Wood has been the go-to flooring material for centuries, and for good reason. Its natural beauty and
relative durability makes it an easy choice. Unlike many alternative materials that are found in fairly
specific locations, trees are widespread, growing in most parts of the planet, so wood has been, and
continues to be an accessible and cost effective means to create a pleasant surface beneath our feet.
Wood offers other benefits. In a time of growing ecological concern, trees are a renewable resource,
replenishing themselves, especially if managed and harvested with care. When they wear, most wood
products have the unique capacity for renewal, with a sanding away of the accumulated imperfections,
and thereby extending its usable life.
So, as with any good thing, people have found new ways to work with wood – creating new products
that accentuate its strengths, or making effective use of wood species or related products and by-
products previously thought to be ineffective or unusable.
As such, a trip to the flooring store today presents the consumer with a variety of options. Wood
flooring is not a simple choice between species any more. Laminates, engineered lumber, tropical and
exotic species, cork, bamboo, and domestic solid hardwood all have found their niche, each offering
pros and cons. Let’s explore these proliferating options through the lens of beauty, durability, and
As expressed above, all wood flooring products emanate from a renewable resource, which is a plus
when compared to non-wood-based options. But their green qualities diverge when taking into
consideration other factors, such as the energy utilized in their production process and shipping, the
health effects of the materials and chemicals utilized in their manufacture, as well as their lifespan.
Solid hardwoods are a minimally processed, virtually pure product. If the trees are managed and
harvested sustainably (FSC-certification is a must), and the planks are milled and installed at a relatively
close geographic distance, it is hard to beat hardwood as a green choice. Engineered lumber’s thin
veneers of hardwoods or softwoods stacked and glued to one another is also an eco-friendly option,
with many of the same qualities of solid hardwoods. Critical is to locate engineered flooring producers
that utilize only formaldehyde-free glues in the manufacturing process, minimizing unhealthy off-gassing
of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Laminate flooring is made by compressing layers of fiberboard together and placing a photographic
image on top covered by a protective coating. Laminates are considered by many to be eco-friendly due
to the fact that the fiberboard is most often created either from wood waste products that would
otherwise wind up in the landfill, or from recycled materials. And the boards themselves can then be
recycled at the end of their lives. But the production process is extremely energy intensive, and many
brands are made in Europe, requiring trans-Atlantic shipping. Some laminates may contain
formaldehyde, and may require adhesives during installation, though many brands now use an
adhesive-free click-lock system that avoids glues.
Bamboo and cork both tout themselves as the ultimate green flooring options, which is true in some
regards, but not in others. Cork is made from stripping the bark from a living cork oak tree, which then
replenishes itself within 8–10 years. Bamboo, a fast growing, woody tropical grass takes renewability to
an even higher level, maturing in just 3–5 years. Both are hypo-allergenic and bio-degradable.
Cork is manufactured in a relatively benign way, utilizing resins to bond the compressed material
together, while bamboo is laminated together using pressure, heat, and in some instances, a urea-
formaldehyde adhesive that can release VOC’s into your living space over time. Both manufacturing
processes are energy intensive, as is the transport of the products from their native habitats – bamboo
from Asia, and cork from Mediterranean Europe and North Africa.
Durability is really a subset of sustainability, as the longer a product lasts, the less often it gets replaced,
meaning less waste going into the landfill (or less material requiring energy intensive recycling), and less
new material being created to replace it. But durability is also about economics. The longer your flooring
still looks good, the longer you keep it, and the happier your bank account.
Though wood flooring is durable, it is not impenetrable. Different species and products offer varying
levels of hardness, but they can all be dented, scratched, and scuffed to varying degrees. They can,
however, be sanded and refinished (solid hardwood more often than engineered) providing a potential
lifespan of 75-to-100+ years. Engineered hardwood hold up better to moisture and wetness, but can
split in very dry locations.
