Floors have one of the largest surface areas of all materials in your home (walls and ceilings are the other large surface areas) The more surface area the material has, the more impact it will have on the air quality in your home. If a material with a large surface area is off-gassing harmful chemicals, it's going to significantly negatively impact your indoor air and you.
Using healthy materials for your flooring is crucial for the well-being of you and others living in the home, the safety of the environment, and the longevity of the property.
Key benefits in addition to cleaner indoor air quality include the prevention of mold and mildew, reduced allergen exposure, prevention of slip and fall accidents, enhanced comfort, increased property value, and extended lifespan of flooring materials.
The importance of choosing sustainable flooring
Opting for sustainable flooring is a proactive step towards environmental responsibility and healthier living. It not only minimizes the negative impact on the planet but also contributes to a healthier home environment and supports the adoption of sustainable practices in the construction and design industry.
I quickly want to cover what to avoid before we get to the good stuff. Materials to avoid in your home, if possible, include vinyl, engineered wood with formaldehyde-based binders, glue-down floors (many floors can be nailed down or click together and ‘float,’ meaning no nails or glue is used to hold them down), and most carpet (except wool).
**Check out my Non-Toxic Materials Guide for a comprehensive list of my favorite non-toxic and sustainable building materials.**
Categories of Flooring
Solid wood floors are a healthy and sustainable choice due to their durability and natural characteristics. The overall sustainability of solid wood floors depends on a few factors, such as responsible sourcing, proper installation, and conscientious maintenance.
- Pros: Solid wood floors are made from a renewable source (if the wood is sourced responsibly), and they contribute to better indoor air quality since they don’t emit harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds). You can extend the lifespan of your wood floors by sanding and refinishing them multiple times.
Be aware: Wood floors need to be sealed and stained with healthy products to maintain a healthy floor.
- Cons: While they provide many benefits, there are also a few drawbacks. One primary concern is the potential environmental impact of logging (here’s where sourcing becomes important!). Solid wood is also sensitive to moisture and temperature changes, so be mindful. Another factor that can deter people is that the installation cost may be higher than other materials.
When choosing solid wood floors for sustainability, consider certifications such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This ensures that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests. Opting for reclaimed or salvaged wood is another eco-friendly choice as this repurposes materials and reduces the demand for new resources. Proper cleaning and humidity control are essential to maintain the longevity and health of your solid wood floors.
Engineered wood is constructed with a top layer of real wood bonded to multiple layers of plywood or fiberboard.
I don’t recommend most engineered wood products because they are typically glued together with formaldehyde-based binders. But there are two brands that I like - Kahrs and Mafi. Both brands use a binder that doesn’t contain formaldehyde, and they use solid wood for the core rather than plywood.
- Pros: Due to their design, engineered wood floors are less susceptible to temperature and humidity changes (more so than solid wood floors). This type of flooring tends to be a bit more cost-effective as it uses fewer hardwood resources but still provides a similar aesthetic appeal. Additionally, the installation process is typically easier and less time-consuming.
- Cons: While the top layer is real wood, it is thinner than that of solid wood, which limits the number of times the floor can be sanded and refinished, so the longevity may be shortened. The use of adhesives in the manufacturing process may introduce VOCs, which is why I only recommend the two products mentioned above.
Engineered wood floors are well-suited for installation in areas with fluctuating humidity levels, so it’s a great option for a variety of spaces. Be sure to use products with formaldehyde-free adhesives and low VOC emissions.
Harvested from the bark of cork oak trees, they are a healthy and sustainable option as the process does not involve cutting down the tree, which allows them to regenerate, contributing to carbon sequestration. Combining comfort, durability, and eco-friendly characteristics for a greener environment, cork stands out.
- Pros: Naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and pests, cork floors promote a healthier indoor environment. Cork is soft as well, providing comfort and insulation. A great attribute is that cork has natural sound-absorbing properties that will reduce noise. Cork is a great choice for those with allergies or asthma due to its hypoallergenic properties.
- Cons: Due to its softness, cork is susceptible to damage from sharp objects and heavy furniture. Be sure to take precautions to prevent damage. Over an extended period of time, direct sunlight can cause fading in cork.
Choose cork products from manufacturers committed to responsible and ethical harvesting practices. It’s also available in various styles and colors which will give you versatility in design. Be sure to follow manufacturer recommendations for maintenance to maximize their lifespan.
Ceramic tiles are made from natural ingredients and free from toxic chemicals (*See below for info about lead-in tiles). Their hypoallergenic, VOC, and formaldehyde-free attributes make them an attractive choice. Ceramic tiles can be recycled, creating minimal waste.
- Pros: The durability and resistance to wear make tiles a long-lasting choice that minimizes the need for frequent replacements. Cleaning tiles is easy, which contributes to a healthier indoor environment by reducing the accumulation of allergens and pollutants. By being resistant to moisture, they prevent the growth of mold and mildew. Tiles absorb and radiate heat with their high thermal mass, which is a great way to control indoor air temperatures.
- Cons: Tiles can be cold underfoot, so they’re not ideal in colder climates. They are quite hard, which can cause discomfort if you’re standing for long periods of time. The installation can be labor-intensive, along with the maintenance to prevent staining in the grout. Certain types of tiles may involve high energy consumption, so choose products with a lower environmental impact. Be mindful to select healthy grout options.
*Lead in tiles: This is an excerpt from Home Free, which is an amazing resource for finding healthier building materials. “Ceramic tiles can be relatively low-impact materials for a flooring (or wall) installation, but you need to watch out for added lead. Lead can come from two places in ceramic or porcelain: either intentionally added to the glaze or from certain types of recycled content that end up in the glaze or the tile body itself.
