A Guide to Safe, Ethically Sourced Wood Flooring and Alternatives

It’s been a rough month for Lumber Liquidators: Reports of unsafe formaldehyde levels in its Chinese-made wood flooring have shaken home owners and builders alike.

Contemplating the challenge of ethically sourced wood flooring. Credit: Flickr user emilysnuffer
Contemplating the challenge of ethically sourced wood flooring. Credit: Flickr user emilysnuffer

Lumber Liquidators claims the dangers are overstated and the cancer-causing chemical is safely contained by lamination. Others remain skeptical, saying a layer of plastic might not be enough to hold back dangerous fumes and leaching.

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, so there’s a little of it almost everywhere. Flooring manufacturers use it as an adhesive in composite wood products like plywood—found in “all-wood” engineered flooring—and the particleboard or fiberboard at the core of laminate flooring. It’s also in countless unrelated materials like synthetic fabrics, some shampoos, and even certain cosmetics. It’s all over our homes. State, federal, and international standards seek to limit how much is used, but products made by the uninformed or unscrupulous can slip through the cracks.

All American-made composite flooring is certified safe by various accredited third-party inspectors certified by the International Accreditation Service and the California Air Resources Board, said Kip Howlett, president of the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association. And so is the majority of overseas-manufactured wood. But it’s also possible to get away from formaldehyde altogether—though the price of doing so can come in dollars and inconvenience. You can’t just drive down to the strip-mall hardware store and pick up a load of cheap flooring—going formaldehyde-free requires research. Good news: We’ve done some for you.

New hardwood

Toulouse wood flooring from USFloors
Toulouse wood flooring from USFloors

This is what most people think of as hardwood floors: freshly cut wood planks from recently felled timber. It’s beautiful, classic, rustic, or refined, depending on how it’s stained and treated. Some manufacturers, like Georgia-based USFloors, use advanced staining techniques to make their boards look and age like antique wood.

Is it safe? With no gluing needed, there’s zero-added formaldehyde.

Should I feel guilty using it? Maybe. Anyone who has ever walked through a lush forest into a bleak clear-cut site knows the ugly side of logging, and there are plenty of gory videos of rainforests coming down. But a lot depends on geography.

Common North American woods are generally harvested where loggers are bound by U.S. timber industry regulations. Some companies, like Florida-based Goodwin Company, are going an extra step, harvesting only lightning-damaged trees.

Around the world, however, environmentally irresponsible logging has made some of the really amazing old-world hardwood an ethical challenge. Many people in the industry will steer customers away from products logged overseas, especially from South America and China. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species closely monitors sales of some mahogany, rosewood, and other hardwoods that are now plantation-grown because of their scarcity in the wild. If questions about black-market shenanigans ever haunt your flooring purchases, check with the Forest Stewardship Council, which monitors proper forest management and chain of custody issues.

What’s it cost? True hardwood planks can be expensive, hence the popularity of cheap, easy, composite wood products. On the low end, Home Depot and other big-box shops have cherry, oak, and maple available from about $4.50 a square foot up to around $8. It’s important to check with the salesperson that the product you’re buying is solidly the same wood all the way through. Descriptions can be very tricky, with different stores having different names for the same product. On the higher end, all-wood flooring can run $20 a square foot or more, depending on how the boards are customized.

Reclaimed wood

Authentic distressed heart pine wood flooring from Mountain Lumber Co.
Authentic distressed heart pine wood flooring from Mountain Lumber Co.

Reclaimed wood is the opposite of freshly cut timber. These are disused, discarded, or long-forgotten boards and logs just waiting for someone to salvage, denail, and resaw them into flooring. Reclaimers take wood from old fences, 19th-century warehouses, and abandoned barns, leaving nothing to waste.

Goodwin Company, for example, is pulling stunning, 1,000-year-old cypress trees from riverbeds and creating gorgeous flooring. Virginia-based Mountain Lumber Co. uses its website to ask owners of old barns to sell it their wood. New Jersey–basedEcoTimber makes flooring from old orchard trees that no longer produce fruit.

Is it safe? Reclaimed wood can come as whole boards or as the beautiful top layer of engineered flooring. The driving ethos behind companies involved in reclaimed wood makes the use of nasty chemicals highly unlikely. Goodwin, Mountain Lumber, and EcoTimber use nonformaldehyde glues in their engineered flooring.

Should I feel guilty using it? Not at all! With the dirty work having been done long ago, ecology-minded buyers can enjoy this wood’s backstory with a clear conscience. And while some reclaimed-wood companies also dabble in new hardwood, they source domestically and sustainably.

