Beyond Bamboo

Green flooring options, formerly dominated by bamboo, wood and cork, are spreading into virtually every category of flooring, including carpet. As with any design material, the critical factor with sustainable flooring is that it has to meet the retailer’s needs and perform in the store setting.

Bamboo, one of the first choices in sustainable flooring, has not measured up to expectations for durability, according to some experts. Although the natural hardwood satisfies the desire to make an obvious green statement, the performance of bamboo in high-traffic areas has been somewhat disappointing.

“Bamboo fades, it is irregular in color and it has to be maintained,” warned Lori Kolthoff, director of resource design at Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide.

There are instances when bamboo floors work well, such as REI’s store in Boulder, Colo., which was recognized for environmental sustainability in Chain Store Age’s 2008 Retail Store of the Year competition.

The good news, noted Kolthoff, is that “competitive manufacturers are bringing more products to the table and the prices are coming down.”

Magic in carpets: In many retail settings, the only flooring material that is acceptable is carpet. When Coldwater Creek sought a sustainable carpet solution, FRCH brought in Los Angeles-based Atlas Carpet Mills. The resulting partnership produced a sustainable carpet that is standard for Coldwater Creek’s new store designs as well as a sustainable vinyl for the retailer’s fitting rooms.

Amy Foster, LEED AP, senior resource design librarian at FRCH, noted manufacturers have also begun to recycle carpet, and Atlanta-based Interface, one of the most aggressive carpet manufacturers when it comes to implementing sustainable solutions, has initiated a number of programs including working with a landfill to capture emissions and convert them to energy.

“Carpet is the No. 2 item filling landfills today, behind diapers,” noted Foster, which makes research into recycling even more valuable.

“Carpet tiles have more advantages than broadloom carpet,” Foster continued. “From a maintenance point, tiles are easier to change and the backing on carpet tiles tends to have a much higher percent of recycled content.”

Interface also created sustainable carpet tiles that match the most popular patterns that have been installed in recent years, enabling retailers to use a green alternative for replacements.

Hardy choices: Concrete, another sustainable material, is easily maintained and durable, and its thermal mass helps maintain temperatures in enclosed settings.

Sports-apparel retailer Under Armour selected concrete for the flooring throughout its flagship store in Annapolis, Md., as well as for its second store in Boston. Concrete was a perfect complement to the “stadium” theme of the store design, and Under Armour added radiant heat to the floors in its fitting rooms so guests would be comfortable and not distracted by standing barefoot on cold concrete.

Local flavors: Reclaimed materials provide yet another viable green flooring solution. Among the most popular is wood reclaimed from aged barns or warehouses.

Timberland takes advantage of reclaimed lumber for its floors and recently became the first mall-based retailer to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) award. Timberland’s Peabody, Mass., store received Gold certification and its Salem, N.H., store earned Silver. Both stores used 100% reclaimed lumber.

Rubber tires are another popular reclamation item. Bicycle retailer Trek used stained concrete for the main floor area and aisles in its New Albany, Ohio, store, and recycled rubber for the flooring in the specialty shops within the store.

Cowan & Associates, Worthington, Ohio, led both the Timberland and Trek projects. Eva Knutson, design director at Cowan, acknowledged that reclaimed materials are not consistent from one region to another but many clients appreciate the added character.

“Reclaimed materials have pluses and minuses,” Knutson said, “but many retailers are willing to sacrifice uniformity for uniqueness.”