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Cover Me Green

So, it’s time to replace that shabby hallway carpeting. Or maybe you need new flooring for the front entryway. Why not go green?

When it comes to flooring, “green” might mean many things, says Carol Swedlow, president of Aronson’s Floor and Covering, a Manhattan-based company that supplies flooring for residential and commercial spaces.

“Everyone has to define what is important to them environmentally,” says Swedlow, who has taken an interest in environmentally friendly flooring and offers seminars for builders and architects. She says some flooring options are more environmentally friendly because they come from so-called rapidly renewable resources, such as cork and rubber, where trees don’t have to be chopped down to harvest materials.

Others, such as natural wool, are biodegradable and are also naturally flame-retardant so additional chemicals are not needed. Many carpet companies now offer product lines that are made from a percentage of recycled materials.

“Everyone has to draw their own line in the sand,” says Swedlow. She and other green experts agree that existing co-ops and condos have been slow to opt for environmentally friendly flooring, in part because boards have to reach a consensus and are often risk-adverse.

“People are asking about it, but I don’t think there are a lot of people implementing it,” Swedlow says. “You see it a lot more in new construction.”

Lauren Gropper, who has her own green-building consulting company, primarily works on new construction. But she recommends that those interested in any element of green design go to www.greenhomenyc.org to look for contractors and find more information. Another resource is www.green builder.com.

Many carpet companies offer products with varying percentages of recycled materials. Dave Poli, owner of the Manhattan-based Popular Carpet Distributors, says a traditional, tufted nylon carpet, like the ones used for hallways, can start at about $6 or $7 a square yard. Carpets with some percentage of recycled content are only slightly higher – about 10 to 20 percent, he says. Both last about the same time, roughly 10 years if properly maintained. “The price difference is hardly noticeable,” Poli says.

One of the industry leaders in green carpeting is the Georgia-based InterfaceFLOR. Company-wide, there is a commitment to environmental causes, from removing toxics from materials to powering mills in part through solar panels and landfill methane gas, says company spokeswoman Reva Revis.

The company’s carpet comes in tiles, a more environmentally sensitive choice than broadloom because it allows contractors to reduce installation waste. Also, if one area of the floor is eventually damaged, only a few tiles would need to be removed and replaced, she says.

Revis says one popular line has 74 percent recycled content, both from post-consumer and post-industrial waste. Poli adds that many carpet companies will send their own trucks to pick up old carpet to take back to be recycled.

Yet another type of green carpet is one that is made of a blend of traditional nylon and bio-material. InterfaceFLOR’s product uses a substance made from non-food-grade corn. InterfaceFLOR has several lines with varying levels of bio-material – the highest contains 15 percent, Revis says. Hybrid carpets have a similar lifespan to traditional or carpets with recycled content. Revis adds that some of their recycled and bio-blend carpet lines cost more than traditional nylon but others are priced the same.

Poli notes that natural wool is one of the longest lasting and most durable floorings, pointing out that he uses it for Broadway theater floors, which are subjected to intense foot traffic. He recalls one carpet that lasted 14 years. Wool carpeting might cost about $45 a square yard while a nylon carpet of comparable quality would cost about $35 a square yard. Wool looks better longer, he says, because it sloughs off layers as it ages.

Swedlow swears by natural wool carpeting for hallways and for some interior lobby spaces, as long as they are far enough away from the main door. Regardless of the type of flooring, she recommends using walk-off mats that are at least twelve feet long – not the four to six feet that some buildings use – to protect interior flooring from damage and dirt.

Although wool is more expensive, Swedlow notes that installation and labor costs in the area are high and will be fairly similar whether you are installing a cheaper, tufted nylon carpet or a more expensive wool product.

One of the most important ways to go green with flooring is with the kind of adhesive used, says Mark Bisbee, owner of the Virginia-based GreenFloors TM. One of the frequent environmental complaints about carpeting is off-gassing, or the evaporation of chemicals. Most of that can be blamed on the adhesives.

Bisbee’s company has a list of about 20 different kinds of adhesives that have low amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are blamed for off-gassing. The key is finding the right one, depending on the flooring’s backing and the condition of the subfloor.

“You really have to match the two to make sure the installation is a success,” he says. The good news is that low-VOC adhesives are not any more expensive than traditional ones.

Bisbee’s company, while based in Virginia, works with commercial and residential buildings nationwide. A New York City co-op or condo could buy green supplies from him, and then he finds area contractors for installation.

Another important environmental element is carpet padding. Bisbee estimates that most condos and co-ops don’t use padding because it adds a cost element for materials and labor. But padding does lengthen the life of a carpet, an environmental bonus because you have to replace it less often.

Buyers should beware, however, that all padding is not environmentally equal. Recycled padding sounds like a good idea, but Bisbee warns that many recycled products contain parts that came from padding coated with fire-retardant chemicals, another off-gassing culprit. The padding Bisbee recommends is about 75 cents a square foot, while traditional padding runs about 50 cents a square foot.

For entryways, stairs, and landings, another option is rubber flooring. Natural rubber is harvested from the rubber tree much like maple syrup, making it a renewable resource. It also can be dyed many colors and printed with textures. Bisbee says it costs between $7 and $10 a square foot.

Other rubber flooring options come from recycled tires. One, called “tire crumb,” is made up of ground up tires that are molded into tiles or rolls of material. That product can be used in hallways and landings and costs between $6 and $8 a square foot.

“That uses both post consumer waste – after the tire has been used and post industrial waste – materials that are leftover after production,” Bisbee says. “That keeps it out of landfills.”

Another recycled rubber product is made from strips cut from tires. Like tire crumb tiles, this product gives buyers fewer options in terms of color and style than natural rubber. It runs about $8 to $12 a square foot. Rubber flooring is used in high-traffic areas like airports and Bisbee says it can last from 20 to 60 years.

Another option to consider is natural linoleum, observes Popular Carpet’s Poli. Linoleum is made from a combination of natural substances, such as linseed oil, ground limestone, wood, and jute. Linoleum can be dyed almost any color and Poli says that pigments are all natural. Linoleum can be installed in places where vinyl tile would be considered, such as hallways, laundry rooms, and other common areas. It generally lasts about 25 years and costs about $7 a square foot.

Like rubber, cork is a rapidly renewable resource because it can be harvested without killing the tree, says Jennifer Biscoe, marketing director for Bronx-based Globus Cork. Cork flooring is made from the post industrial waste of the wine stopper industry, she says. Those leftover materials are ground up, formed into blocks, and then sliced into tiles. The tiles are coated with a sealant.

Some people, like Aronson’s Swedlow say that cork can be a tough sell for condos and co-ops, in part because it looks different from marble, wood, terrazzo, and other traditional floorings and also because it requires different maintenance.

But Biscoe notes that for decades cork floors were installed in libraries and courthouses; one that was installed in 1917 at Rockefeller University is still in use. Cork dampens sound like carpet and wears better than wood, she says. It costs about $7 a square foot. Also, Biscoe says the stains, finishes, and adhesives used with cork are all water-based to avoid off-gassing. Plus, the material itself is biodegradable.

While cork is more commonly used for commercial spaces or unit interiors like bathrooms and kitchens, it could be used for some common areas of condos and co-ops.

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