By Jessica Barber Goldblatt
If you’re looking for warm, cushiony flooring, think cork. Soft like suede, it has the insulating qualities and resiliency of carpet; the easy-to-clean surface of wood or tile; plus luxurious appeal from its earthy colors and rich visual texture. Made from tree bark, it’s also a natural and renewable resource. Cork has a multitude of green characteristics. The material is acquired by stripping most of the outer bark from the cork oak tree. This regular harvesting does the tree no harm, and the bark grows back, to be stripped again every nine years. The trees live for 200 years or so, and the forests, called Montados, are highly prized and passed down through generations of families in the cork-producing business.
The cork sheets or pieces are cured, boiled and pressed. Scraps are collected for reuse, so almost nothing is wasted. It comes from Europe. Forests of Quercus suber, the one oak species that produces cork, grow in the Mediterranean, primarily in Portugal. However, fuel consumption from shipping cork adds to the embodied energy in every cork flooring product. The dilemma of long-distance shipping, however, is counter-balanced by the truly urgent need to preserve cork oak forests. “A cork forest loss is coming from the decline of the global cork market,” The decreased demand for cork has devalued the forests, leading to sales — even abandonment — of the once-valuable land. Harvesting and making of cork products such as flooring, on the other hand, will keep Montados intact .
Cork Flooring Choices
In addition to its environmental benefits, there are many practical reasons to choose cork for flooring. The material is waterproof (think of the cork in a bottle), and the natural waxy substance contained in cork, called suberin, makes it mold- and mildew-resistant, too. If someone in your family suffers from allergies, a cork floor could provide a soft and warm alternative to other flooring types. Cork is even naturally flame-resistant. And it’s acoustically insulating properties — shhh, it’s quiet — will take the clatter and thud out of noisy foot traffic.
Cork flooring can be used in living areas, bedrooms, workout rooms and even wet spots such as bathrooms or saunas. You can purchase cork floors as roll-out sheets, floating panels, stick-in-place squares or tap-in-place tongue-and-groove tiles, and our store even sells small, round, penny mosaic cork tiles, which are installed much like ceramic or glass mosaics, with mastic and grout. And some types of cork flooring are suitable for use over radiant heat.
Pricing varies considerably, from an affordable $2 per square foot to over $20 per square foot for specialty shapes, styles or colors. Most cork flooring installations can be managed by do-it-yourselfers. Because of its elasticity, cork is especially forgiving on uneven surfaces, and may even be installed directly on top of existing wood, linoleum or similar flooring — or as underlayment for ceramic, wood or stone. Foot traffic and even heavy furnishings are well-tolerated because cork springs back.
Not all cork flooring is made equal, however; some products have not-so-eco-friendly binders, finishes or substrates added. Cork is sometimes combined with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) to make resilient flooring much like linoleum. Vinyl is best avoided, however, as the manufacturing of it may produce hazardous byproducts and the disposal may leach toxins into the environment. Other significant factors to consider are the dyes, binders, adhesives or finishes used in the manufacturing or installation processes for cork flooring. To preserve the air quality within your home, look for cork flooring that is formaldehyde-free, has low- or zero-volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and that is made without harmful solvents. [Also ask for no- or low-VOC adhesives, now commonly available. – ed.]
Jessica Barber Goldblatt is the owner of Interiors Green — the Home and Living Store at 2021 Main Street in Bethlehem, NH. www.interiorsgreen.com