The greenest flooring option is to keep the one you have.
If it is wood, then simply sand it and seal it with tung oil. It will look better than new. If it is tiles, then re-grout it and replace the cracked tiles. The exception is if it is laminate or linoleum – then get rid of it.
If you can’t keep the floor you have the next best option is to tear it up carefully and hope the sub floor is good.
Unless they were previously gutted most Brooklyn brownstones have a sub-floor of pine planks. These are old growth pine, not the crap pine you buy today, which is the equivalent of hormone fed speed grown beef – not good for you or the environment.
Anyway, the subfloor might not look like much at first but if you patch it, replace a few damaged planks, sand it and seal it with a couple layers of tung oil you will have a truly amazing floor.
It is the kind of floor you simply can’t buy and represents green building at its best. It has a hundred years of character and history in it and no overpriced fancy “hand hewn” flooring of today can come close.
If your subfloor is not good the next best option is locally salvaged flooring. As green builders in Brooklyn we have never bought a new wood floor for this reason.
There are so many good floors being thrown out that in fact we salvage more flooring than we can use. Any cost created by cleaning the wood is offset by the fact that it was free.
After locally salvaged Brooklyn flooring the next option is turning locally salvaged wood and milling it into flooring. This is time consuming since the wood usually comes from old joists and has nails in it.
But the character of the wood makes up for it. Pricewise it comes out to a little more than mid priced new wood. But no tree was cut down to make it and it has a million times more soul.
If you can’t do any of the above then you haven’t tried hard enough because its out there. But if you really, really can’t then try to get locally grown, FSC certified wood.
FSC certified wood, aka Forest Stewardship Council, is wood that has been supposedly grown and harvested more ecologically. But it is definitely along the path of being less evil as opposed to being more good. It is better than nothing I guess and we need more people to buy it instead of non-certified wood but most of the certification is green washing.
The process is very much like the whole mortgage process a couple years ago – banks, mortgage agents, appraisers and even buyers all wanted to buy into the illusion that things were sustainable. But the emperor had no clothes and eventually it all came crashing down.
Likewise lumber companies, lumber distributors, lumber suppliers, and even buyers all want to buy into the illusion that FSC certified wood is more sustainable. And perhaps it is but by HOW much? Not much is my conclusion after looking into it a bit.
In terms of lumber, FSC wood is better than nothing but at the end of the day it is more trees being cut when we can’t afford to cut any more trees. If we continue then it will kill us. We have gone too far and already it is debatable whether we can reverse the tide of ecological destruction. We could easily spend the rest of humanity withering into extinction from the results of our past destructive acts.
So really try not to buy new flooring. It’s not cool. Considering our current ecological crisis it is outright stupid.
And don’t buy bamboo as a green alternative. Bamboo flooring is not green. Yes it is rapidly renewable. But it is from China. Do you have any idea how many gas stops you would have to do if you drove your own bamboo flooring all the way from China??
And less spoken about is the sad fact that Bamboo’s popularity has made it a cash crop in China so they are clear cutting existing forest land to plant it!!
And because it is rapidly renewable – it is a weed after all – it quickly becomes a mono crop and destroys preexisting diverse ecosystems.
And don’t turn to South America either. Anything shipped up from South America is definitely not green. Most of the hard woods are taken from lush tropical forests, destroying them one sad acre at a time.
There are a handful of farmer’s collectives scattered around South America that harvest ecologically. Buying wood from them helps the local economy and in theory they harvest responsibly.
Because it is a farmer’s collective and not a multinational corporation they tend to have a vested financial interest in harvesting sustainably. Unlike the corporation that will clear cut and move on to their next international investment when the resources are depleted, the farmers usually don’t have that kind of capital.
If they clear cut they destroy their only income source. So in their case the term “harvesting sustainably” is both sustainable in ecology and income. They harvest to sustain the forest so they can continue to harvest in the future.
Having said that it is important to research and verify that they really are harvesting sustainably and not some wolf in sheep’s clothing, either knowingly or not. Just because they are a farmer’s collective does not mean they understand yet the financial importance of sustainable harvesting for their future survival!
They might have simply come together as a collective so they can clear cut more effectively and compete with the multinationals!
But lets say they do harvest sustainably. I don’t think we have enough trees in the would to cut another one down. And even if we did, just like your road trip from China, anyone who has driven from South America to the US knows there are a lot of gas stops on the way. Doing it with a hugely inefficient and polluting diesel engine via tanker is even more wasteful.
Which brings us back to good old Brooklyn, home of the Gotham Forest: millions of board feet of amazing wood just sitting there in the many old warehouses and buildings around the city. An unbearably large amount of it gets thrown out. Just look at any brownstone gut renovation. The first thing to go into the dumpster after the plaster lath are the old joists and the old sub floors.
It happens every single time they renovate an old brownstone! Think about it! Next time you see a new renovation under way just peek into the dumpster. You will see piles of old real size 4×3 wall studs and cut in half 3×8 joists. The wood is stronger and more beautiful than the new wood they will replace it with.
Why do they do it? To save time maybe? To save money? I am not sure. It makes no sense to my construction company’s business model. Throwing out good material is not part of our model.
Bottom line: In Brooklyn we have the local resources for very nice flooring. There is no reason we need to buy our wood flooring from abroad or from new trees.
Even though it is legal, even though it is completely socially acceptable, and even though the vast majority of people think it is the normal thing to do, buying internationally sourced wood or wood from new trees is an act of complete ignorance. No self and world respecting person would do it if they understood the impact of such an action.
We need to stop cutting down trees. Period. Buying new wood flooring is completely unsustainable. The definition of unsustainable is that sooner or later something will break. And by then it will be way to late to do anything about fixing it.
Some examples of what I’m talking about:
Here is a subfloor we uncovered after removing cheap linoleum. Looks like crap right? Everyone said to rip it out.
But that is not how Eco Brooklyn works. First we sanded it.
Then we mixed up some of the sawdust from the floor, some wood glue and some water in a blender. We smeared the paste into the cracks:
Then we gave it another finer sanding. It started to look good:
Then we sealed it with a couple layers of tung oil and citrus solvent from the Milk Paint Company:
And the end result is a truly stunning floor. Completely natural, completely sustainable, completely affordable. In short, green flooring:
So lets say you have no subfloor to fix up. Here are some examples of salvaged wood floors.
This one was good to go right out of the dumpster. Wide plank maple:
Here is some oak that they dumped. It had some glue on it. So we removed the glue, reroutered some of it and it is as good as new:
Here is some subfloor that was thrown out. It had been painted so we removed it using Smart Strip paint remover. We then applied tung oil:
We applied the tung oil liberally and allowed it to seep in over night.
Here is some antique yellow pine we had cut down from a larger piece of lumber. We bought it from Fine Lumber in Williamsburg. We sanded it a bit and put tung oil on it. We used for stairs.