When it comes to what’s underfoot, there is more than meets the eye. Whether you are building or remodeling, flooring is one of the most important long-lived decisions you will make in relation to aesthetics, function and even issues like safety and sound. Besides the number of choices in materials, each comes with a slew of options. Here, we take a look at the top choices.
HARDWOOD is durable, natural and warm underfoot. Oak floors say “traditional,” while some of the exotic woods like Brazilian cherry and acacia say “contemporary.” Wider planks and hand-scraped surfaces look Old World while remaining grounded in the present. Planks, parquet with their geometric patterns, and prefinished boards for easier installation should all be considered, though hardwood, which can take 120 years to mature, is not the greenest of choices.
LAMINATE is composed of layers of different wood-based materials that are glued or laminated together and topped with a photographic imprint with the appearance of wood grain. Embossing adds more realistic texture. And embossing in register (EIR) ensures that both the look and feel of the wood grain lines up. Easier to install than hardwood floors, it is also more affordable. Expect more bounce and “give” than traditional hard floor coverings as well as more sound transmission underfoot as they are not glued down to the subfloor.
ENGINEERED wood floors are a variation on laminate in that a genuine hardwood veneer tops a number of plywood layers. A little more expensive, an engineered floor is prized for its more authentic look, sound and feel than laminate. It also resists cupping and warping much more than solid planks.
BAMBOO is one of the most eco-friendly choices. Taking only three to five years to reach maturity in controlled forests, this lightweight woody grass has the tensile strength of steel, and one that resists humidity-related swelling and contraction but is still more susceptible to moisture and humidity than other species of woods. It is sold prefinished with tongue-and-groove joints like standard hardwood. Its Janka rating will indicate hardness, with traditional construction bamboo in the range of red oak and strand-woven bamboo rating as high as Brazilian cherry and teak.
CORK is another of the more sustainable choices. Its cushiony feel comes courtesy of this natural material’s honeycomb structure, which also will absorb vibration and sound. Cork’s natural nonslip surface makes it a wise choice for kitchens and baths. Though the surface will largely bounce back if dented, stiletto heels are not a cork floor’s best friend. It also can be more easily damaged because of its softness.
CERAMIC TILE, whether glazed porcelain, terra-cotta or natural stone (e.g. marble, granite, travertine or slate), is a popular, durable choice. Glazed porcelain offers the most affordability and freedom from maintenance, as porous materials must be sealed. The range of colors, textures, finishes and sizes of porcelain tiles lead to an infinite number of possibilities when combined. But drop something breakable on any of these surfaces, and it likely will shatter. And they are not known for a warm feeling underfoot, unless you install radiant flooring.
Finishing the look is grout, typically a cement-based, porous product. For the most maintenance-free grout – one that does not require sealing and re-sealing – consider an epoxy type, which is flexible and less prone to cracking and chipping, or one with an additive that strengthens and eliminates the need for sealing.
VINYL has come a long way and is one of the most budget-friendly flooring choices around. An ideal choice for spaces with moisture issues, it is easy to clean and more cushy underfoot than ceramic or stone. Available in sheets or the easier-to-install self-stick tiles, it comes in varying widths and thicknesses. The thicker the wear layer in millimeters, the more durable it will be. Try to pick a vinyl with at least 15 mm of wear layer for durability.
CONCRETE, though it may seem industrial and cold, can be visually warmed and beautified with stains and stamping that mimic any stone or brick imaginable, while being the ideal flooring for radiant heat. Plus, there is no flooring option that is more durable, nor more maintenance-free. And the design possibilities are limitless.
CARPETING is still the preferred choice of many for bedrooms, especially upper-story bedrooms where it will help muffle sound. Shag has left the ‘70s and has arrived more stylish than ever in the 21st century, although its extra-deep pile makes it a poor choice for dining spaces. Solid cut pile, the most popular choice, is soft and dense and absent of loops that can get “pulled” and unravel, especially by pets’ feet.
For commercial application, modular tiles come in a near limitless range of colors, patterns and textures, are the most durable, and can be easily replaced if one becomes damaged or soiled.
Hemp and sisal lend a casual, coastal feel, but are not plush, nor are the recommended for homes with pets and small children.
SUBFLOORING AND UNDERLAYMENTS. Regardless of the flooring you choose, you are creating problems down the road – a long and bumpy road – if you don’t insist on a proper subfloor and underlayments. Issues of cushioning and sound absorption are just the start of it. An unsightly appearance, compromised performance and uneven wear, because of raised areas, are perhaps more troublesome.
Underlayments are placed on top of the subfloor. They absorb the roughness and imperfections of the subfloors, which provide structural support, preventing squeaks and cracks. “Strong, sound, level, dry, clean and smooth” are the operative words here.
For carpet, rug performance and appearance, it’s all about the pad. Pads protect against packing wear and absorb impact from feet and furniture, lessening stress on the carpet. Pads also lend softness, warmth and sound reduction, but can be problematic for wheelchairs.
Before you begin, remember that, in the end, the finished floor is only as good as what’s under it.