Suberin in Cork

Suberin is a waxy substance found in the bark of the cork oak tree and that is named after the Latin for the cork oak – Quercus suber.

The distinctive property of suberin is that it is hydrophobic, or in other words, water resistant. Plants and trees contain suberin because they need some way to regulate the water supply. For example, mangroves contain suberin to limit the amount of salt they take from their littoral environment.

In the case of the cork oak, suberin is found in the phellem or outer layer of the bark and stops the tree losing moisture. The cork oak tree grows nearly exclusively in the Mediterranean area where there are long spells of dry weather.

The bark of the cork oak can be peeled off the tree without damage. In just 9 years the tree has grown another bark. The second harvest and subsequent harvests of bark are much more uniform and suitable for making cork flooring.

Because of the suberin in cork flooring, it is water resistant. The waxy substance prevents water from passing through the flooring. This means that if you spill water on cork flooring the water will sit on the surface. Of course, a lot of water will penetrate cork flooring eventually and if water is left standing on the cork flooring it will damage the flooring.

Another benefit of suberin in cork flooring is that it makes the flooring fire retardant. It is very difficult to set fire to cork and in the event of a fire, cork flooring does not give off any noxious gases.

Finally, suberin in cork flooring is a repellent against numerous insects and has been shown to have antimicrobial properties. This makes cork flooring and cork underlayment ideal for people who suffer from allergies or asthma.

Cork flooring is not only from a renewable resource and thus sustainable flooring it is also healthy flooring.

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Is Reclaimed Hardwood Flooring Upcycling?

The term ‘upcycle’ was coined by Reiner Pilz in 1994. He didn’t invent upcycling he merely made an important academic distinction between recycling and upcycling. Typically when we recycle we take products such as newspapers or aluminum cans and subject them to an industrial process to turn them into a raw material of a lower value. Recycled paper costs less than a newspaper and recycled aluminum costs less than a can of soda. Generally, recycling only makes economic sense when done a big scale because of the technology needed for converting the material to something of use. For this reason only big businesses and local governments get involved in recycling.

In contrast upcycling is taking an unwanted item or material and turning it into something of greater value. It is re-purposing and can often been done without the help of expensive machinery. Street vendors in Bangokok turn coke cans into statues of tuk tuks, jewelery makers make necklaces from piano pendants. There is often a creative element to upcycling.

Upcycling has been practiced in the developing world for years because of economic necessity. It is, however, quite a new idea to the West.

Hardwood that has been thrown out after a refurbishment or scrap hardwood found in building waste or hardwood from barns and mine shafts or hardwood recovered from the bottom of a lake is all wood that has been abandoned and has very little value.

This hardwood can be taken to a kiln to be dried and then it can be sent to a mill to be cut into flooring planks. The resulting reclaimed hardwood flooring is of much greater value than the scrap wood that it comes from, and so can be considered an upcycled product. Although machinery is needed to dry the wood and cut it into reclaimed hardwood flooring planks it is nevertheless within the range of small businesses and individuals to upcycle unwanted hardwood.

In the case of antique hardwood flooring that is taken from one house and laid in another house no extra value is added and so can be viewed as an example of recycling.

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Cork Flooring Compared to Coconut Flooring

Coconut flooring and cork flooring are two examples of sustainable flooring because they are both made from renewable resources. Although they share similar environmental and health credentials they differ greatly.

Coconut palms are not trees. They are ‘woody plants’. Coconut palms take only 5 to 6 years to reach maturity, but they are generally not harvested for their timber until they stop producing coconuts which is 50 to 70 years after sprouting. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. The bark is peeled off without damaging the tree and grows back after 9 years. In both cases, cork and coconut timber production can keep up with demand and so both materials are renewable.

Cork flooring is strong and long lasting as is coconut flooring, but they differ in properties. Cork flooring is soft underfoot and springy. Cork has a light, mottled appearance. In contrast, coconut flooring is very hard like hardwood flooring. It has a dark, striped appearance.

