Cork flooring can be produced in tiles, planks and sheets. Shown is Ceres Cork C2.

With the surge of interest in all things green, a category gaining popularity is cork flooring. Once a niche product, cork is considered by many experts to be the greenest flooring product available today and manufacturers are beefing up their offerings to meet the increased demand in the commercial and residential markets.

Cork has been an option for flooring for well over 100 years for the natural benefits it offers. It is warm and offers cushion underfoot; it is quieter than other hard surface flooring and it is resilient and yet durable. Some noteworthy installations include the United States Library of Congress, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run, Penn., the University of Michigan law library, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. and Radio City Music Hall.

Cork is harvested from the bark of cork oak trees native to Europe and Northern Africa. Portugal accounts for 50 percent of the world’s harvest, Spain for about 25 percent with the balance coming from France, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. About two-thirds of a tree’s bark is harvested at a time at 20 to 25 years of age and about every nine years thereafter. This allows the tree’s bark to regenerate. The process of harvesting leaves the lumber intact and actually doubles the life expectancy of the tree. With harvesting, a cork oak tree can live to be 150 to 200 years old. Longer lifespans allow cork forests to sustain the ecosystems around them, providing refuge to birds and animals as well as acorns for them to feed on.

In considering the raw material, it should be noted that cork meets the standard for a rapidly renewing resource, meaning that it rejuvenates what is harvested from the tree’s bark within 10 years. And contrary to popular opinion, there is no shortage of cork; it is readily available.

Cork flooring can be produced in tiles, planks and sheets. Although it may not be an obvious choice for many consumers, this renewable natural resource can provide benefits in both residential and commercial flooring installations. Understanding the green benefits of cork flooring is key to helping consumers see it as an alternative to hardwood and other hard surface flooring.

Perhaps more than any other type of flooring, cork allows designers, architects and specifiers to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credit requirements in a number of areas, including building reuse, construction waste management, materials and resources, recycled content, rapidly renewable resources and indoor environmental quality.

Cork flooring is a natural anti-allergen and pest-repelling material. Shown is Ceres Cork C2.

While cork can be a bit pricier than more popular hardwood species, price generally isn’t a determining factor for those consumers seeking to buy it. For others, the environmental benefits make it a viable option particularly when seeking to “green up” a project. Cork offers consumers the best of both worlds: a sustainable product with the warmth and comfort of a soft surface combined with the durability and ease of maintenance of a hard surface.

Cork flooring is a natural insulator of sound and temperature and as such, can offer noise reduction and lower heating bills. Being a semi-soft material, it will provide comfort when standing on it for long periods of time, making it a good choice for the kitchen and some commercial environments, where most work is done standing.

Cork flooring is also a great choice for people who have allergies, due to the fact that it is a natural anti-allergen and pest-repelling material. It contains a waxy substance called suberin, which makes it moisture resistant and allows cork to be impervious to mold and mildew.

Cork flooring does require special attention during installation. If tiles are not rolled properly, corners can curl over time. Care must be taken especially around wet areas like kitchens and bathrooms, to avoid excess moisture on the floor. When installing cork flooring, it is important to ensure the substrate is dry, flat and smooth. As a natural product, cork is subject to changes in dimension due to variations in temperature, humidity, and moisture.

In some applications of cork, the only maintenance required is a simple moist mopping with a high-quality sponge mop. Many flooring providers offer a cork product with a factory-applied finish that simplifies maintenance and leads to increased resistance to scratching and scuffing, improved dirt resistance, enhanced UV protection and a low-luster gloss.  In wet areas such as kitchens, bathrooms and entryways, extra floor finish is recommended even when a factory finish has been applied.

Most cork manufacturers are using aluminum oxide finishes with newly enhanced finishes of ceramic micro-beads being introduced to the market. This new finish reduces the need for future screening to restore the original appearance of cork floors. The end result is a significant reduction in life cycle costs, which also contributes to its green story.

From a visual perspective, cork has come a long way from the bulletin board aesthetic associated with it in the past. The use of stains has given rise to interesting new designs and rich colors and inlays. New technology has allowed for a lot more variety in cork flooring including floating floors using glueless locking systems and glue-down options.