Installing environmentally conscious or sustainable hard-surface products doesn’t mean you have to relegate your flooring aesthetics to the realm of muddy, crunchy-munchy earth tones. Nor do you have to eliminate beautiful hardwood flooring from your specs for fear it contradicts LEED Green Building Rating System™ requirements.The design and manufacture of such products, ranging from the old-time renewable standards such as linoleum to highly sustainable natural wood and cork flooring, have evolved and promise a brighter, more ecologically sound future for commercial installations. The time is right to consider going natural.“You have to realize that a big part of the decision to choose [a] particular flooring is in the color and design itself,” says Graeme Hendry, environmental specialist, Tarkett Inc.’s Commercial Division, Houston. “You have to take that into consideration when you’re developing ‘green’ floors or if you are producing green floors already and want to change the color range. You don’t have to sacrifice design for sustainability. You can have the best of both worlds.”Today, more and more flooring manufacturers are working closely with designers to develop a wide range of color options in environmentally friendly flooring products made from components that are naturally occurring and renewable. “It used to be that someone would walk into your office and say, ‘I have a sustainable or environmental product,’ hold it up, and it would look like a burlap sack,” says Bill Neifert, vice president of sales and technical marketing for To Market, an Oklahoma City-based manufacturer of “alternative” flooring products. “Even 5 years ago, the limitations of what the industry could do with linoleum colors were tight. The same with cork. You had light, medium, and dark. Those were your options. It has changed dramatically.”Updating the Tried and TrueSustainable products with natural content, such as cork and linoleum, fell out of design favor when the brightly colored vinyls and shag carpet took hold in the 1950s. Both cork and linoleum products were historically dark and drab. Vinyl flooring and carpets offered up glitzy “suburban modern” shades not found in nature – hot pink, turquoise, and citrus green – and appealed to the cocktail hour decorating sense of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.But what goes around comes around. As the demand for the use of environmentally friendly, natural products began to increase again, manufacturers realized it was time to reformulate the tired color offerings of such renewable stalwarts as linoleum and cork. These substrates fit the environmental bill but remained lackluster in appearance. Take Lancaster, PA-based Armstrong World Industries Inc., for example. The company’s floor products division just relaunched its linoleum offerings in June and now gives customers a choice of 55 colors that are a far cry from the drab tones of linoleum’s earlier years.“Not only does it have environmental benefits in terms of the raw materials used in its manufacture, but it also has an environmental look,” says Laura R. Hubbard, Armstrong Floor Products’ general manager, product management, commercial flooring. “With our new line, we’ve created more pure colors. We’ve taken out the gray undertone that you see in traditional lines.”Other manufacturers are following suit, Tarkett’s Hendry notes. “We’ve just gone through an exercise to determine what colors are hot and what we can add to our line,” Hendry says. “Fashion has crept into it.”Color and style are permeating the offerings of other linoleum manufacturers, too. Take the Marmoleum® line from Forbo Flooring Inc., Hazelton, PA. Like any linoleum product, both of these lines are made from readily renewable natural ingredients. But, natural doesn’t necessarily mean dull. The Marmoleum Real line features a beautiful marbleized appearance in 36 colors ranging from bright and bold to soft and neutral. The Marmoleum Fresco line boasts an all-natural, lighter, almost transparent pattern in 24 coordinated colors, while the Marmoleum Vivace tiles reinvent marbleized linoleum by integrating up to eight colors in a marbleized pattern. Another Marmoleum product, Marmoleum Dual, takes the natural approach even further by incorporating natural linoleum flooring in sheets with natural jute backing. This line is available in 24 colors in rich neutrals, vivid accents, and soft pastels.Forbo introduced its newest Marmoleum collection, Marmoleum Colourful Greys, containing intriguing optical effects, for the first time in the United States in June at NeoCon® World’s Trade Fair. According to Forbo, this collection’s development evolved “from the fact that the juxtaposition of colors plays a vital role in achieving aesthetically pleasing and harmonious interior designs.” The collection was developed in cooperation with the Dutch visual artist and color specialist Peter Struycken. Its name is derived from Struycken’s “intriguing color concept:” He combines colors in a way that they turn into a “colorful grey” when mixed together, while each individual color is still clearly recognizable.Cork flooring is a renewable product that is made from bark harvested by hand from the trunks of cork trees every 9 to 12 years. These trees, which live as long as 250 years, are not cut down to produce the flooring and they rapidly renew the bark that has been removed, according to TO MARKET’s Neifert.The flooring isn’t new. It has been in use since the late 1700s or early 1800s in both Europe and the United States, Neifert says; the fact that it offered little in the way of color choices caused it to rapidly lose popularity in mid-20th century U.S. design circles, despite the fact that the product is hypoallergenic, easy to clean, quiet, and comfortable to walk on. Europeans, he notes, have consistently used cork flooring since its inception.Color advances in cork flooring manufacturing have expanded the design versatility of this age-old, completely natural product, Neifert notes. To Market’s Unicork™ line is harvested and manufactured in Portugal and then sent to Holland for finishing. The line, Neifert says, can be formulated in any of the Pantone colors.