By Fiona Wagner
Over the past few years, there's been an explosion of environmentally friendly building products entering the Canadian marketplace, and flooring is no exception.
"Generally, consumers choose sustainable flooring for two reasons: either to improve or maintain excellent indoor air quality or as a personal environmental choice," says Lori Gadzala, executive director of the Ottawa Region Chapter, Canada Green Building Council.
Green builders are taking notice of these eco-friendly options, too, as flooring choice can contribute toward LEED certification. Sustainable flooring can reduce the amount of chemicals present or use materials that are regionally manufactured, contain recycled content or come from a rapidly renewable resource.
The good news is, while once it may have been challenging to source green flooring products, the range of options is growing without sacrificing durability, quality or aesthetics. "Name a product and there is sustainably manufactured alternative in interior decorating and construction building materials. There is no reason not to be using any of these products," says Barbara Nyke, accredited interior decorator / eco-designer with Toronto-based NIKKA DESIGN.
Hardwood — Although salvaged or reclaimed wood may be the greenest choice, wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to be responsibly harvested from a well-managed forest is the next best thing. It's durable, can be sourced locally and has a natural and timeless appeal.
Cork — With its insulative and cushioning properties, cork is water resistant and comes in a variety of styles and colours. Only the bark is harvested, so no trees are killed to make the product. Imported from Spain and Portugal.
Bamboo — A hardwood alternative that can be used in many design applications, bamboo grows quickly, replenishing in three to five years. May be FSC-certified. Imported from Asia.
Natural linoleum or Marmoleum — These products are made from natural organic products such as linseed oil, cork dust fibres, rosins with a jute backing. Tough and durable, a green alternative to vinyl.
Carpet tiles — They offer the acoustic benefits of carpet with flexibility of tile. Uses recycled and/or renewable materials with low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) properties. Look for Green Label Plus certification.
There are environmental trade-offs to each product — hardwood can be grown locally but it takes years to grow a tree while bamboo replenishes in less than five years but must be flown in from the other side of the world — and what works for one client might not work for another.
"It really comes down to what the client's functional requirements are, what their style aesthetic is and what their budget dictates," says Nyke. "Then I look at what sustainably manufactured flooring options would fit into those criteria."
"The biggest misconception that green has to cost a whole lot more," says Ann Callaghan of Callaghan Letellier Wiens Gibbons, a facility planning and design firm in Ottawa. "It can, but it doesn't have to. You do get what you pay for."
Yes, green products can cost more than conventional ones, but only if you consider the initial price. Many green products last significantly longer and/or produce no end-of-life waste.
There's also the health benefit to green products, which is a big selling feature for corporate and institutional clients.
"If you increase the quality of air people are breathing then obviously you'll have less problems with sickness and increase productivity," says Callaghan. "Regardless of the environmental benefits, that's the bottom-line case for it."
"I would say we're very much in our infancy. I truly believe this market is just going to explode like so many other eco markets — like low-VOC paint," says Gadzala.
To be sure, consumer uptake is certainly growing, but that doesn't mean it's easy for contractors to be green trailblazers. But as consumer demand increases, so will the opportunities to distinguish yourself from your competitors.
"My personal opinion on this, what is now LEED, a lot of it will eventually be incorporated into building code and the bar for LEED will just continue to raise," says Callaghan. "So you could either lead and make some good business decisions and feel good about what you're doing, or you can follow and be booted along by regulation. Which park do you want to be in?"