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Before it’s a floorboard, it must be a log, and before it’s a log, it must be a tree. While hardwood floors are much sought as one of the most reliable ways to imbue any space, private or public, with warmth and class, the consequences of high demand on the world’s forests can be severe and long-lasting.
This wasn’t a great concern in the good old days of the American frontier, when Nature’s bounty was there for the taking, and there were endless tracts of trees to use for dwellings and sustenance. However, rapid industrialization and explosive population growth have taken their toll – 400 years ago, half of the territory of the lower 48 states was covered in old-growth (also known as primary-growth), virgin forests. Today, only a tenth of those remain, and even they are threatened – 4 out of 5 acres of old forest in the Pacific Northwest are cleared for logging activities. Most of America’s remaining primary-growth forests are in national reserves and on public lands; while this provides a measure of protection, there are many business interests that constantly lobby for access to these resources, both the trees themselves and the minerals underneath; nature conservancy groups are engaged in a constant battle for preservation. Furthermore, protected forest enclaves are often cut off by man-made infrastructure, making it often very difficult or impossible for wildlife to cross from one patch of forest to the other, disrupting natural migration patterns, as well as reproduction.
Fortunately, deforestation both in the United States and other developed countries has stabilized, and even reversed in some cases. Second-growth forests that have risen in place of cleared-out primary forests don’t have the same soil profile and ecological complexity, but they do help fight climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon, and provide shelter for many species of birds, animals and insects.
The most severe deforestation today occurs in the developing world, such as South America, central Africa and South-East Asia, where large tracts of forest are cleared out to make way for agriculture, or to provide consumers in developed countries with cheap and abundant exotic woods. Indonesia, Brazil and the Congo are particularly afflicted by this problem, with tens of millions of acres of trees felled annually; weak and corrupt governments make it difficult to enact and enforce protections. In total, over 2 billion tons of carbon are added to the atmosphere due to deforestation – more than the combined contribution of all forms of transportation put together.
This is why flooring manufacturers and environmentalists alike have come together to find sustainable solutions for flooring. Recycled particle-board and laminate floors are one way to avoid an impact on forests, but most people don’t find this type of cover nearly as appealing as real wood. For customers who insist on actual hardwood flooring, logging companies have selected and bred species of trees that make for a long-lasting and visually-appealing product, while also growing quickly and being easy to harvest.
Bamboo flooring is a champion in this regard – while technically a grass, bamboo is a very tough and fibrous material, and has been used in East Asia for thousands of years, in housing construction, furniture, everyday items, and even writing implements. Bamboo grows thin and hollow, and can’t be made into a solid plank, but with current technologies, it can be glued together in strips to create engineered floors that last for a very long time. The best-known advantage of bamboo is that it’s also probably the fastest-growing flooring material in existence – up to an astonishing 2 inches an hour, under the right conditions. Compare that with an oak tree, which can take over a century to reach maturity, and bamboo turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Another fast-growing source for flooring is eucalyptus. In truth, “Eucalyptus” is a rather large and diverse genus of trees in the Myrtaceae family, with most people being familiar with only a couple of species. The most widely-used eucalyptus product – the fragrant essential oil – is mostly produced from the leaves of Eucalyptus globulus; while used for timber, this species has poor lumber qualities and is difficult to process. However, logging companies have, in recent years, developed Lyptus – a hybrid of two eucalyptus species (E. grandis and E. urophylla) – which is a flooring manufacturer’s dream. It grows extremely fast, for a tree – in the right conditions, a Lyptus plantation turns over in 5-6 years. The wood is dense, uniform and close-grained; it’s versatile, easy to process and is, in many ways, superior to mahogany. Lyptus is a great innovation that can satisfy customer demand for low-cost, quality hardwood floors, while helping preserve rainforests.
There are many second-growth forests that can be safely harvested for flooring in the United States, as well – Appalachia boasts large swaths of hardwood forest, with a prevalence of relatively fast-growing Red Oak (Quercus rubra); many flooring companies are based in states such as Kentucky, and control both the logging aspect and manufacture of flooring, in order to make the process easy and cost-effective. The website FloorsUnlimited.com goes into great detail about the various wood species used to make hardwood floors, their properties, ease of care and sustainability rating.
There is a number of non-governmental organizations that help track logging to make sure that old-growth, unsustainably harvested wood isn’t being passed off as environmentally-friendly. The most prominent of these groups is the Forest Stewardship Council; founded in 1993, the group incorporates both environmental advocates and industry representatives, and attempts to use market-friendly methods in order to promote sustainable logging. FSC runs a certification program for organizations that conduct inspections; FSC floors are guaranteed to be grown, logged and sourced without causing loss of primary-growth forests worldwide.
After the wood is logged, it is then shipped to be processed at a plant. This is another area where the customer can research their impact on the environment. Most fast-growing wood is raised on plantations in warm climates, with South America being one of the leading producers. Wood sourced in North America typically comes from slower-growing species. However, costs and carbon emissions incurred during transportation are also an important factor. Many American flooring companies, such as Somerset, also control the entire chain of production – they’re headquartered near forests where timber is logged, and have manufacturing and milling facilities nearby, so the logs only need to be transported a short distance before they can be processed. Since timber is mostly processed as close to the logging site as possible, in order to avoid shipping material that will be sawed off and discarded anyway, domestically-sourced wood indirectly provides jobs for American mill workers.
Modern technology has made it possible to saw a log extremely efficiently, using every part of the round to make various construction materials. The photo that accompanies this article is a sculpture by Swiss artist Vincent Kohler, showing all the different profiles and thicknesses of boards that are obtained by sawing a typical round log. The boards can then either be machined down to a solid hardwood plank, or be cut into strips to make engineered floorboards. One of the advantages of engineered boards is that the multi-layered construction varies the direction of the wood grain, which in turn makes the boards more resilient and resistant to deformation from the effects of heat or water.
The flooring market has recently seen another revolution – the advent of Internet marketing. Previously, the customer would need to go to a brick-and-mortar store to buy flooring, but today, they can browse much larger selections online without leaving their home. Online retailers can also provide great deals on engineered and solid hardwood floors, due to their lack of overhead costs associated with maintaining a physical store. On the Internet, it’s also much easier to instantly find information about the provenance of any given hardwood flooring line, its sustainability and environmental credentials. For example, Floorsunlimited.com has an entire section, FloorsUnlimited.com which explains the difference between hardwood engineered and solid flooring, as well as a primer on “green flooring” and some of the alternatives to hardwood.
With myriad options available to today’s consumer, it’s possible to buy hardwood floors that are cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than ever before.