As residential builders strive to find flooring that is more environmentally friendly, new options are emerging. Pictured is a bedroom furnished with cork flooring from Wicanders Cork. It is designed to absorb acoustic vibrations, reduce allergens, and prevent thermal transfer, reducing energy costs. The company points out this type of sustainable flooring contributes to LEED points in three categories: Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Innovation & Design Process.

A white bathroom with a green touch on the floor: The recycled teak seen on the floor here is from East Teak Fine Hardwood of Dallas. The company says it is the “first and only supplier of Forest Stewardship Council certified 100% post consumer recycled teak in North America.”

It may not seem like it, but Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the ratings system used to gauge the environmental impact of a building, has been a fixture of the commercial design market for nearly 10 years.

Now it is ready to come home.

Having become nearly synonymous with all things green, LEED is widely expected to have a significant influence on the residential floor covering market. After a successful pilot program, the United States Green Building Council is set to formally launch a LEED for Homes rating system that will look at the energy efficiency of single and multi-family homes as well as the indoor air quality and other green features. As has been the case on the commercial side, homebuilders are more likely to insist on products that meet LEED specifications. The implications for all areas of flooring are likely to be far-reaching.  

The widely held consensus is that LEED for Homes can’t come soon enough. NFT spoke with builders, retailers, designers and manufacturers about the new program and what it will mean for the industry. The predictions were upbeat. Even as many anticipate challenges in the short-term, they noted that the use of environmental benchmarks will give the struggling housing market a much-needed shot in the arm.

“We’re going to see a lot of new flooring products emerge on the market because of LEED for Homes,” predicted Barb Fraser, manager of ProSource Wholesale Floorcoverings of Lexington, Ky. “The Internet has become an important resource for green building and more and more customers are coming in specifically asking for green products. It will just happen even more frequently now.”

She said she is already seeing evidence of the shift to green among homebuilders. She points to members of the Home Builders Association of Lexington (HBAL), who are now putting the finishing touches on what is being described as the first green-built home in Kentucky.

Gregg Long, professional development coordinator for the HBAL, who is  overseeing the project in Lexington, noted that the house will be used as a teaching tool after its scheduled opening in late September. While he noted that environmental concerns are likely to drive up the cost of construction, he added that the long-term benefits are worth it.  “Without a doubt, green homes cost more to build,” said Long. “But when you look at the benefits, the healthier products and the excellent energy efficiency these homes have, it’s a win-win situation. Green products are part of a growing market, and this market is customer-driven. I don’t see customers asking for anything less down the road.”

Along with energy efficient appliances and heating, the green home features floor coverings consistent with the theme. Bamboo flooring was used throughout the house as well as cork-both highly sustainable materials.  The carpet was manufactured using plastic from soda bottles. Long noted that nothing was added to the house unless it could meet stringent requirements. “Everything that went into the house had to follow some rules,” he said. “Is the product energy efficient? Does it contribute to healthier air? Does it make economic sense? If it didn’t meet those standards, it didn’t make it in.” 

For their part, flooring manufacturers sense opportunity. While many have a longstanding commitment to environmental concerns, the renewed focus can only help.   The hope is that more stringent residential standards will translate into demand for new flooring, which has often been the case in the commercial segment. Many manufacturers said they already have the products.   

Milliken, for example, has been touting the environmentally friendly qualities of its products for more than a decade. The company’s director of sustainable initiatives Bill Gregory said the addition of LEED for Homes is a welcome development.  “We’re gearing up for the new ratings, because we know consumer interest is going to grow,” he said. “It’s not a tsunami yet, but it’s certainly a wave that’s coming in, and we need to get ready for it. We have to educate our residential sales team about what has already worked for us in commercial, educate our dealers and create new displays. We have to craft the right message.”

He added that Milliken has been on the forefront of sustainability since at least the ‘90s, when the company drafted its environment policy. Now, its far-reaching initiatives include the Earthwise Ennovations process, which is designed to deep clean and retexture old carpet tile so it can be reused.

The list of flooring manufacturers that have made a serious commitment to addressing environmental concerns is long and getting longer. Armstrong, Mohawk and Shaw are among those that have established high-profile programs and processes to significantly reduce their environmental footprints. In addition to operating plants that facilitate carpet recovery and cradle-to-cradle recycling, manufacturers are also trying to nudge consumers in the right direction.  Many are specifying green cleaning products certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute. For its part, Mohawk recently said it will market carpet made using corn sugar instead of petrochemicals. 

Other changes on the drawing board are intended to reduce emissions and encourage sustainability in the production process. According to Ann Knight, exec. vp of bamboo flooring maker Teragren, the company is determined to transition to formaldehyde-free adhesive formulas that will help builders meet LEED standards.

“For us, the formaldehyde issue is a big one,” she said. “We’re moving toward formaldehyde-free adhesives, but they’re more expensive, and take a longer time in production.”  She said consumers will accept increased costs once they understand the benefits. “People are willing to pay if it’s a quality product,” she said. “Right now we offer a LEED-enhanced program. We can special-order panels for our customers with a formaldehyde-free adhesive. It takes a little longer to make and there is a slight up-charge. But it’s been a successful program for us.”

Other manufacturers are not quite as certain about the willingness of consumers to pay more for green products. “Residential consumers are looking at price, they’re looking at how a product will look in their homes, and they’re looking at durability,” said Milliken’s Gregory. “Then and only then they’re looking at green.”

Meanwhile, residential designers seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the arrival of LEED on the home front. “The more cost-effective the products become and the more options we are given, the more doors it will open for us as designers,” said Linnea Graves, specifications coordinator for Creative Design Consultants in Costa Mesa, Calif. “But one of the challenges is going to be: which ceramics and porcelains are available with LEED ratings?”

She noted that while U.S. manufacturers are working to establish ratings for their tile products, a similar standard for imported products is “a long way off.”

“This will hold us back until more options become available,” Graves said.

There is wide agreement that the addition of LEED standards in the residential market will yield many challenges. Still, there seems to be almost universal agreement that a commitment to LEED will only make the industry-and the planet-healthier in the long run.

“People know about LEED. Though it hasn’t formally launched yet, LEED for Homes has already been recognized,” said Teragren’s Knight. “Builders are jumping on it very quickly. They really want something new to go after, something that sets them apart from the rest of the pack. They need that separation and distinction, especially now. And LEED is providing it.”