While some manufacturers have phased out toxic lead compounds from ceramic tile glazes, others may continue to use them. Tiles made in the USA are typically free of lead compounds in their glazes. Look for tile product literature that identifies where they’ve been made, and what they are made of, including frits, glazes, and pigments. Unglazed tiles are most preferred.”
Made from natural materials such as linseed oil, cork powder, wood flour, and pigments, linoleum is biodegradable and doesn’t emit harmful VOCs, which contributes to better indoor air quality.
- Pros: The production process is energy-efficient compared to some other flooring materials. Available in a wide range of colors and patterns, it’s versatile to fit many room styles. Being water resistant, linoleum inhibits the growth of mold and mildew. It’s also naturally anti-static and anti-microbial, making it easy to clean. And it doesn’t need to be refinished, so it’s easy to maintain.
- Cons: Scratches and dents can occur on linoleum floors, so do be careful.
While linoleum is a great alternative to PVC flooring since they are around the same price point, linoleum doesn’t mimic the look of wood floors the way PVC does. I don’t actually consider this a con, but it’s worth mentioning. Linoleum is a great option for bedrooms, offices, and any place in the house where you want a fun look to your floor, such as a checkerboard pattern in the kitchen!
Carpet’s a tough product to recommend because it’s so good at trapping toxins and allergens (which is a bad thing). But it’s a very comfortable flooring option, and most people want some amount of carpet in their home. I recommend choosing a natural fiber carpet like wool, since synthetic carpets emit VOCs. Also, choose a low pile carpet so that it’s easier to remove toxins when vacuuming.
- Pros: Certain carpet options, such as those made from natural fibers like wool, are eco-friendly and provide a soft underfoot along with an inviting and cozy atmosphere in homes. Look for Green Guard Gold-certified carpet.
- Cons: Most synthetic carpets are harmful to your health and the environment. The carpet pad and adhesives can also be harmful. Carpets also trap harmful allergens and pollutants making it harder to remove those things from your home. Try to avoid carpet in areas where kids will be playing on the floor (such as living rooms and bedrooms) since kids are the most susceptible to the negative impacts of toxins.
A concrete floor is durable and long-lasting, reducing the need for frequent replacement. Plus if the concrete is your subfloor, you’re eliminating a substantial amount of new flooring that would normally go over the concrete. This saves you money and is great for the environment.
- Pros: Often low-maintenance, concrete floors need minimal cleaning and avoid the use of harsh chemicals. The thermal mass can contribute to energy efficiency by absorbing and radiating heat, helping to regulate indoor temperatures. Sealants and stains low in VOCs are important to preserve indoor air quality.
- Cons: One big factor to consider is the high hardness level compared to other flooring types. This might not be suitable for certain rooms or those seeking softer surfaces. Proper insulation is necessary to ensure a comfortable floor temperature so your feet don’t feel cold. Production involves significant energy consumption and carbon emissions, so to help minimize the impact, select low-carbon mixes.
Made from abundantly available and renewable resources such as clay, sand, and sometimes additives like straw, earthen floors are a very sustainable and healthy choice, but they require a lot of maintenance.
- Pros: Earthen floor’s high thermal mass helps regulate indoor temperatures, contributing to energy efficiency. Offering a unique and natural appearance, this type of floor provides an aesthetically pleasing and organic feel to living spaces. The simplicity of installation and repair is another benefit of earthen floors.
- Cons: Earthen floors can require a lot of maintenance. High moisture levels and water can damage and erode the earthen material. This type of flooring is not ideal for high-traffic areas and may require periodic resealing and maintenance to ensure its longevity.
Use locally sourced materials to reduce transportation-related environmental impact. Incorporate reclaimed, recycled materials into the mix. Non-toxic finishes are necessary to maintain indoor air quality.
More and more people are working out at home rather than a gym these days, but finding healthy and sustainable flooring for a home gym can be tricky. The most common gym flooring materials are rubber and vinyl. Both off-gas quite a bit and are also terrible for the planet.
Some people like to have a wood floor for the gym, then put mats over it in certain areas. If this is your preference, look for mats made with EVA foam. This type of material doesn't off-gas nearly as much as PVC and rubber.
If you're looking for a full rubber gym floor, check out Zandur Flooring. Their Sustain Rubber Cork flooring is Red List Free.
Tarkett also has a rubber flooring option that is Red List Approved and Cradle to Cradle certified.
Another option is to use linoleum with floor mats as needed.
Choosing the right flooring for a sustainable and healthy home is a crucial decision that impacts both the environment and your well-being. Opting for eco-friendly materials not only minimizes your carbon footprint but also promotes indoor air quality. Consider factors such as durability, maintenance, and the overall impact on the ecosystem. By making informed choices, you can create a space that not only looks beautiful but also contributes to a greener and healthier living environment for you and future generations.
***Looking for more guidance?***
The healthy home design toolkit is an online program filled with video lessons, spreadsheets, checklists, and guides designed to take you from feeling overwhelmed, unprepared, and lost...
to empowered, educated, excited, and prepared so you can create the perfect healthy home that meets your family’s goals and values.
With the Toolkit, You'll Have The Tools You Need To...
- Make educated decisions about the home planning process
- Create a functional and comfortable home layout
- Select healthy and sustainable material options
- Decide what building methods to choose
- Confidently share your decisions with your contractor and/or design team!