Homeowners today have an almost mind-numbing array of choices for their home remodeling and decorating projects. Flooring projects are no exception. When looking to upgrade the flooring in your home, you can choose from ceramic, glass, and marble tile; vinyl in sheets, planks, and tiles; and a vast array of manufactured and natural wood options. Although it is sometimes forgotten among the many other available flooring surfaces, cork flooring has unique features we believe warrant a second glance.
What Is Cork Flooring?
Cork flooring is an eco-friendly alternative to manufactured and hardwood flooring. It is a natural wood product, derived from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber). This bark is harvested from mature and live trees, ground and mixed with resin, then pressed into sheets. The sheets are dried until they become a soft, cushiony flooring in a variety of colors. Manufacturers often apply sealers and finishes to help the natural cork retain its beauty.
INSULATION AND NOISE REDUCTION
Cork flooring comes with an R-value of R-1.125, which falls above most other flooring, including both hardwood and ceramic. It has a spongy and open-celled structure that traps air and gasses within the flooring. That air serves as a natural insulation and can help regulate temperature shift between rooms. Cork is an attractive flooring option that can help lower your heating and cooling bills.
The same cellular structure that gives cork its insulating properties also makes it an excellent noise suppressor. In fact, many people use cork tiles on walls to prevent noise from disturbing friends and family in the next room or to keep their nosy neighbors from hearing their every word and action.
You will be pleasantly surprised the first time you step on a cork floor. It offers a springy texture more like carpet than hardwood. This lightly cushioned surface can help ease the strain on your feet, legs, and back over periods of prolonged standing. You will experience the most benefit from this feature in rooms where you are likely to stand in one place for a while, such as a kitchen.
This same natural shock absorption can help minimize injuries from minor falls and stumbles, making cork an excellent flooring choice for homes with small children or elderly residents prone to falling. People who drop things will also appreciate the extra layer of protection for their breakables.
HYPOALLERGENIC AND ANTIMICROBIAL
Allergy sufferers rejoice! You finally have a comfortable and hypoallergenic alternative to carpets. Cork structure naturally repels dust and pet allergens and has been shown to help improve air quality in rooms where it is installed.
Another great feature of cork is its antimicrobial properties. Thanks to the wax-substance known as suberin that naturally occurs in cork oak bark, the flooring repels insects and mold. Suberin is also known to resist rotting, but we still recommend you install it at or above grade for best results.
ECO-FRIENDLY FLOORING OPTION
In the ever-expanding category of green building products, cork flooring truly stands out as a tried-and-true option. Harvested primarily in southern Europe, cork is fully renewable and sustainable as a flooring option. It is harvested by hand from live cork oak trees without causing harm to their health or growth. Harvests are strictly regulated, with a minimum tree age of 25 for its first harvest and a 10-year interval between harvests in place. Trees completely replace the bark that has been harvested with new bark, and there are no ill effects from the process.
EASY TO INSTALL AND MAINTAIN
Cork flooring comes in a variety of tile shapes, sizes, and styles. Most have features that allow for a fairly straightforward installation, and someone with basic home improvement skills should feel confident in this area. Do an honest assessment of your handiness when considering flooring types, brands, and manufacturers. If the idea of thin-set mortar leaves you with only a blank stare, there are also snap together options or—for the true DIY novice—peel and stick applications.
If you are ready to ditch the harsh chemical cleaners, cork flooring may be just what you have been looking for. Cleaning instructions for most brands are simple and easy: wipe with a damp mop. No buffing, polishing, stripping or steaming required. This may be enough of a reason to consider cork for your floors if you haven’t yet. Keep in mind that spills will need to be wiped up quickly, especially on untreated floors, as they can soak into the natural cork and cause staining.
Cork’s unique properties allow it to spring back to its original shape after being under pressure. Think of the cork in a wine bottle—it compresses into the neck of the bottle, only to return to its full shape and size once it is out. Your cork flooring will act similarly. It may show signs from heavier appliances and furniture when they are moved, but these should diminish over time. Furniture coasters and sliders can help minimize this effect.
As if cork flooring didn’t have enough great properties, it is naturally fire-resistant. While that doesn’t mean you should set a match to your new floor, it can offer peace of mind in areas where open fires may present a danger. This could include family rooms, great rooms, kitchens, and nurseries. Keep in mind that some sealers and finishes often used on cork flooring may reduce its natural fire resistance. If this is a concern, check with the manufacturers of your flooring and finishes.
What is great for one household might not be a good choice for another. While there are many benefits of cork flooring, you may still have more questions. Here are some additional considerations when deciding if cork is the right flooring choice for your family.
SEALING AND REFINISHING
To seal or not to seal? That is the big question with cork flooring. Proponents of the material’s natural properties argue that sealers and chemical finishes negate the natural beauty, durability, and health benefits of cork. Why choose a product with an open cell structure if you are going to fill those air pockets with chemical sealers, right? That seems a solid argument. However, consider that every small spill on an unsealed cork floor will soak into those same micro-pockets within seconds, causing permanent discoloration of your new floor. Not such an easy choice for most busy, modern households.
With that said, most cork flooring is thick enough to withstand several rounds of sanding and refinishing over the years. So, whether you initially decide for or against sealers, you reserve the right to change your mind. Sand, finish (or not), repeat. Manufacturers also offer warranties on their flooring products, with some offering coverage for up to 25 years.
Fido might be a part of your family, and you may love him as much as your 2-footed children, but that doesn’t mean you want him tearing up your new floor. Just as they can scratch and tear up harder wood surfaces (think oak planks), pets can also damage the softer and more delicate cork tiles you dream of installing.
The verdict is still out on the durability of cork when subjected to the demands of household pets. This may go back to the big question of whether to finish your cork flooring. Finishes designed to withstand heavy foot and pet traffic will offer more protection than an untreated cork floor. If you have indoor pets and have your heart set on cork flooring, look for products that specifically offer protection for this use.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Cork flooring can be a great addition to your new family room—unless you are thinking of remodeling the basement for that purpose. The absorbent properties of cork are great for insulating and noise reduction, but they work against it in some other areas. Like its hardwood cousins, cork tiles should be installed above grade only. That rules out basements and other below-ground installation. Bathrooms and laundry rooms are other areas where you may want to think twice about installing cork.
Cork flooring offers an attractive and unique flooring experience for those who choose it. The natural texture offers comfort and safety features that no other hard floor surface can. For families worried about safety related to falls, cork can offer a small measure of protection and peace of mind.
Antimicrobial properties of the cork bark offer a safe and natural barrier from germs and bugs. In addition, it is a welcome and cozy option for allergy sufferers who long for the softness and warmth of carpet-like floor coverings without its allergen-trapping tendencies. Cork can even help improve air quality in rooms where it is installed!
Because of its easy install, adventurous DIY enthusiasts who dive in and install it themselves will find that cork can be an affordable flooring option. Its unique characteristics can help lower heating and cooling bills, reduce noise transmission, and provide a safe, comfortable surface for everyday activities.
Overall, we feel the many benefits of cork flooring outweigh the potential drawbacks. For those who take the plunge, you will rest easy knowing you have made a healthy choice for your family and the planet