Cork: Beyond the Wine Bottle
Renewable and resilient
Cork floors were originally made from scrap left over from wine-cork manufacturing, but because of rising demand, many floors are now made with cork harvested specifically for flooring. It comes in tiles or click-together planks, in shades of brown, as well as other colors and patterns. Some products have wood backing covered by a veneer of cork.
The source material is the outer bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber), a tree indigenous to Spain and Portugal. It’s a renewable resource. Workers strip off the outer bark, which grows back and can be harvested again in about ten years. The resource is not unlimited, however. It’s grown commercially primarily in Portugal and a few other Mediterranean countries.
Cork is resilient, which makes the flooring comfortable to stand on and easy on dropped dishes. But it can dent–especially if you have heavy furniture or friends with stiletto heels. Among its other virtues are fire- and stain-resistance and the ability to absorb sound. But like wood and bamboo, it can fade if exposed to direct sunlight. And while it doesn’t soak up moisture (think about your wine bottle), it’s not impervious to water. If your family members tend to splash in the tub, it may not be the best option for your bathroom.
- Keep it tidy. If you want your floor to last a long time, you’ll need to be a diligent housekeeper. Dry-mop and vacuum regularly to keep it free of grit that can scratch the finish. Wash it with a damp mop occasionally. Clean up any liquid spills immediately.
- Use pads under heavy furniture.
When shopping, look for
- Healthy materials. Choose flooring made without added urea formaldehyde in either the top or bottom layers of the floor. For glued-down cork floors, use low- or zero-VOC adhesives or choose a floating floor product-planks that click together and require no glues.
- Flooring that is prefinished. To avoid using finishing chemicals in the home, prefinished products are best. But check with the supplier about whether an additional topcoat should be applied after installation.
- Good wood. If your floor has a wood backing make sure it is veneer is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as sustainably harvested.
- Durability. This kind of flooring comes in a broad range of prices. To avoid wasting time, money, and materials, buy a quality product with a warranty of at least 10 years.
- Vinyl. Some cork flooring comes with a vinyl top coating or vinyl backing.
…to your health
Cork floors can make a nice addition to a healthy home–if you shop carefully for products without urea formaldehyde or high-VOC adhesives.
…to the Earth
Cork is a renewable resource made from bark. Harvesting it doesn’t kill trees. It does take a lot of energy to transport it to the United States, however, since it’s commercially grown mainly in Portugal and Spain.
Corking the heater. Cork is a good insulator, and will block heat coming from an in-floor radiant heating system.
- Getting a look at your options should be easy: The material is widely available at flooring dealers and home improvement stores.
- Ask any potential installer the following questions:
- How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing these floors?
- Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you’ve chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.
- If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.
- For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.