Engineered hardwood flooring is a growing force in the market, and the reasons are easy to understand. Since only the top veneer of the product needs to be constructed of the desired species, the product can be offered at a lower price point than its solid counterpart. Additionally, it can be installed below-grade, which is something solid hardwoods in general cannot handle.
Engineered can also be installed on a variety of substrates in a wide range of methods, including as a floating floor. However, even with these technical advantages, it is important for retailers to note engineered is not a cure-all for the common problems that can befall any type of wood floor when moisture and humidity are not kept in check.
Luc Robitaille, vice president of marketing for Boa-Franc, which makes the Mirage brand, said engineered products are key to his business. “Engineered is the fastest-growing platform we have in our product portfolio.”
He said the look of the wood is the number-one consideration by consumers, followed closely by its technical attributes. “Customers are going for wider-width planks—7- and 10-inch boards, and even more—as well as lighter colors and very rustic-type grading.”
He warned just because engineered hardwood products are designed to be less susceptible to humidity and moisture does not mean they are impervious to them. “Engineered flooring is still wood—a natural material that reacts to changes in humidity. The most frequent cause of delamination of an engineered floor is improper relative humidity levels in the home and/or installation on a humid subfloor, combined with a poorly constructed product.”
According to Harry Bogner, senior vice president of hardwood for Unilin Flooring, which comprises the Mohawk, Quick•Step, Columbia and Century hardwood brands, delamination “is not always 100% preventable, even in the highest-quality products. Following standard best practices such as using the proper glue spread or ensuring the plywood panel is in the press for the proper amount of time are the types of things manufacturers can control to help achieve a secure bond and avoid delamination.”
He said engineered products make up about half of the wood flooring products his company sells. “Consumers are excited about engineered due to its strong value proposition and also because of the different on-trend texturing that can be done to the product. Ease of installation is another drawing point for consumers. Engineered hardwood planks feature locking installation so consumers can click, float, glue, staple or nail down the floor.”
Variety of Species
Engineered products can also offer a variety of species at a value-driven price-point, Bogner said. “In an engineered hardwood floor, only the top face layer of the plank must be the desired domestic species. Under plies are comprised of less expensive wood species, bringing down the cost of the plank. This allows a variety of domestic species floors to be made available at a good value.”
The trends he sees are “wire-brushed and softer-scrape surface texturing, lower gloss/matte finishes and wider, longer looks—up to 7½ inches wide and up to 6- to 7-feet long. Regarding color, we are seeing more grays mixed with tan and brown, as well as more earthy browns.”
Bogner also feels it is important to maintain the humidity levels in any room receiving an engineered hardwood flooring installation. “Engineered wood is more resistant to seasonal change. However, because it is still wood, it needs to be in a controlled environment.” He recommends a range of between 35% to 55% humidity in the room.
Hallmark Floors’ Ron Oliver, vice president of sales and marketing, said engineered makes up a majority of his sales, with upwards of 75% of the company’s sales in the engineered format. “LVT continues to grow and succeed, but with our latest introductions we expect our engineered hardwoods will continue to be the driving category in our business for the foreseeable future.”
He said choosing between solid and engineered sometimes comes down to “a regional preference” but with wider-width planks becoming more popular, consumers are seeing “engineered as a more efficient use of expensive raw materials.”
Oliver added when he does see damage to the company’s hardwood floors, “it’s usually low humidity in connection with [the wrong type of] radiant heat system. I get samples back with 1% or 2% moisture content—neither solid nor engineered are going to perform well at that moisture level.”
Brian Greenwell, Mullican Flooring’s vice president of sales and marketing, said while his company is no newcomer to the engineered market, most of its sales are in solid. However, “as the rise in lumber costs persists, the importance of engineered hardwood flooring to our bottom line continues to grow.”
The popular looks he sees at the moment are wire-brushed and French bleeds, as well as hand-sculpted products. Greenwell added, “As more people have live-in basements, wood flooring is gaining in popularity, and engineered floors are the solution for this design option.”
