(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Hardwoods are often a first choice when it comes to flooring, but they’re not perfect for every space. For one thing, they’re expensive—even more so now. (See “Lumber by the Numbers” below.) But even if money is no object, hardwoods and pets—or kids—don’t really get along, and sound travels right through them. Thankfully, there’s a whole range of other eco-friendly flooring options that look as beautiful as hardwood and are equally built to last.
Installation for snap-and-click options such as cork or bamboo is roughly two to three hours for a 10-by-20-foot room, but add one to two hours if you have to work around cabinets, a refrigerator, or a toilet. Pros, on the other hand, can finish a 1,000-square-foot space in a day or two.
This giant grass is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet—some species shoot up 1½ inches an hour—and it’s almost as hard as wood. Of course, quality matters; the best examples are harvested old, but that’s every 5 to 7 years instead of timber’s 40 to 50 years. Cali Bamboo LLC’s proprietary “fossilized” manufacturing process compresses and dries the bamboo, yielding a product that’s durable and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). From $3.80 to $5.80 per sq ft
ECO CRED: Bamboo grows about 15 times faster than hardwood tree species. But more important, because bamboo is a grass, it can be “mowed” for harvest without disturbing the roots, as opposed to logging, which contributes to soil erosion.
UPKEEP: A bamboo-specific cleaner is usually recommended, but a hardwood-rated one or a wood soap such as Murphy can protect the surface area and maintain shine.
BUT BEWARE … Lower-quality bamboo, though still green (and more affordable), can scratch easily. And some versions are made with adhesives containing formaldehyde—not great for indoor air quality.
Linoleum, the midcentury modern throwback, is actually much older—and greener—than people realize. Forbo Holding AG’s proprietary Marmoleum has been around for almost a century. Its Modular Striato collection has a richly colored option called Welsh Moor that looks very similar to hardwood. From $3.95 to $7 per sq ft
ECO CRED: It’s made of a mix of linseed oil, pine rosin, sawdust, limestone, jute, and pigments, which means it’s completely biodegradable and free of VOCs. Its raw, natural materials and its production in factories using 100% green electricity mean it’s carbon neutral, too.
UPKEEP: That it’s so enduring is the least of its impressive qualities. Marmoleum also comes in more than 300 colors and designs and is heat-resistant, easy to clean, and germ-resistant (thanks to flaxseed oil), making it a natural fit for kitchens. It can be purchased as tiles or by the sheet, then easily custom-fit to the size of any room.
BUT BEWARE … It’s expensive, easily scuffed, and needs to be well-sealed if used in the bathroom. As Matt Boe, a private residential contractor in Portland, Ore., puts it: “If any moisture gets under it, it’s all over.”
Cork tile has been used as a flooring material for ages. It can have all the retro charm of ceramic tile but can absorb the blow of a dropped glass without either breaking. It’s also warm, soft, and pretty much soundproof. From $6.95 per sq ft
ECO CRED: Cork flooring is made from scraps left over from crafting wine corks, which are harvested every nine years without harming any trees. Most of the world’s cork is from Portuguese montados—multifunctional sylvans where trees are grown in pastures that also support grazing, beekeeping, and wild mushrooms.
UPKEEP: The Germany-based company Haro (which has a U.S. branch) makes options for everything including snap-in planks and tiles that look like oak parquet. Panels can be installed in a couple of days by the average DIYer. Taking care of it is merely a matter of dust-mopping.
BUT BEWARE … Cork flooring can be damaged if there’s a lot of high-heel or wheel traffic.
It looks like real wood because it is, and it’s as durable as hardwood. The warm, rustic vibe pairs well with a boho-chic design aesthetic, but it’s also high-heel-safe. Cali Bamboo offers eucalyptus in two colors, natural and mocha. From $5.50 to $6.50 per sq ft
ECO CRED: The fragrant koala fodder is considered invasive in California, and therefore removing it is an act of mercy on the natural landscape. It also grows quickly in poor soil, reducing the need for fertilizers that can affect water quality.
UPKEEP: Eucalyptus is more resistant to moisture than hardwood is, making it a better choice for humid climates. Like cork, these boards can be dust-mopped on a regular basis to stay clean.
BUT BEWARE … It’s more expensive than bamboo (though still roughly half the cost of hardwoods), and because it’s still relatively new, there aren’t as many dealers.
One of the fastest-growing flooring trends effectively mimics traditional high-end materials such as weathered hardwoods and ceramic, both of which are always in style. From $2 to $3 per sq ft
ECO CRED: Vinyl tile isn’t what you’d normally think of when considering sustainable flooring, but Canadian company Harbinger makes a luxury version that’s 60% post-consumer recycled materials and low in VOCs. And it contains no heavy metals, phthalates, or phenols, so buildings where vinyl tile is installed can still meet the criteria for LEED certification.
UPKEEP: It’s a very durable material, so there’s no special instructions. Using a cork underlay, however, makes it nice and quiet.
BUT BEWARE … Vinyl tile can give a room a government-office vibe. And to quote architectural historian Timothy Askin, “Luxury vinyl is inherently an oxymoron.”
This composite building material isn’t for indoors, but it’s worth considering for decks. Trex’s version was used in the 2021 HGTV Smart Home, and as far as composite wood materials go, it’s top of the line. From $9 per sq ft
ECO CRED: Trex is made of sawdust, pigment, and recycled plastic films such as bread bags, bubble wrap, and all the extra packing material that comes in your Amazon.com deliveries.
UPKEEP: Because it comes in a range of colors, you don’t have to stain it. Trex keeps its color much longer than stained wood decks and is backed by a 25-year warranty. That it’s so low-maintenance is probably Trex’s best quality, but being splinter-free is a close second.
BUT BEWARE … It can get uncomforably hot under blazing summer sun and also slippery in rainy weather, especially if you don’t rake up leaves.
As the U.S. homebuilding boom spurred a buying frenzy for wood, the price of many products have quadrupled, peaking in May at record highs.
Rock-bottom borrowing rates, a surge in do-it-yourself renovations, and the desire for more spacious abodes outside of city centers caught sawmills off guard in mid-2020. They’d curtailed production when the pandemic struck, and the subsequent rush caused prices to shoot up as builders scrambled for materials. The runup trickled down to hardwoods used in flooring, such as pricey oak and maple. By the end of April, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price paid to producers soared to a record high, up 18% from the year before.
The most active U.S. lumber futures contract on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange peaked at $1,733.50 per 1,000 board feet in May, a more than fourfold rise over 12 months. But in recent weeks, sticker shock at retail outlets led consumers to increasingly opt to spend their money elsewhere, reducing demand. Prices have since dropped below $1,000, and some analysts expect they will now bounce around $500 to $1,000, an historically high range, as sawmills increase production and U.S. homebuilding holds strong.