Cork flooring is making a comeback. Once prominent in the early 1900s, its popularity waned as it was replaced with sheet vinyl and linoleum. However, due to its sustainability and competitive pricing, cork is once again becoming a popular choice.
"Historically, cork has been used in courtrooms, museums, art galleries, libraries, restaurants, and a variety of commercial and residential spaces," explains Christopher Capobianco, president of Christopher Collaborative Inc. "Today, the uses are even more widespread than that – corporate offices, schools, and beyond."
Cork flooring isn’t made up of highly technical chemical compounds, but instead of the bark of the cork oak tree, native to the Mediterranean. The bark can be safely harvested from the tree every nine years without damaging the tree.
Adding to the sustainability factor is that most of the cork in cork flooring is reclaimed. "Cork flooring is typically made from the reclaimed waste of bottle stopper manufacturing," explains Patty Thwaites, LEED AP Interior Designer for RNL, a multi-disciplined architecture, interior design, and engineering firm. "Because cork flooring is typically made from recycled post-industrial material, this is a fantastic example of ‘up-cycling.’"
Comfort and Insulation Benefits
In addition to sustainability, cork flooring provides comfort and insulation benefits. According to Capobianco, this is due to cork’s unique cellular structure, which is composed of at least 50% air.
"The use of cork flooring provides comfort and reduces stress on the body because the material is very resilient and warm," explains Thwaites. "It has excellent acoustical properties, absorbing sound within rooms and reducing sound transfer."
Cork flooring can also benefit a space’s indoor air quality. "It is an excellent choice for indoor environmental quality because it is low-emitting (no VOCs) and naturally hypo-allergenic, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal," she says.
Caring for Cork
"Although classified as resilient flooring, cork floors are a lot like wood floors when it comes to handling, installation, and finishing," says Capobianco. "So, like other natural materials, they should not be used where there will be a lot of water or sunlight."
While it has antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, excessive moisture and harsh cleaning materials will deteriorate the material. "Like any floor, a good matting program will keep dirt off the floor, proper protection of furniture and chairs will prevent damage, and protection from sunlight will prevent fading," advises Capobianco. "Regular sweeping and damp mopping keeps the surface from wearing or scratching. Do not use a lot of water."
Price and Durability
In terms of price and durability, cork flooring is comparable to wood flooring and other resilient flooring options. "Cork is extremely durable when properly maintained," Thwaites says. "There are several examples of installations over 50 years old that are still in beautiful condition – the Library of Congress, U.S. Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC, St. Mary of the Lake Chapel near Chicago, and Lafayette College in Easton, PA; there is a range in price, but like many things, you get what you pay for."
Cork flooring can also add a unique design element to a space, as it has a unique aesthetic and is available in multiple patterns and colors. Like linoleum, vinyl, and other resilient flooring materials, it can be installed with decorative inlays.
Assuming your budget will allow for cork, it can be a viable – or better – alternative to wood or other resilient flooring.
"For buildings where sustainability, comfort, acoustics, and indoor air quality are design priorities, cork is a good choice," says Thwaites. "But you must be willing to commit to proper care and maintenance to achieve long-term durability."
Kylie Wroblaski ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.