Is cork flooring a sound choice for your home?
The residential flooring market expanded significantly over the last 10 years as exotic products such as incredible hardwoods and cultured stone became widely available. One option seeing a resurgence is cork flooring, which was first used in the late 19th century.
Installation and finishing improvements, along with cork's natural benefits, have made it a popular choice for kitchens and living rooms. But is it worth the cost?
From tree to floor
Cork floors start their life as the bark on cork oak trees found predominantly in southern Europe. The bark is collected by hand and with great care to ensure trees are not damaged. Every nine years, they are again ready for harvesting.
The bark removed is spongy, containing millions of tiny air pockets, which is the signature feature of cork floors. Once collected, cork tree bark is ground up, pressed, then baked in kiln to produce floor tiles.
These tiles can be installed professionally and are also sold as packages that require the same amount of skill as laminate flooring to install. The cork floor process is entirely sustainable so long as trees are not overharvested and is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "green building strategy."
The pros and cons of cork
Aside from simple installation, cork offers a number of benefits over vinyl, laminate or hardwood floors. It is naturally resistant to depressions from foot traffic, and its tight cellular nature provides a "spring" effect missing in most other floors. A slightly spongy feel makes standing on cork floors better for your back, and this same characteristic helps prevent dropped glasses or plates from breaking on impact.
In addition, these floors are naturally soundproof, making them an excellent choice for rooms above a basement suite. Cork is most commonly found in kitchens or living rooms, and is inherently antimicrobial, hypoallergenic and entirely recyclable.
There are several cons to cork as well. It must be sealed with a polyurethane coat to prevent swelling, and improper maintenance can damage or remove this coating. Other materials are more scratch-resistant than cork, and although it endures light foot traffic extremely well, large pieces of furniture such as tables or heavy chairs can permanently indent this product. Consider using felt "feet" to minimize the impact.
Cork is also light-sensitive, so expect its color to fade over time. And while the floor is water-resistant, liquids must not be allowed to stand on the surface for longer than absolutely necessary because it can become permanently stained.
Maintenance and cost
Maintaining a cork floor is straightforward. A quick sweeping or vacuum on the "bare floor" setting will take care of most dust and debris. When properly coated, all dirt and particulate matter should remain on top of the floor for easy cleanup.
Damp mopping with a solution of white vinegar in water (1/4 cup of vinegar to a bucket of water) will help keep the floor shiny, and for seasonal cleaning use high-quality oil soap. Never use any kind of harsh cleaner or "one-use" mop pads that use chemicals, since these products will leave streaks in the floor that are almost impossible to remove.
Every five to eight years, you should have the entire floor recoated in polyurethane, and if major damage occurs (like a severe spill or gouge), the floor can be stripped and refinished. Bear in mind, however, that this only applies to true cork, not cork veneer.
When it comes to cost, you'll pay more than other flooring types with the exception of exotic hardwoods. Standard hardwoods are $4 to $6 per square foot for materials, tile is $4 to $8, laminate comes in at $1 to $3 and cork tops the list at $5 to $10 per square foot.
All have similar installation costs, but make sure when you hire a flooring professional that they have some experience installing cork floors. If improperly laid or poorly sealed, the floor you paid so much for can quickly deteriorate, leading to the need for full reinstallation.
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