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 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.
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.