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Flooring It

I am removing wall-to-wall carpeting because of allergies. I want to replace it with hardwood or cork flooring. Will these insulate as well as carpet, and what types of hardwood and cork flooring are best?—Bill N.

Both hardwood and cork are beautiful flooring materials and they are natural, renewable resources. Even though wood and cork are reasonable insulators, they will not provide as much insulation as carpeting over a thick pad. With the millions of tiny air pockets, though, wood and cork flooring will feel warm to your feet.

The insulation of the flooring material is less important than properly insulating the floor. If your home is built over a crawlspace, the underside of the floor structure or the entire crawlspace should be insulated. For a house on a slab, the slab perimeter should be insulated. If you have a basement, exposed walls should be insulated to several feet below the ground level.

By removing the carpeting, you will realize a savings by not having to run room air cleaners and a vacuum cleaner as frequently to remove allergens, which thrive in carpeting.

Hardwood and cork have somewhat similar properties and are durable and attractive. Hardwood is more commonly used, and more types and styles are available. Cork, although it feels hard to the touch, is more comfortable to stand on for long periods of time. If you drop a glass on a cork floor, it generally will not break. This is one reason it is often used in kitchens.

There are significant differences among various hardwoods used for flooring. With children in the home, durability is likely your first priority.

There are two characteristics that constitute durability. The first is hardness of the wood surface: a harder wood holds up better to foot traffic and resists dents from dropped items.

The second characteristic of durability is stability. A hardwood that is stable will not change shape and size much with changes in humidity and temperature throughout the year. If you prefer natural ventilation to save energy during summer with its higher humidity, stability should be a consideration.

The hardest woods, such as hard maple, hickory, red oak, etc., may not always be the most stable. Always check the specific wood species, not just a general name such as cherry. Brazilian cherry is twice as hard as black cherry, but black cherry is more stable.

An environmental alternative to solid flooring is engineered hardwood. A veneer of real hardwood is bonded to several plies of other less expensive woods, so fewer hardwood trees are consumed. This makes it more stable under varying indoor conditions than most solid hardwoods.

For environmentally conscious homeowners, cork is the perfect material. The bark of cork oak trees is peeled off every nine years, and the trees heal themselves and grow stronger.

The natural colors of cork can range from almost white to deep, dark browns. Reds, greens, and blues are also available with varying grain definitions. These colorful cork tiles are usually made using a stained cork veneer layer over a natural-colored cork base. These have the same resilient feeling as solid (massive) cork tiles.

Massive cork tiles are the same thickness as veneer cork, but are not layered. They have an insulation value of R-2.8 per inch thickness, so they save energy over an uninsulated slab floor. Fewer colors are available because they are not stained.

The following companies offer hardwood flooring: Boen Hardwood Flooring, (800) 783-3309, www.boen.com; Briggs Engineered Wood Products, (800) 750-5563, www.puzzlefloor.com; Junckers Hardwood, (800) 878-9663, www.junckershardwood.com. And cork flooring: Dodge-Regupol, (800) 322-1923, www.regupol.com; Jelinek, (800) 959-0995, www.jelinekcork.com; Natural Cork, (800) 404-2675, www.naturalcork.com.

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