The production of both types of flooring are limited to certain spots in the world. Most of the world’s cork comes from Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Portugal, Tunisia and Morocco. The coconut palm cannot survive frost and needs hot, humid conditions to flourish. Most of the world’s coconut flooring is made in Indonesia, the Philippines and Polynesia. The geographical limitations of both types of flooring means that carbon emissions are inevitable in the transportation of these flooring types to markets in North America and other areas.

Both cork flooring and coconut flooring are anti-allergenic because they prevent dust mites breeding. Cork flooring is superior from a health point of view because the suberin in cork makes the flooring also mold resistant, fungal resistant and antibacterial. Furthermore, cork flooring is fire retardant.

For all these differences, both cork flooring and coconut flooring offer excellent alternatives to hardwood flooring that are long lasting and capable of withstanding high traffic and heavy furniture.

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Reclaimed Hardwood Flooring or Strand Woven Bamboo Flooring?

Both reclaimed hardwood flooring and strand woven bamboo flooring are popular examples of sustainable flooring. Reclaimed hardwood flooring is ‘recycled flooring’ in the sense it is made from pieces of wood that have been found, kiln dried and cut into new flooring planks. Strand woven bamboo flooring is made from bamboo a renewable resource. Bamboo is the quickest growing plant on the planet and so is an ideal material for commercial use.

strand woven bamboo flooring

strand woven bamboo flooring

There are a number of issues relating to both these types of sustainable flooring that give a potential buyer pause for thought.

Firstly, there is the overall carbon expenditure for the two types of flooring. Strand woven bamboo is made by an industrial process whereby strands of bamboo are compressed together under heat with a low VOC adhesive. The strand woven bamboo is then cut into flooring planks. The vast majority of strand woven bamboo flooring is made in China and so it needs to be shipped to its main markets in Europe and the USA. The industrial process involved in making strand woven bamboo flooring and then the cost of shipping the flooring expends a lot of petrol. This greatly adds to the overall carbon cost of strand woven bamboo flooring.

In contrast reclaimed hardwood needs minimal work to be turned into reclaimed hardwood flooring. As i mentioned before, it is just kiln dried and then cut into flooring planks. Also reclaimed hardwood can normally be sourced, made and sold locally thus greatly reducing the carbon input needed to make, transport and sell the flooring.

Another disadvantage of strand woven bamboo flooring is that it as yet not made from a water based adhesive. All adhesives used to make strand woven bamboo flooring contain some traces of VOCs such as formaldehyde. This is in some way balanced out by the fact that bamboo is anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and antimicrobial.

reclaimed oak flooring

reclaimed oak flooring

Reclaimed hardwood flooring and antique hardwood flooring has long since lost all its VOC which have off-gassed over the years. And like strand woven bamboo flooring it is anti-allergenic because its hard surfaces are easy to keep free of dust mites.

In terms of price strand woven bamboo flooring is often cheaper than reclaimed hardwood flooring. The ad hoc nature of finding wood suitable to reclaim and turn into flooring keeps the price of reclaimed hardwood flooring relatively high. Also in terms of installation, strand woven bamboo flooring which can be put down in a floating installation or in a glue down or nail down installation is much easier than DIY installations of reclaimed hardwood flooring.

Lastly, there is the issue of look. Bamboo has a grain and looks like hardwood. It comes in a variety of carbonized shades. Reclaimed hardwood flooring of course varies greatly depending on the type of wood used from darker reclaimed walnut to lighter reclaimed ash. However, a lot of reclaimed hardwood has blemishes from nail holes and saw kerns. This is called ‘rustic’. You either find the rustic look unique and charming or flawed. It is a matter of taste.

As you can see there are a number of points to consider before deciding what type of sustainable flooring to buy.

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Is Aluminum Oxide Finish Safe?

The recognized industry leader for hard finishes for strand woven bamboo flooring and reclaimed hardwood flooring is made by the German manufacturer
Friedrich Klumpp Gmbh. Their finish is made from aluminum oxide. Normally 7 or more coats of aluminum oxide flooring finish are applied for a strong and durable finish that protects the bamboo or wood.

