Cork flooring adds to the unique ambiance of this restaurant. Photo courtesy of We Cork.

Quick quiz: What durable flooring material is harvested from trees? Wood used in hardwood floors, right? Not always. For some manufacturers, the answer is cork.

Throughout history, people have used this versatile material for everything from sandals to bottle stoppers. Of course, flooring manufacturers have put the spongy substance to good use in the manufacture tiles, planks and sheets. Although cork may not be an obvious choice for many consumers, this renewable natural resource can provide seemingly endless benefits in both residential and commercial flooring installations.

“The No. 1 benefit of cork flooring is that it’s natural. Cork flooring is environmentally-friendly because we only use the bark; we don’t cut down the whole tree,” says Philippe Eramuzpe, president of Augusta, Ga.-based cork flooring manufacturer Natural Cork.

Companies harvest their raw material from the cork oak tree, which is grown primarily in Portugal, Spain and Italy. A cork tree must be about 20 years old before its bark can be stripped for further processing. Each tree is harvested no more than once every eight to 10 years.

Cork flooring also provides natural noise insulation, unlike some other harder types of flooring. Because it is hypoallergenic, cork flooring is “great for people who have problems with allergies,” Eramuzpe says. And it helps enhance indoor air quality (IAQ) in commercial settings such as office buildings, he adds.

The Natural Cork president says the natural look is the recent best seller in cork flooring. Also, floating floors made from cork have become more popular and more accepted. At Surfaces 2002, the company plans to introduce a line of cork flooring in different colors.

This kitchen is graced with cork floor by Natural Cork.
In addition to its environmentally sound properties, cork flooring provides another important benefit that cost-conscious consumers would be wise to consider — its durability.

“Cork floors last lifetimes — actually generations,” says Charly Hilton , vice president of sales and marketing for Arcobel, a cork flooring manufacturer based in Madrid, Spain. The Brooklyn Library in New York City has used cork flooring for more than 50 years, while the State House of Louisiana in Baton Rouge has enjoyed cork floors in its balcony areas for more than 65 years, Hilton points out.

And why are more people choosing to install cork flooring in their homes and offices? Hilton believes choosing cork is easy because of “the natural benefits of the material and the [cork’s] unique beauty, giving the owner a floor with natural character along with benefits that are not attainable with other materials.”

Cork-loving consumers install the product primarily in their kitchens or bathrooms, although using cork in every room is not entirely uncommon, according to Expanko Cork Vice President Robert McKee. What’s the greatest benefit of using cork flooring in your home? McKee has an answer.

“It’s warm,” he explains. “Because cork is thermally efficient, when you walk across your floor with bare feet, they stay warm.”

A den in a Florida home outfitted with cork flooring by Arcobel.
In addition, cork floors are easy to maintain because they are treated with a polyurethane finish and can be cleaned with soap and water. In a residential installation, a new coat of polyurethane should be applied every eight years, McKee says. At Expanko, cork floors are finished with oil-based polyurethane, a treatment that McKee believes gives cork floors a longer life.

Although the Expanko vice president acknowledges some consumers’ desire for stained and colored cork flooring, he believes that most shoppers choose cork for another reason. “Personally, I think consumers will continue to buy cork flooring because they tend to like a more natural-looking product,” he comments.

As flooring, cork offers its users insulation, durability and natural style. So the next time you reevaluate your floor covering product mix, don’t dismiss cork as just a small piece of spongy material that’s stuffed into the opening of a bottle of wine. Instead, open your mind and think cork.