Hardwood flooring became popular as early as the 17th Century, found in homes from the common to the palatial. During the height of the Baroque period, a time of exuberant architecture, hardwood flooring turned to parquet patterns. Artisans set various pieces of hardwood carefully together to create elaborate parquet designs. By the colonial era in the U.S., where wood was plentiful, nearly all homes had what was called “wood carpeting.” By the 1920s, most hardwood flooring was stained and sealed plank hardwood, often with oak downstairs and pine upstairs.
Housing and natural hardwood flooring historically go hand-in-hand. As such, natural hardwoods are often at the top of the items most desirable for the home’s interior design. According to the National Association of Realtors, hardwood flooring adds monetary value to the home.
Yet, at the end of the day, “a house is a machine for living,” said the modernist Le Corbusier. Hardwood isn’t always the best option in all areas or even for whole homes.
A relatively new product on the market, Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) mimics natural hardwood flooring. LVT is a uniform building material, easy to install, less expensive, and more durable in harsh conditions such as high traffic and high humidity areas.
Not to be confused with the 1970s linoleum, the manufacturing industry has remade LVT to much higher aesthetic and functional standards. Images of natural wood are printed onto the face of the LVT panels. They are coated with a clear top surface, called the wear layer. Beneath these panels is the core, usually made of vinyl to provide stability. Some products also have a cork or foam underlayment to provide cushioning.
LVT’s forte is that it can imitate all types of hardwood flooring, even elaborate designs such as natural wood herringbone and parquet that would be extremely expensive. Tropical woods, such as IPE, that are expensive to harvest—and often overharvested in tropical rainforests—are imitated for much less in vinyl.
There are pros and cons to both natural hardwoods versus vinyl. For the natural hardwoods, these floors can last up to 100 years and more with a few refinishes throughout the decades. Reducing waste by installing a longer-lasting product is a powerful sustainable statement for the environment. Going a step further, purchasing hardwood flooring certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures the consumer that the product has been harvested with careful consideration for the environment.
Vinyl can be of concern to environmentalists because it is a manufactured product that consumes considerable energy, is made of material that is not biodegradable, and can off-gas harmful chemicals as VOCs possibly compromising indoor air quality. However, looking at the bigger picture, the choice may not be that simple.
There are a host of factors involved that take careful deliberation. For example, installing a vinyl flooring product certified by the GreenGuard seal limits its harmful effect on the environment. GreenGuard mitigates the negative indoor air quality health impact. Therefore, it could be argued that saving wood from being harvested from the rainforest and rather installing an LVT product with the GreenGuard seal may arguably be the more environmentally-friendly option.
Right material for the right application
There are different reasons, as well, why a natural hardwood might be selected over a vinyl hardwood imitation and vice versa. For example, there may be an elegant entryway that deserves extra handicraft and the unpredictable patterning of sensual natural hardwood that can never be perfectly imitated by any manmade product.
On the other hand, a homeowner likes the look of hardwood for the kitchen but installs LVT rather than a natural hardwood that could become water damaged. The demand for LVT is growing. It is a product that has remade itself repeatedly through the decades. Today, more than ever, we see LVT throughout an entire first floor of a new home and surprised guests who think it’s natural hardwood.
Although, if loyalties still lie with natural hardwoods, they too have been revamped with every type of wood, including reclaimed from torn-down barns and timber from trees cut down on your property. Experimental finishes such as high gloss marine varnish, brightly-colored stains, and even deep rich black stains abound. Wood flooring has even been a champion for elaborately painted decorative patterns.
Another option under the hardwood umbrella, is engineered hardwood. Once considered a pale imitation of hardwood,
type of flooring has improved greatly over the years.
“There are two types of hardwood: engineered and solid. Solid has hardwood throughout the whole thickness and engineered has a thinner layer adhered to a high-quality plywood base,” says Michelle Bruegge, director of marketing with McSwain Carpets & Floors. “Solid is able to be refinished numerous times. Depending on the thickness of the engineered layer, it might be able to be refinished, but more often than not it cannot.”
Whether natural, engineered, or manufactured LVT, the look of hardwood flooring remains popular. Finding the right material should be a fun, artistic journey to create a space that is both inspiring and as practical as is needed for the “machine for living.”
A QUICK COMPARISON
Here are a few basic points to consider when choosing between natural hardwood, engineering hardwood, and a hardwood-patterned vinyl.
• Natural material
• Wide variety of wood types, finishes, and patterns
• Lasts over 100 years
• 100% biodegradable at end of lifespan
• Can refinish to change look
• Susceptible to high traffic, high humidity
• Higher-end cost
• Uses less hardwood
• Water resistant, not waterproof
• Resistant to warping
• Can be glued down to a concrete subfloor
• Lasts 20 to 40 years
• Not as valued as natural wood during resale
• Less expensive than hardwood
LUXURY VINYL TILE
• Manufactured, man-made material
• Can imitate any wood and pattern
• Lasts 10-20 years
• Must replace to change “look”
• Relatively easy to install
Carpetland Carpet One Floor & Home
McSwain Carpets & Floors
Article by Stephanie Aurora Lewis, RA, LEED AP
Article originally appeared in March 2023