The first big change I made after moving into my townhouse a few years ago was to rip out the carpet in my basement family room and bedrooms. I’ve never been a fan of carpet for health reasons; even after all the chemicals used to manufacture and install it have outgassed, carpet is a noxious sink. All the dust, dirt, chemicals and other toxins that come into my home eventually settle in there, and it’s impossible to keep wall-to-wall carpet truly clean.
Carpet does have benefits. It’s cheap, it muffles noise, and it’s soft and warm underfoot—and that matters in my basement, where teenagers live. When I replaced my old carpet, I wanted to keep all those attributes—but in a nontoxic, natural flooring. I sought flooring that would make my kids’ spaces feel cozy and nurturing (even in a basement), but durable enough that the dog would always be welcome.
I called Melissa Clements, a mother of three who owns Eco-Friendly Flooring in Madison, Wisconsin. Clements steered me toward cork, a product she’s tested and loved in her own basement. Cork is as durable as hardwood but softer and more forgiving. “I have multiple chemical sensitivities and allergies, two dogs, a child with autism and asthma, and three kids under age six, so we’re on the floor a lot,” she says. “The cork floor provides a safe, useable space in our basement that will last forever. It’s kid-friendly, animal-friendly and keeps the house free of VOCs, dander and dust. Plus, it’s very warm, visually and texturally.”
Cork is great for basements, Clements told me, because it insulates cold concrete floors. For my floor, she recommended cork planks, which click together to create a “floating floor” with a 1⁄2-inch gap between the cork and the concrete that prevents moisture buildup (which could lead to mold). Made from formaldehyde-free, waterproof fiberboard covered with a layer of high-density cork and treated with acrylic finish, the interlocking planks don’t require glue or nails, making them an easy DIY install (although I hired someone).
Based on Clements’ recommendation, I chose Honey Rivers cork planks for my basement. The floors have brought a rich, golden glow to spaces that don’t get enough daylight, and our once-dismal basement is now where everyone gathers. My family room is a boisterous place full of noise, spilled sodas and all other shocks that teenagers can deliver—and the cork floors resiliently absorb it all.
• Cork comes from cork oak bark, which can be harvested every nine to twelve years without harming the tree. Most cork flooring is made from the waste generated in making wine stoppers—meaning it’s a post-industrial product made from a natural material.
• Cork’s naturally waxy substance repels fire, mold and mildew, plus insects and termites.
• A moisture barrier is required when installing cork planks over a concrete basement floor. Robyn chose EcoTimber’s 1⁄8-inch-thick floating floor pad made from post-industrial recycled synthetic fibers. The formaldehyde-free pad has a pre-attached vapor barrier to prevent water damage and an EPA-registered antimicrobial agent that inhibits bacterial, fungal and dust mite growth. The pad also adds a layer of sound and climate insulation.
• Until a few years ago, all cork flooring came from Europe, primarily Portugal and Spain. Because the Europeans have stricter manufacturing and emissions standards than the United States, cork flooring products were generally free of formaldehyde and other nasty chemicals.
• Now that cork flooring is being made in China, where standards are more lax, it pays to do your homework before buying. Always find out a product’s country of origin—and go beyond the name. (Lisbon Cork is made in China). Get a sample and let it sit in the sun for an hour, then take and whiff. If you smell formaldehyde (a pungent, musty smell), don’t buy it.
• Clean cork with a mild vinegar and water solution and a damp mop or cotton rag. (Be stingy with both water and vinegar. A soaking wet mop could cause water damage, and too much vinegar could cloud the finish.)
• Even after years of service, interlocking cork plank flooring can be picked up and moved to another location. And you can replace dinged or stained planks without replacing the entire floor.
• Old carpet doesn’t have to fill up the landfill. Robyn took hers to Colorado Reclamation Services which will find a suitable end market for it. Check out Earth911 to find a carpet recycler in your area.
• If your cork gets a divet, try this: Grind up some bulletin board cork and push it into the hole until it fills the space. Sand and coat with polyurethane.
cork plank flooring
floating floor pad/vapor barrier
Natural Home editor-in-chief Robyn Griggs Lawrence's next big project is her living room walls.