“The gentleman who does all of the manufacturing for our product works with 75 to 80 retail stores in Europe that sell nothing but his cork,” Neifert says. “He has 1,300 colors available in 76 patterns and textures.”Wood Makes a ResurgenceThe classic appeal of wood flooring has recaptured a segment of the commercial flooring market. The aesthetic charms of wood flooring, teamed with stricter sustainability credentials, have increased the marketability of such products in commercial settings. “Our sales have more than doubled in each of the past 2 years,” says Dan Harringon, director of architectural sales and marketing, EcoTimber, San Rafael, CA. The rich, polished look of natural oak, maple, and other hardwoods can lend an aura of sophistication in a facility, and specifying such a floor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing great damage to the environment.“The key is how the wood is harvested. Hardwood has the potential for being a green product, but it all comes down to forest management,” Harrington says, adding that those looking to specify hardwood in a flooring project should look only for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified hardwood.Founded in 1993, the FSC is an independent, not-for-profit, non-government organization based in Bonn, Germany. FSC’s mission is to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. The U.S. arm of the council is based in Washington, D.C.Independent of the timber industry, the organization provides standard setting, trademark assurance, and accreditation services for companies and organizations interested in responsible forestry. There are 10 principles and 57 criteria that address legal issues, indigenous rights, labor rights, multiple benefits, and environmental impacts surrounding forest management.Companies that adhere to those standards can sell wood products as FSC-certified. All FSC-certified wood comes with a chain of documentation that travels with the product through the supply chain.“The purchaser knows where it came from,” Harrington explains. “None of the other forest certification systems have a chain of custody. You can’t verify where the wood comes from. Also, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) only recognizes FSC certification under the LEED credit system. No other certification system gets recognized.”FSC-certified wood is coming down in price, Harrington notes, and is becoming “really competitive with the common market, particularly with large commercial projects” because the global volume of FSC wood fiber is increasing. Besides new, natural hardwood, other wood products fill design needs. While generally 50- to 100-percent more expensive than hardwood, recycled or reclaimed wood is the answer for folks who want an exceptionally rustic, antique look, Harrington says.“We’ve done some large commercial projects out of reclaimed wood, but it’s usually for clients who want to make a statement,” Harrington says. “We’ve done reception areas, restaurants, hospitality, and corporate offices, but it’s not something you’re likely going to see in the hallways of a hospital.”Another consideration that delivers the look of natural wood is engineered wood, which optimizes use of the log by incorporating segments that wind up as scrap in the hardwood manufacturing process.“Engineered wood uses different layers, known as plies, which are laminated together with face veneers,” explains Dominic Rice, general manager, product management, commercial tile and sheet at Armstrong Floor Products. “It’s environmental because it uses more material than solid hardwood. And because of the ply construction, it has better dimensional stability and can be used in applications where solid hardwood might not be a good choice.”Bamboo Bites into the MarketNext to certified wood, bamboo flooring is one of the fastest-growing segments of the flooring industry, Harrington says, noting that EcoTimber bamboo products have been specified into all sorts of installations, from high-traffic museums and offices to retail spaces. Bamboo stalks reach the hardness of oak within 4 to 6 years, whereas an oak tree can take anywhere between 50 and 150 years to reach full maturity. Bamboo doesn’t require pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. It also doesn’t require replanting as it regenerates immediately from the existing root structure within a 10-year cycle, allowing it to meet the LEED rapidly renewable requirement.The biggest issue with bamboo flooring is the consistency of the manufacturing process. “While there are dozens of bamboo mills in China, there are only a handful doing a good job manufacturing it,” Harrington says. “You need to have consistent quality control on the individual strips before they are laid into planks.”Looks Sell Green OptionsThe options for more aesthetic, naturally based and/or sustainable flooring are growing as manufacturers become more aware that end-users want something that not only helps the environment but looks good, too.Tarkett’s Hendry likens the demand for aesthetic, natural, sustainable flooring to what’s been going on in the automobile industry. He cites Toyota’s successful and good-looking hybrid, the Prius, as an example: “You can’t have a hybrid car that is ugly. People aren’t going to drive around in it, even if it is good for the environment. You can’t put out a box and expect people to buy it. You don’t want to have a gas guzzler, but you also don’t want to have something that is ugly. The same comes to flooring. Cost, installation ease, performance, and color all come into play. Customers want it all – and quite rightly. You really want to look at all of these things.”Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.