Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Alternative Options

Today’s alternative flooring options include cork, bamboo and antique wood.

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The Morning Star Potala Palace is a handsome, hand-scraped, prefinished bamboo flooring of medium hue offered by Lumber Liquidators. Photo: courtesy of Lumber Liquidators

By Nicole V. Gagné

The supremacy of wood as the homeowner’s flooring of choice is, has been and will probably always remain inviolate. Nevertheless, there are sub-categories of flooring that have become increasingly important to the housing market in recent decades. The reliance upon reclaimed wood has continued to grow, whether one is restoring a vintage house or constructing a new residence in a traditional style. Alongside this familiar alternative, there are two other major contenders for flooring: cork, usually from Portugal or Spain, and bamboo, primarily supplied from China. These three options, appealing to varying tastes and aesthetic requirements, have redefined today’s flooring market. As the demand for renewable and recycled materials spreads, their popularity will inevitably expand even further.

Longleaf Lumber’s wide-plank bamboo flooring is manufactured in the Chinese factories of Teragren LLC. Bamboo is a very hard flooring material, rivaling white oak and rock maple. (Although the pandas native to China require bamboo for both their habitat and nourishment, the timber bamboo that’s used to make this flooring, Moso, is unsuitable for the bears in either capacity.) Photo: courtesy of Teragren LLC

Alice DeGennaro, co-owner of Longleaf Lumber, LLC, of Cambridge, MA, estimates that approximately 10 percent of the company’s business is in cork and bamboo. Tom Sullivan, founder and chairman of Toano, VA-based Lumber Liquidators, estimates that cork and bamboo account for 10 to 20 percent of his company’s business. Where the two differ markedly is in their sense of the types of homes for which they supply these alternative floorings. Lumber Liquidators sells from over 140 different locations nationwide, making it difficult for Sullivan to determine how much of Lumber Liquidators' cork and bamboo goes into old houses, as opposed to new houses built in period styles. DeGennaro’s business, however, has a more regional clientele, and she has observed a distinct predominance toward vintage houses. "The bulk of our business is in the Boston area," she says, "and 80 percent of it involves old houses."

Both suppliers attest to the growth in public consciousness of environmental concerns, as the green movement has definitely expanded the number of customers for both cork and bamboo flooring. "Bamboo has always been very popular, but when it first came out, about 10 or 12 years ago, we thought that it could be a fad and might not last," says Sullivan. "It’s become more and more popular. I think originally it was more the look of bamboo, but now people like it because it’s green. And I think the same goes for cork."

"The green movement has definitely helped us in some ways," says DeGennaro. "I find that the people who are going for bamboo or cork are very, very conscious of the environment. I also think one of the things going for these products is the price point, which is better than most of our reclaimed material."

The series of Lisbon Cork prefinished floating flooring from Lumber Liquidators includes the attractive “Van Gogh” shown here; others named after famous painters include “Dali,” “Miro,” “Matisse,” “Monet,” “Goya” and “Cassat.” Photo: courtesy of Lumber Liquidators

Bamboo and cork are grown and harvested, making these resources renewable. The bark of the cork oak is periodically harvested without harming the tree, and it regenerates itself after harvesting, so no trees are felled. Similarly, bamboo is harvested without killing the plant.

Reclaimed wood flooring has a different green virtue: the wood is rescued from dilapidated buildings and recycled for use in other houses. This type of flooring is only a minor aspect of business for Lumber Liquidators, which is primarily a supplier of new hardwood flooring. "We don’t do a huge amount of reclaimed wood flooring," says Sullivan. "Even though it’s pricey, people like the look of it, and they want the reclaimed Southern yellow pine, the heart pine, and so forth. They also like the reclaimed wood because it usually has a story to it, coming from some older warehouse or home. But I would say that that part of our business would be under five percent."

