Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.
Floors are the foundation of our living space—they’re where you do yoga, play with the kids, or just rest your feet. And as the largest surface in your home, they can have a dramatic effect on its look and feel.
Choosing the right flooring can also have a profound impact on your health and even the environment. Here’s how to ensure your floors are safe and sustainable from the ground up.
Think about it: It covers every square foot of your living space, whereas tile or paint might only be on a wall. Your feet are constantly on it, so it’s coming into contact with your body. Because heat rises, what’s in your floors ends up in your air. And you don’t want to breathe in any toxic chemicals.
I would steer clear of engineered wood floors. The top layer is wood while the rest is a composite of plywood and glue that almost always contains volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. You can make a composite without VOCs and formaldehyde—and there are companies that do—but the real problem is that there are very little regulations or consumer protections in the U.S. It’s up to you to test it all.
You can test everything for toxins, either through an environmental inspector or you can buy your own meter. VOCs are not illegal and typically break down over time, but you still want to avoid them because they can cause everything from headaches and dizziness to more chronic health conditions. Formaldehyde can take 30 years to break down and is a known carcinogen, so you do not want that in your home whatsoever.
There’s a perception that it’s more environmentally friendly because it uses less actual wood to produce, so you’re cutting down fewer trees. That’s misleading, because engineered wood floors have a much shorter lifespan than hardwood. If you have solid hardwood floors that are ¾” thick, you can sand them down and refinish them many times and they’ll last several lifetimes. But because engineered floors have only have a thin layer of real wood on top, you can maybe refinish them once, then you need to rip them out and replace them.
You can also use terracotta, limestone, marble or any other natural stone. If you live somewhere really warm and want the coolness, natural stones are great at regulating temperature and they last for centuries. They’ve been using them for thousands of years in Mediterranean climates.
Believe it or not, real hardwood is actually less expensive than engineered wood—sometimes less than half the cost per square foot. We need to stop thinking of everything as disposable and for the short-term. Real sustainability is in longevity.
Think about building properly once, then leaving your floors alone.