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Tread Lightly

by Cassie Pence
Grand County Homes and Properties

From cheese curls to underwear, everything in consumer land is getting a green makeover. People are willing to pay a little bit more if it has a positive effect ” or less of a detrimental effect ” on the environment, and subsequently, the demand is flushing the market with sustainable products.

Home flooring options are no exception to the greenwash. Like all things touting the words “eco-friendly,” buyers must be skeptical and do their homework (after all, how can cheese curls really be organic?).

When choosing flooring, being green is not black and white. Homeowners must consider the life cost analysis, says Carol Blaha, the founding board member of the Colorado chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which is the administrator of the LEED (Leader in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system. And the answers still aren’t easy.

“You want to review the entire life cycle of the product,” says Blaha, who also represents several green flooring lines. “Tracking the product through its raw material stage, production, transportation, its use, including maintenance, installation and what happens at the end of its life. Retailers have the answers to this for all their products.”

Buyers then must weigh the answers to these questions and determine what’s best for their home, their health and the environment.

Here is a guide to some of the options for sustainable flooring.

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The shtick on shag

In recent years, carpet has garnered a bad rap ” and for good reason. According to the Air Quality Sciences Resource Center, nylon and synthetic carpets, especially the backing and adhesive used in installation, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are suspected carcinogens. Carpet also collects dust mites, mold and pet dander, triggering allergic reactions. The good news is the industry is changing its ways.

In cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the carpet industry has developed a certification program ” Green Label and Green Label Plus ” which tests for chemical emissions. Carpets boasting the labels ensure consumers are buying the lowest chemical-emitting products on the market.

“There are some green aspects to synthetics,” says Becky Maddux, owner and design consultant at Select Surfaces in Avon. “A lot of the PET carpets (a form of polyester) have a portion of recycled material, like pop bottles.”

Maddux also pointed out that the brand Shaw has a recycling program to pick up old nylon carpets, and Mohawk’s SmartStrand line uses 50 percent corn oil, which is a new fiber for the industry, to create carpets. Most carpeting manufacturers use oil, which they convert into polyester to make fiber.

“The idea is that they are no longer reliant on imported oil,” she says.

But the big winner in carpet is pure wool, and Earth Weave is a favorite brand among dealers, including Jill Westerlind of Jill’s Carpets in Aspen. Earth Weave produces 100 percent wool carpet, free of dyes and VOCs. It’s biodegradable with a hemp-cotton backing. It is, however, more expensive than other options.

“The all-wool carpet is beautiful ” all natural colors. It feels wonderful,” Westerlind says. “The good thing about wool is if you have a fire, wool is self extinguishing. It’s also the most non-allergic thing you can buy, even compared to bare floors. You can’t grow dust mites in wool.”

Eco-timbers

Bamboo may receive all the earth-friendly hype because of its high-yield qualities, but dealers say it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. The material is quite soft.

“Bamboo is rapidly renewable, but it’s not as dense as they say it is,” Maddux says. “It tends to dent easily, if you have dogs or even walk on it wearing high heels. I won’t even sell it if it’s not the high density kind.”

When buying wood floors, consumers should look for the Forest Steward Council stamp of approval. This watchdog has developed a set of 10 principles and 57 criteria that address legal issues, indigenous rights, labor rights and environmental impacts surrounding forest management around the world.

“Consumers should really pay attention to FSC certification if using exotic hardwoods,” Blaha says. “In the U.S., as a whole, we harvest sustainably, but overseas it’s your assurance that no child labor is used in harvesting, the indigenous people and their habitat are treated fairly and there are no formaldehydes in the glues.”

Floors made out of reclaimed wood ” for example, where people harvest oak from an old warehouse ” is another option. The wood is milled down, cut into tongue-and-groove pieces, and no adhesive is used.

Most of the wood and oversized logs used to build homes in Cordillera and Bachelor Gulch are driven down from the Northwest and Canada. A semi can only hold 15,000 board feet, give or take, says Phil Gould of Handcrafted Log and Timber in Gypsum. That means to build one home, it takes 40 to 50 semi-truck loads driving 18 hours each way, using a lot of oil and literally driving up the costs.

For Coloradans, the most sustainable choice is floors fashioned from mountain pine beetle killed wood culled locally. Ninety percent of the beetle kill Gould uses to make floors and trims is cut down in the Vail Valley. His house in Eagle from the 1970s has a beetle-kill ceiling. The practice is nothing new.

“It’s the good side of logging,” he says. “Beetle kill is stable. You don’t have to kiln dry it as long, either. A fresh cut tree takes three or four times longer to dry as a tree dead in the forest for a couple of years.”

For some, beetle kill is sought for its unique blue-gray streaks running through the planks. Fungus introduced to the tree by the bug causes the color.

“It stains really neat, too,” Gould says. “It adds another dimension to the wood.”

Uncorked from the bottle

“What I tell my customers when they ask about green flooring is the best thing you can do is pick a long lasting product and pay attention to indoor air quality,” Blaha says. “Cork is my favorite long-lasting product.”

Cork is obtained from the bark of the tree, unlike most trees where the wood is taken from the trunk. So cork trees are kept alive and in production for their entire life span, about 120 years, and the bark is harvested every nine to 11 years. According to Natural Cork company, today’s cork flooring is created from the by-product of the bottle-stopper industry.

“Cork is really cool looking. It has many textures and comes in a variety of colors, but for some people, cork is too funky. It takes a sophisticated buyer,” Blaha says.

Cork is soft underfoot and is resilient, meaning it pops back into form from marks left by furniture or any other indentations. The downside is cork does not work well around water, Blaha says, and shouldn’t be used in places like the kitchen or bathroom.

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