Laminate flooring works well in high-traffic areas and homes with pets. It is scratch-resistant and
relatively durable. The materials in laminate flooring are moisture resistant, but the floors can warp in
high-moisture areas. There is a debate over whether it should be installed in kitchens and bathrooms or
other rooms that are exposed to heavy water or steam. Most manufacturers warn that laminate flooring
will be damaged by standing pools of water. Many manufacturers offer at least a 10-year warranty on
their laminate flooring product.
Cork material naturally has millions of air filled cells, which allow cork to bounce back from dents and
make it feel cushiony to walk on. Thanks to these tiny air pockets, cork also provides natural thermal
and sound insulation, making it perfect for use in bedrooms and children’s rooms. Cork is naturally
water resistant. But as cork wears, it cannot be sanded and refinished.
Not all bamboo is created equal. Higher quality manufacturers produce flooring that is as durable as
traditional hardwoods. A long warranty policy is an indication of the manufacturers commitment to
quality. Bamboo is susceptible to damage from water and excessive humidity. Over time bamboo floors
may become discolored and scratched. Like hardwoods, its surface can be sanded and refinished. The
number of refinishings is determined by the thickness of the planks used.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. As such, it is challenging to rank wood flooring
on a scale of attractiveness or aesthetic quality. Add to that the fact that the milieu in which that
flooring will reside will present variables that may speak to one “look” over another. The architectural
style of the home, the colors of the walls, the type of furnishings, the surrounding landscape – all of
these will push and pull on the aesthetic qualities of the space, affecting what type of flooring fits well.
That said, there are some commonly held assumptions that we can lean on, the first being that the
natural grain patterns and coloring of domestic hardwood species provides a warmth and comfort that
is hard to beat. And within that pantheon of species, some rise to the top for their exquisite tones and
markings, notably cherry, with its elegant, lustrous hues, satiny texture, and gentle, swirling heartwood
character; walnut’s luminous, coffee bean-brown color with purplish overtones and golden sapwood
patterns; and red oak’s creamy reddish pinks superimposed with occasional white to light brown
sapwood and coarsely patterned grain characteristics. Other domestic species offer their own appeals as
well, and in general, it is fair to say that solid domestic hardwood planks hold a profound aesthetic
Engineered hardwood, which utilizes a thin layer of solid hardwood on its surface, provides identical
visual delights as solid hardwood, so the choice between hardwood and engineered should be based on
The aesthetic merits of laminates are a different story. Their visual component depends on the quality of
the photographic image affixed to the compressed layers of fiberboard below. Different manufacturers
have achieved differing levels of proficiency in this regard, so the quality varies. What can be said,
though, is that laminates offer a wider range of options than hardwood and engineered products, as the
photographic image utilized can mimic just about anything, including stone (Tuscan Stone and Vanilla
Travertine, for example), antique, vintage, reclaimed or hand-scraped effects, or exotic and tropical
species, and can suggest varying plank widths.
Bamboo’s iconic look comes from a combination of its naturally light color, its culm (the fine-grained
stalk), and its distinctive nodes (often called knuckles). These defining aesthetic features can be cut to
showcase those aspects in either a horizontal or vertical fashion. Carbonization or other surface
treatments can darken the bamboo, or help it adopt the look of walnut, oak, or pine flooring. In general,
bamboo’s look provides a uniform, clean, contemporary vibe.
Cork flooring has its own unique aesthetic vibe. The least expensive cork flooring comes in sheets, and
looks like compressed granules of light brown color (just like the cork in wine bottles), so the result is an
informal, somewhat retro aesthetic which will either attract you or not. However, premium cork floors
have a top decorative layer of cork which can be finished in a wide range of colors and looks. This veneer
can be stained, etched, bleached, painted and installed in different patterns. They can even be finished
to look like bamboo, marble or hardwoods.
Whether aesthetics, durability, or sustainability drive your decision-making, wood-based products
generally rank high in all three regards, so you can rest easy that whichever product you select in the
end, you will have many years of pleasure and beauty underfoot.