Among the various options available for sustainable building materials, few stand out to the degree that cork flooring does. Gathered in much the same way that wool is shorn from a sheep, cork has the distinction of being exceptionally healthy to harvest, as it leaves the tree that produces it naked yet alive, unlike many traditional wooden flooring options.
Cork is harvested from the cork oak tree, somewhat unsurprisingly, and it has been used in construction for centuries. Recently, it has gained popularity in the United States as a sustainable flooring option, due to the ease with which it is harvested, as well as a long list of attractive characteristics. To begin with, cork has a minimal impact on the environment when used as a building material. The trees from which it is harvested are native to Tunisia, Spain, and Portugal, and must be 25 years old before their bark can be collected. Once the bark has been removed, a cork oak tree will regrow its covering within eight to 14 years, when it can be harvested again without doing any long-term damage to the plant. Though cork trees are known to live for 800 years, the average lifespan is closer to two centuries, meaning that they can continue to produce bark for longer than a human lifetime.
When utilized as a flooring, few people know that cork exhibits another layer of sustainability. Cork flooring is actually a byproduct of the manufacture of cork stoppers commonly found in wine bottles. The tiles below your feet are fashioned from the remnants of that process, which are ground up and then reconstituted using binders like urea melamine, phenol formaldehyde and natural proteins in order to induce the tiles to hold their shape. The only further manufacturing required is the addition of pigmentation and finish in order to make cork flooring a usable product.
Installation of cork flooring is also markedly easy, and while it can certainly be done well by a professional, homeowners of even moderate construction skill can achieve enviable results. Many manufacturers design cork floors as snap-together, floating systems which can be installed even over existing flooring. A 10 by 15 foot space can potentially be covered by cork tiles in just a few hours, making the installation of a floor a project that can be done in several hours. Cork can also be used as an underlayment for other types of flooring, including tile and hardwood, which will help to reduce noise underfoot.
When used as a floor in its own right, however, cork stands out in a variety of ways. Cork is incredibly durable, and will retake its original shape even after indentations have been made. Lasting 40 years with proper care, a cork floor is impermeable to spills and gases, and will resist scratching and abrasions. Various finishes are available, both polyurethane/acrylic-based and water-based, and these can add to the durability of cork tiles. As we've noted before on the Green Conscience blog, much of the durability of cork is owed to its ability to be compressed and retake its shape, the very same quality that gives it a natural underfoot cushion, making it an extremely attractive option. In addition to this natural 'give', cork is also intrinsically an insulator of both heat and sound, making a room with a cork floor warmer and quieter than others.
In terms of aesthetics, cork tiles are far more practical that some competing options. The coloration imparted upon cork penetrates its structure, reaching its interior. As the tile wears, it will therefore retain its color, lengthening the usable life of the floor when compared to hardwood or laminate. Available in a variety of planks and tiles of various colors, cork can also be used to create stunning and unique patterns in any room.
As an underfoot option, cork is also extremely safe and healthy. Much like wool carpeting, which we have discussed before, cork is hypo-allergenic and resistant to mold and mildew. It is an anti-microbial product that does not off-gas or shed fibers, which can pose a danger to asthma sufferers. Individuals with strong chemical sensitivities may wish to make certain they can tolerate the binders used in a cork floor, yet even the worst of those pale in comparison to the highly publicized levels found in some laminate floors. Should you face the terrifying prospect of a fire in your home, one should also note that cork will resist burning, melting or igniting only at the highest temperatures. Even during the process of combustion, it releases far fewer toxins, generating less smoke that its various counterparts.
Among the many sustainable building materials available to eco-conscious homeowners, cork flooring stands apart. As a singularly unusual and ecologically friendly product, a cork floor can beautify your home for years to come, while leaving a distinctly positive mark on the environment.
Hi! I'm Karen Totino, owner of Green Conscience Home. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of our posts, so comment away! One of my goals is to get the community discussing some of these eco topics, and hopefully help each other out!