“We don’t take anything out of a rainforest, so no monkeys are being killed on our watch,” said Mountain Lumber sales manager Debra Russell. The reclaimed wood community is so tight that Russell doesn’t even mind naming her worthy, ethical competitors: In addition to Goodwin, she likes Pioneer Millworks, Elmwood Reclaimed Timber, and Olde Wood Limited. “We all do things the right way,” she said.

What’s it cost? The knots and century-old nail holes in these boards make them one of a kind and labor-intensive to clean and prepare. But for many, the look is worth the cost: about $5 to $20 (or more) per square foot, depending on the grain, custom cuts, and finishes.

Engineered wood

Walnut veneer from Columbia Forest Products
Walnut veneer from Columbia Forest Products

This is where layers of less-than-beautiful wood—usually plywood—are topped with a layer of nice-looking wood. In an industry with many different names for the same product, some companies will call their pulp-core laminate flooring “engineered wood.” It is important to know the difference. One is all wood and the other is not.

Is it safe? It can be. There are two ways to make engineered flooring without adding formaldehyde, Howlett said. One is by using polyvinyl acetate, which is best known as wood glue, carpenter’s glue, or the Elmer’s glue you used in school. It first came about in 1912 and is pretty much ubiquitous.

The second is a bit more exotic: It’s based on how mussels attach themselves to sea rocks. Developed by Oregon State University scientist Kaichang Li, who observed that the mollusks emit a special protein that gives them an extremely strong yet flexible hold even in the roughest of tides, this formaldehyde-free adhesive, made from soy proteins, is used by Columbia Forest Products in its engineered-wood flooring. The EPA liked it so much that, in 2007, it gave Li and Columbia the Presidential Green Chemistry Award. Columbia sells its formaldehyde-free wood to Mohawk Flooring, which is sometimes carried by Lowe’s and Home Depot as a special order.

Should I feel guilty using it? It depends on two things: what’s on top and what’s underneath. If your floors are a layer of rare teak logged by forest poachers in a Burmese jungle over a layer of formaldehyde-soaked plywood, you might have, uh, ethical issues. The watchdog group Green Building Supply advises being alert to “greenwashing,” where a thin veneer (pun intended) of environmental sensitivity covers an otherwise ecologically unsound product.

What’s it cost? The range is generally from $2 to about $8 a square foot, depending on a lot of variables, including how much is being purchased. Some discount sites go much lower, and one-of-a-kind flooring from reclaimed or rare lumber can go for $11 a square foot and up.

Bamboo

Amber bamboo flooring from Plyboo
Amber bamboo flooring from Plyboo

Hard and flexible, bamboo is technically a grass but makes really great “hardwood” floors. Like mowing a lawn, cutting bamboo for harvest doesn’t kill the plant, which can regrow 65 feet in less than four years.

Is it safe? Generally, yes. San Francisco–based Smith & Fong is using the formaldehyde-free soy protein to create its bamboo-based product, Plyboo. Great formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring is also available from EcoTimber and USFloors.

Should I fee guilty using it? Absolutely not. Ecologically sound bamboo harvesting has become a sustainable industry in many areas, replacing destructive logging. Companies like Smith & Fong are dedicated not only to toxin-free products but also to humanitarian causes in Haiti and Sichuan, China, and exploring how bamboo can help those and other areas hard hit by natural disaster.

What does it cost? Bamboo floors generally range from about $2 to $8 a square foot. Lower prices are out there, but the product may not be up to snuff. Young bamboo tends to be less durable than older plants.

Cork

A cork floor from Globus Cork
A cork floor from Globus Cork

Best known as a wine stopper, cork is another interesting wood-flooring option. Cork tiles are formaldehyde-free, highly resilient, easy to clean, reduce room noise, and even deter termites.

Quebec-based DuroDesign offers 54 colors and six patterns of cork flooring, all sustainably harvested and LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. There are a lot of other cork-flooring companies out there, including USFloors, NYC-based Globus Cork, and many big-box stores.

Is it safe? Yes. Cork flooring is about as free of formaldehyde as anything can get.

Should I feel guilty about using it? No. Rather than cutting down cork trees, skilled craftsmen remove layers of bark, which grows back fairly quickly. Harvesters say the trees actually benefit from the process as it vastly increases their lifespan.

What’s it cost? Favored by in-the-know architects and designers, the cork flooring sells for about $6 to $7 a square foot.

Published by Mat Probasco on realtor.com.

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