Countertops and Floors Go Green
Sustainable surfaces made of concrete, glass, bamboo, cork, linoleum, and even paper are not only eco-friendly but also beautiful
Five years ago, few of Joshua Green's clients would have imagined purchasing countertops made from the same material that covers their garage floors. But now, as homeowners grow more environmentally aware, that's exactly what they're doing.
"When we first talk about concrete, people think about their driveways or the pavement they walk on," says Green, owner of Nomad Industries, a firm located in Brooks that specializes in decorative concrete, including design and installation of concrete countertops and flooring. "But when they see it, they want it."
Concrete, glass, and paper
Concrete--made of a cementitious material, water, and aggregate (sand, gravel, or crushed stone)--has been used as a construction material for centuries. Today's cementitious materials--cement--are likely to be green.
Fly ash, for example, is a recycled byproduct of coal-fired furnaces at power-generation facilities. Though concrete has been used since ancient Rome, it is getting lots of attention from homeowners who want more environmentally friendly materials on the countertops and floors.
"It's all-natural, durable, versatile, and when it's embedded with recycled glass or agate, every piece is a unique work of art," Green says. "It's perfect for anyone who wants something green."
In fact, the ranks of consumers who want to beautify their homes without blemishing the environment are on the rise, says Glen Dentinger of Bluegrass Green Co., a distributor of environmentally friendly home improvement supplies.
"People are hearing about environmental issues," Dentinger says. "They know that mining raw materials can be destructive and energy-intensive, and they understand the impact products such as vinyl flooring have on the environment."
So, in addition to concrete, they're also turning to other renewable or natural materials suitable for countertops and floors, including those made from recycled glass and paper.
With most of its products made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, PaperStone lends a clean, modern appearance to kitchens and baths.
PaperStone uses a water-based resin system that contains nonpetroleum-based phenols (phenols are caustic compounds found in plastics and other materials) and is virtually formaldehyde-free.
IceStone, primarily a countertop material, is manufactured from 100 percent recycled glass and concrete. Some styles contain sustainably harvested mother-of-pearl obtained from recycled oyster shells. IceStone surfaces are manufactured to be free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in less environmentally friendly materials.
"These types of products are especially appealing to young parents who are concerned about their children being exposed to chemicals," Dentinger says.
Return to true linoleum
Marmoleum is also becoming a favorite flooring material of consumers concerned about indoor air quality. Made from linseed oil, pine resin, wood flour, and limestone affixed to a natural fiber, jute backing, Marmoleum is the latest version of linoleum, a material that has covered residential and industrial floors for generations.
"It's true linoleum as it was manufactured 150 years ago, with improved technology and color palettes," says Scott Day, marketing communications manager for Forbo Flooring Systems, maker of Marmoleum.
Besides drawing its components from nature,
Marmoleum's smooth surface is virtually hypoallergenic.
"The floor produces no static electricity, so it does not attract dust, dirt, or pet dander," says Day. "That's why it's been installed in commercial and hospital settings."
In fact, Marmoleum Click, designed for easy home installation without glue, is the first flooring product to be approved by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America for use in homes where asthmatic and highly allergic children and adults reside.
Like concrete, the product also lends a highly contemporary look to rooms where it is installed.
Bamboo and cork
Homeowners who prefer the look of wood without sacrificing trees to get it are choosing more sustainable materials such as cork and bamboo for their countertops and for their flooring materials.
"Bamboo is comparable to hardwoods, and both bamboo and cork are factory-finished to make their surfaces resistant to scratches," says Skip Sutton of Floorcoverings International, a retailer that carries eco-friendly products. Technically, bamboo is considered a grass rather than a tree. It grows more quickly than most hardwood trees, and can generally be harvested every five to six years, rather than the 40 to 120 years it takes hardwood trees to mature; and, whereas new trees must be replanted to replace those that were harvested, bamboo simply grows back again.
Applied as a countertop or as flooring, bamboo lends a visual texture similar to hardwood, and is similar in terms of durability and maintenance. It is also stain- and bacteria-resistant.
Like bamboo, cork is a wholly sustainable material. It is obtained when the bark of a cork oak tree is harvested, generally every nine years. Cork is highly sustainable because the trees are never cut to obtain the material and the harvested bark regenerates over time.
The material has long been harvested to manufacture bottle stoppers. Material used to make countertop and flooring material is derived from bottle stopper manufactured waste.
Consumers with an eye for design appreciate corkï¿½s texture and its ability to add visual warmth to kitchens and other residential spaces. But the material's attributes are more than superficial. Because in nature the cork bark protects its tree from pests, cork countertops and flooring are resistant to mold, bacteria, and insects.
Cork, bamboo, concrete, and other eco-friendly materials continue to win over environmentally aware homeowners. But they are not the only ways manufacturers are helping them bring sustainable and recycled products into their homes. Some are already fabricating sinks from recycled automotive parts and turning chalkboards into countertops. Other products are sure to follow.
"The trend is rising," says Dentinger, "and it's not going away any time soon." KL
CAN YOU DIY?
Sustainable flooring and countertop materials are great for the environment, and many fit well into home improvement plans. But are these materials DIY-friendly?
Depending upon the material--and the homeowner's experience--they are.
Homeowners who have experience with floating floor systems should easily be able to install so-called "click"--or floating--flooring systems and some countertop materials with the right tools.
"But if they're in doubt, they should talk to their retailer about the project and their level of comfort doing it themselves. If they're not comfortable doing the job themselves, ask the dealer to refer an installer," says Glen Dentinger of Bluegrass Green Co.
However, some improvements, such as adding concrete floors and countertops, are usually best left in the hands of an experienced contractor.
Product suppliers can provide a list of contractors in your area. Misty Wilburn, general manager for Suburban Decorative Concrete Supply in Louisville, offers these tips for finding the right person for the job.
Ask how long the contractor has been working with the materials you intend to install.
Ask to see a portfolio of previous work. "The portfolio will show the contractor's work. But anybody can get pictures. Ask for a list of references, too," Wilburn says.
Contact and chat with references. Not only is checking references a good way to verify a contractor's performance, it's also a good way to talk with people who have installed these surfaces. Ask how the surfaces are performing, and whether the materials are living up to the homeowner's expectations.
And when hiring a contractor you should always:
* Request a detailed written estimate that includes costs for labor materials, as well as project starting and completion dates.
* Get warrantees on materials and labor in writing.
* Request proof of workersï¿½ compensation insurance.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: SUSTAINABLE SURFACES RESOURCE LIST
For a complete list of the products, vendors, and suppliers discussed in this feature, as well as additional Web resources to learn more about sustainable surfaces, go to sustainable surfaces.