At Longleaf Lumber, however, the reverse is true; about 90 percent of the firm’s business is in the milling of antique flooring; salvaged heart-pine beams and decking predominate, with additional lines of chestnut, oak, white pine, maple and other species. Among her customers, DeGennaro has observed that the appearance and strength of a reclaimed wood floor have been even more compelling than its status as a recycled product. "With the reclaimed material, you get a lot more character," she says. "There’s distress in the boards, and they have a warmer feeling, with wide, rich tones. Also, with the reclaimed products, you’ll see trends. Right now, everybody wants oak. A couple of years ago, everybody wanted reclaimed chestnut. Heart pine is pretty much steady, but with the oak and the chestnut, it goes back and forth, and now oak is very popular. It’s beautiful, but it’s also very hard. So many people come in and say, ‘I’ve got three kids and two dogs – what’s the hardest surface I can buy from you?’ And for us, besides our reclaimed maple factory flooring, it’s oak."

The Avant Garde Moss-Tuscany floating floor supplied by Longleaf Lumber is manufactured and finished in Portugal by WE Cork. Cork flooring is highly resistant to wear, thanks to the cellular structure of cork. Any marks made by furniture will leave a minimal residual indentation. Photo: courtesy of WE Cork

Lititz, PA-based Sylvan Brandt, LLC, specializes in reclaimed and resawn flooring from lumber taken out of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. Reclaimed species include white pine, yellow pine, oak and poplar, while resawn species include heart pine, white pine, chestnut and oak. "It’s all barn wood," says Genna Antes, the firm’s head of advertising and promotion, "except for the heart pine. Sometimes, that will come out of turn-of-the-century factories, because they used big, heavy, southern heart-pine beams in those buildings."

Antes notes that green concerns have come to rival aesthetics among customers choosing reclaimed flooring. "It’s definitely both," she says. "Over the last couple of years, we’ve probably had more people who are looking specifically for a green product, but it hasn’t been an extreme change for us. We have those customers who definitely appreciate the fact that all of our flooring is being reused from wood that’s been cut down for years and years; they appreciate the fact that we have essentially a green product, a sustainable flooring product. And then we have the customers who are searching for a certain period look. So I would say it’s a mixture of both."

Unwanted or structurally unsound buildings of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries are painstakingly disassembled by Sylvan Brandt, which then recycles the reclaimed wood for use by today’s homeowners. The flooring shown is 200-year-old resawn antique oak. Photo: courtesy of Sylvan Brandt

More than half of Sylvan Brandt’s customers don’t live in old houses. "Of course, we do have customers who are restoring vintage houses and using our flooring to maintain the integrity of their old house," says Antes. "But I would say that we actually sell more often to houses of newer construction or houses from the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s." Like DeGennaro, Antes has also been impacted by the trends in tastes within the reclaimed-wood flooring market. "Our weatherboard, which is made out of barn siding, is now one of our most popular floors," she says. "It’s very rustic and blends very well inside of a house that already has some of its original flooring. And it’s one of our less expensive floors, too, so that one does very well."

The installation of antique wood flooring from Sylvan Brandt is usually done by a professional, and the firm readily provides recommendations for skilled installers. At Longleaf Lumber, DeGennaro notes that clients also usually use professional installers. "But I do have people who will come in for our wide white pine," she says. "That’s a very soft wood, and you’re just going to face nail it from the top of the boards, so many people put that in themselves. And both the cork and the bamboo flooring are available in floating-floor applications – an interlocking system that clicks together – and people are doing that themselves."

"We sell to the do-it-yourselfer, and we can also recommend installers," says Sullivan. "With bamboo and cork, a lot of people will do it themselves because it’s a little easier than a regular floor. In cork, we have a type that clicks together, so you don’t need any nails or glue, and in bamboo, we have that same style as well as a nail-down flooring. Of course, a lot of people won’t do it themselves, so they’ll buy it and have someone else install it, either someone we recommend or their own contractor."  PH

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