No matter where engineered flooring is installed, humidity levels should be kept within the recommended range. “Engineered hardwood flooring is still a natural product and should be treated as such. Consumers and commercial end-users should take care to ensure a stable environment.”
Kevin Thompson, head of Shaw’s hardwood marketing and national accounts, builder division, said while engineered flooring can be installed in more places than solid, consumers are still looking at aesthetics first. “The wider-width options and wider variety of colors, species, surface textures and colors makes engineered the right choice for just about any application.”
Along with wider planks, Thompson sees “lighter colors, clean lines and more subdued but sophisticated finishes” including wire-brush and hand-scraped textures as trends in the market.
Regarding the possibility of delamination in engineered products, Thompson noted, “It is caused from either insufficient bond of the veneer layers during manufacturing, or more commonly from unacceptable topical or subfloor moisture levels. The best prevention is proper installation, subfloor moisture mitigation, proper humidification in dry climates and proper maintenance practices after the install.”
Paul Stringer, Somerset Hardwood Flooring’s vice president of sales and marketing, said his company’s major seller is still solid products, but “our new SolidPlus engineered flooring is one of our fastest-growing categories. The growth of our engineered products since we opened our plant in Crossville, Tenn., has been exciting. Having random lengths up to 6½ feet, just like our solid, has also been a major selling point for us.”
Added Tony Miraldi, Somerset’s director of technical services, engineered hardwood is important for more than just its flexibility in basement installations. “The option of using engineered hardwood flooring below-grade is a significant market opportunity. In addition to basements, approximately 70% of residential construction in the U.S. since WWII has been on concrete slab foundations. That percentage is even higher for commercial work.”
He feels that industry discussions about delamination are generally in relation to lower-quality products. “Modern manufacturing and quality control methods have all but eliminated delamination in quality engineered products. Any ongoing industry buzz on delamination problems is typically in regard to lesser-quality domestic products or low-cost, low-quality imports with limited quality control functions in-house.”
Urbanfloor’s Terry Ackerman, product manager, said delamination is either the result of a faulty glue application during the manufacturing process or “too dry or too wet site conditions. This type of delamination is known as sheaving, which is identified by jagged edges and splinters between the separates plies caused by stress.”
He added, “To reduce and help prevent delamination, most industry experts agree that more has to be done with retailers and manufacturers to educate the homeowner on maintaining proper environmental conditions and proper maintenance procedures, at the point of sale.”
Engineered products are Urbanfloor’s main source of sales. “Some of the design trends we see in this segment are the European influence of cleaner lines, and wider and longer profiles. We also see wire-brushed and sand-blasted textures as major emerging trends, along with the reclaimed look.”
While the look of the product remains the top consideration among consumers, Ackerman said, “what has made engineered flooring so popular with both the consumer and the commercial market is the options and flexibility of the installation method (glued, floated or nailed/stapled). The fact that it can be installed below-grade and over virtually any type of subfloor increases the appeal to the homeowner and contractor and adds to its popularity.”
Gary Keeble Jr., USFloors’ product and marketing manager, said he sees engineered hardwood products expanding into new markets. “Years ago, engineered hardwood was only sold in southern U.S. markets that had mainly slab-built construction. However, the popularity of engineered hardwood has spread to most major markets in the U.S.”
In design trends, he noted, “Oil-finished hardwood continues to garner more hardwood share as more and more players enter this market. Rustic looks continue to be strong, as well as whitewashes. Longer, wider planks are on the horizon as well.”
Probably the biggest misconception Keeble sees about engineered flooring is it can withstand extreme fluctuations in humidity. “Engineered floors with thick veneers can dry out and crack during the winter heating months if the humidity gets too low.”
He added, “Moisture-related problems are the biggest cause of delamination that is not a factory defect. This can arise from installation over a slab that has too high of a moisture content, or on a raised subfloor that doesn’t have a moisture barrier in the crawlspace.”
The best prevention, Keeble concluded, is “to follow the manufacturer’s installation guidelines and not cut corners.”