There has been however a growing body of concern regarding the health risks of prolonged exposure to aluminum. Aluminum is in our food and drinking water and is common in the Earth’s crust. It is not something we can escape.

In the 1960s scientists published a paper linking aluminum to Alzheimer’s disease. Since then scientists have been unable to re-create the same laboratory results and so the original findings are very much cast in doubt.

It is for you to decide. The alternative is water based finish that puts a strong lacquer over the surface of the flooring. For those interested in green interior design and follow the philosophy of you can never be too careful Bona Naturale Industrial mat lacquer would be a good alternative to aluminum oxide.

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Reclaimed Hardwood Flooring and Green Interior Design

Ever since its inception in 1998, green interior design has gone from strength to strength. It is now a discipline that has caught the attention of many local councils in the USA and Europe because of its ability to reduce costs and carbon emissions.

There are 5 stated paradigms which green interior design seeks to address. They are:

  • Reducing carbon emissions
  • Conserving water
  • Improving indoor air quality
  • Improving energy efficiency
  • Carefully considering natural resources and their impacts

Reclaimed hardwood flooring is a great example of the last stated paradigm. It is a great example of recycling a valuable resource that had formerly been regarded as waste. Reclaimed hardwood comes from a wide variety of sources including landfills, lake beds, mine shafts, disused barns, waste of refurbished houses and city skips. This valuable resource is kiln dried and cut into flooring planks. With the vast amount of waste that current modern living produces reclaimed hardwood flooring makes great sense from the point of view of green interior design.

Secondly, because antique hardwood flooring (reclaimed hardwood that was used as flooring previously) can be bought in many cities in the US and Europe it is possible to buy sustainable flooring that has not been transported thousands of miles to the point of sale and installation. Reclaiming hardwood can be done locally to reduce carbon emissions from transportation. Furthermore, turning reclaimed hardwood into flooring is lower in carbon output than other industrial processes used to make flooring.

Finally, reclaimed hardwood flooring is relevant to the stated aim of improving indoor air quality because it is an allergen free flooring. The hard surfaces give no quarter to dust mites whose excrement causes allergic rhinitis. Antique hardwood flooring is also free of VOCs because the dangerous VOCs in the flooring adhesive have long since off-gassed.

Thus, from just this brief overview of reclaimed hardwood flooring it is easy to see the relevance of reclaimed hardwood flooring to green interior design.

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Cork Flooring is Corking Good

This blog is all about sustainable flooring. Sustainable flooring is quite simply flooring made from a sustainable resource. Thus flooring made from newly felled hardwood trees does not qualify as sustainable flooring, but reclaimed hardwood flooring and antique flooring because it is from recycled or upcycled wood does qualify.

Cork flooring comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. The cork oak takes 25 years to mature and then can be harvested every 9 to 12 years for its bark or cork cambium. The bark is peeled off by hand without machinery and does not damage the tree. Thus, cork flooring is from a renewable resource and is most definitely sustainable flooring.

Until a few years ago the biggest commercial use for cork was making wine bottle stoppers. Sadly, for wine lovers this custom is on the decline. Those wine producers that still use cork stoppers contribute to sustainable flooring because often used wine bottle corks are recycled and made into cork flooring.

It is very easy to recycle cork. It is ground up and compressed with a low VOC adhesive and shaped into cork flooring tiles and cork underlayment. So often cork is not just from a renewable resource but also from a recycled source. That makes cork flooring doubly earth friendly and a great example of sustainable flooring.

Cork flooring isn’t just great because it is sustainable. It also provides great flooring. It is soft underfoot and great to sit on and yet it is strong and capable of withstanding high traffic situations. It comes in a variety of colors and styles and is easy to stain or dye.

Furthermore cork flooring is water resistant, fire retardant (the cork is one of the few trees that can survive forest fires), anti-fungal and mold resistant. It is also a great insulator that helps reduce heating bills and deaden the noise of people walking on the flooring.

Cork flooring is simply corking. It is great for the environment, for green interior design and for people who want beautiful flooring that will last a long time.

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