under long-term use. Also, you want them to be installed in a way that minimizes toxic fumes from adhesives and sealants.

Here's a breakdown of the four major questions you need to answer when considering green flooring:

1. Materials

Every material has pluses and minuses, so consider what matters most to you. Appearance and texture? Durability? Minimal environmental impact in processing the substance and transporting it to your home? A few of the most common options are:

  1. Wood. This flooring has classic visual appeal and is excellent for indoor air quality. Make sure, though, that you buy wood that has been sustainably harvested and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  2. Cork. A shock-absorbent material, cork is great for spaces where people will be walking and standing a lot. It's also good for muting sound. However, it does require more maintenance and more frequent resealing.
  3. Bamboo. Long-lasting and durable, bamboo is harder than many hardwoods and is biodegradable—but it does require more energy for transport from the Asia-Pacific region.
  4. Stone. Flooring made from stone can have a long lifespan, but its durability is also dependent on the softness of the type of stone you select. To minimize air quality issues, ask your contractor to do cutting and grinding off-site as much as possible.
  5. Tile. You have a lot of options with tile, like ceramic, glass and linoleum—each with its own set of characteristics. True linoleum (not vinyl) is manufactured in Europe, adding to transportation energy, but is made from a mixture of natural materials. Ceramic and glass may be locally sourced, though the energy expenditure in initial production is high.

For a more comprehensive review of your options, take a look at our buyer's guide or our roundup of eight types of eco-friendly flooring materials.

2. Sourcing impact

As you can see from taking a look at the materials above, traveling the distance from a material's country of origin to your own home has an environmental impact. It's up to you to take into account the overall life cycle and decide if that impact is mitigated by purchasing a floor that will be long-lasting and made from raw materials that were sustainably grown or harvested.

For a thorough description of the life cycle approach to green building, view the LEED v4 for Building Design and Construction Materials and Resources credit category, which focuses on minimizing the embodied energy and other impacts associated with the extraction, processing, transport, maintenance and disposal of building materials.

3. Installation

There can also be environmental impact from the actual installing of your chosen flooring. Air quality issues can arise from crushing or grinding in the space, as well as from use of adhesives, sealants and varnishes that contain VOCs.

Make sure you take precautions such as minimizing dust and ensuring good ventilation during any type of installation, finishing or refinishing of floors in your home. Choose an adhesive by comparing the VOC information on product packaging or in Material Safety Data Sheets. A good rule of thumb is to use products with VOCs of less than 250 grams per liter.

4. Your space

The specific flooring needs of your space will vary based on size, architectural style, acoustic requirements and even whether you have pets or kids. Using cork or sustainable carpet options will go a long way toward soundproofing your space, for example.

If your spaces need durable floors that won't scratch easily, you might select certain materials, but you don't have to use them throughout—if you anticipate a lot of foot traffic in a particular area, you can install flooring in that space that's more durable than in less-used areas of the home.

Also, think about the conditions in different areas of your home or your geographic location. For areas subject to moisture, for example, avoid using linoleum flooring.

Read about our USGBC art director's experience with a sustainably sourced, dog-friendly type of engineered wood flooring.

Learn more about green flooring materials