The rise in hardwood's popularity over the past 20 years or so speaks volumes about consumers' desire for an attractive, natural, long-lasting flooring material.

 The rise in popularity of hardwood flooring over the past 20 years or so speaks volumes about the consumers’ desire for an attractive, natural, long-lasting, quality flooring material. It still amazes me that wood flooring, a staple of new home construction for decades in this country, was covered up with wall-to-wall carpeting in the 1970s.

 During that time, changes in new home and apartment construction allowed homes to be furnished with carpeting in almost every room. Linoleum or vinyl flooring was installed in the kitchen. Hardwood flooring industry shipments plummeted to about 1% of the U.S. flooring market, causing many unfinished “strip mills” to shut down. At that time, hardwood flooring was considered expensive to install and bothersome to maintain, and simply lost its popularity.

 Fortunately for the hardwood flooring industry and the consumer, the product was rediscovered in the mid-1980s when a vast number of existing homes were renovated and remodeled. Most of those “newfound” wood floors were sanded and refinished, and ended up looking practically as good as new. In fact, hardwood flooring is the only flooring material that can be reclaimed in such a manner, which in my opinion makes it the best overall value for homeowners in the long run.

 The industry added many new plants in the 1980s and 1990s, improving production techniques and capabilities to keep up with the growing demand. While the recent housing slump has created some excess capacity, many manufacturers are now more productive than ever. Today there are substantially more brands, styles, species and finishes from which to choose. Factory finishing and its subsequent technological advances have made it even more popular.

 Manufacturers have done a better job of marketing the attributes of hardwood flooring. For example, they have vastly improved routine hardwood floor maintenance with affordable, easy to use products that are readily available at the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps even more importantly, manufacturers have put their “money where their mouth is” by offering very competitive product and finish warranties. Finish warranties up to 25 years and product warranties up to a “lifetime” were previously unheard of, and are now very popular in many hardwood flooring styles and products.

 In my column last month I wrote about the latest trends in styles, colors, and species. While 2 1/4” solid strip flooring is still the most popular and readily available style on the market, engineered hardwood flooring, especially for wider widths, has grown substantially in popularity. There are some hidden reasons for this change in consumer preference.

Engineered hardwood flooring was originally developed as a rotary peeled plywood material constructed in an odd number of cross-plys to provide more dimensional stability in certain installations. The grain pattern had a different look than solid sawn hardwood, but the product worked very well when glued direct to concrete for slab-on-grade construction. This opened up many new markets for hardwood flooring, especially in coastal areas and higher humidity regions of the country.

 Over the past decade and a half, manufacturing technology improved methods of slicing and sawing lumber for the top layer such that engineered hardwood flooring today has arguably the same appearance as that of solid hardwood flooring. Now with the look of solid sawn hardwood, engineered products can be installed with nails, staples and adhesives over plywood or OSB subfloors to allow quality installation in virtually any jobsite condition.

 Aside from aesthetics and personal preferences, wider-width planks (which have become very popular) are more affordable as an engineered hardwood floor, since the width is actually engineered into the product. Thus it is not subject to the higher cost of plank-grade oak and other species of lumber. This can make it a more profitable product for the manufacturer to produce, for the retailer to sell, and for the contractor to install.

 Engineered flooring is also great for the environment as it yields an abundant amount of square footage of flooring, depending upon the thickness of the top veneer or “wear layer.” These top layers (sometimes called faces or lamellas) are laminated to a plywood substrate, which provides the structural and dimensional stability in the finished product.

 Adding to the functionality of engineered hardwood flooring is that it is easily repairable if accidentally damaged. Furthermore, most of them can be sanded and finished just like solid hardwood to make them look like new again after many years of service. With such great value to the homeowner, it’s no wonder that engineered hardwood continues to grow in popularity year after year.

 Going back in history, many fine homes, museums and properties of distinction were installed with patterned hardwood flooring styles. Names like Herringbone, Basket Weave, Haddon Hall, Monticello, Chantilly Parquet and countless others can be found by doing a Google search for Hardwood Flooring Patterns. I believe there is still a lot of appeal for these types of designs and styles. They can be made in both solid and engineered material, and offer the industry a way to market more unique products and thus get off the “commodity” low price selling treadmill. “Selling up” almost always translates into higher profit margins for both the retailer and contractor.

 I would like to challenge all segments of the hardwood flooring industry to learn from past lessons of success. Give today’s discerning buyer more style choices that are less commodity in nature. It may take a little more marketing effort, but the payback will be very apparent on your bottom line.