Today, it’s easier than ever to find eco-friendly, unique flooring options. From FSC-certified hardwoods and bamboo to natural linoleum, cork and recycled-content tiles, a wide range of light-on-the-earth materials is available to cover the ground beneath your feet. But for those of us who are looking for something out of the ordinary or hoping to cut costs, the eco-friendly options might still leave us searching for options outside the box. Lucky for us, a good, durable and eco-friendly floor can be made from a variety of upcycled materials—although it may take a bit more creativity, planning and time than traditional options. We’ve picked our brains and searched the country for innovative ideas, and we’ve come up with six inspiring and unique flooring examples that will have your artistic nature (and your bank account) thanking you.
Brown Paper Bag Flooring
Maybe you tore up your old carpet hoping to find beautiful hardwood underneath, but were disappointed to find plywood. This stunningly beautiful remedy for that dilemma involves everyday brown paper bags. Much like a decoupage project, these paper floors are made by gluing down scraps of paper in a random organic pattern, then covering everything with a layer of polyurethane. Rachael Evans of the blog Lovely Crafty Home used brown craft paper to transform the upstairs floors of her Asheville, North Carolina, home into something that looks like a cross between hardwood, cork and leather—all for a superlow price.
Installation: Rachael provides excellent instructions in her blog post “Ultimate Brown Paper Flooring Guide” about how she papered her floors. Basically, she soaked the scraps of paper in glue, laid them on the floor, let them dry completely and then covered the floor with a couple of coats of clear polyurethane. To make this project eco-friendly and fume-free, use either old paper bags or recycled-content craft paper. Instead of the Elmer’s glue, whip up a watered-down recipe of wheat or rice glue and use a low- or no-VOC polyurethane such as those available from AFM Safecoat.
Cost: Approximately $1 a square foot
Bottle Cap Floor
Want something more colorful and fun? Start collecting bottle caps from your favorite sodas or beers. This project requires some dedication—you’ll need to collect about 120 caps per square foot. If you can’t collect them all yourself, enlist help from a local bar or restaurant that sells bottled soda and beer. A great example of a bottle cap floor is at the eclectic Bone House in Huntsville, Texas. Built by affordable home-building organization Phoenix Commotion, the Bone House is home to three artists and a wide variety of recycled and reclaimed materials, including a bottle cap bathroom floor.
Installation: Treat bottle caps much as you would small mosaic tiles. Prepare your floor with thin-set mortar, then place your caps in any arrangement you like—random or in a pattern. Let the floor dry, fill in gaps with grout and finish with sealer.
Cost: Less than 50 cents a square foot
If you have sturdy wood floors but hate the way they look, don’t be afraid to jazz them up with a coat of paint. Paint allows for a wide variety of colors, patterns and styles, and it’s a great way to dramatically change the look of a large area. A solid color can be very effective, but you could also paint patterns such as stripes, checkerboards or chevrons. Denise Sabia from the blog The Painted Home brightened up her kitchen with a chic checkerboard pattern. Keep in mind that high-traffic areas will wear over time, so be prepared to touch up floors to keep them looking fresh.
Installation: Start by lightly sanding your floor to get rid of any varnish or rough patches and level off any high spots. Clean the floor with a damp cloth and let it dry completely. Select a durable, zero-VOC paint and create patterns using painter’s tape or stencils. Start in a far corner and paint yourself out of the room, being sure to keep everyone out until it is completely dry. Cover with a coat of water-based polyurethane for longer protection.
Cost: Less than $1 a square foot
A penny saved is a penny earned and, in this case, it’s just one small step toward covering your floor with the shiny likeness of Abraham Lincoln. Pennies may not be worth much these days, but for this floor you are throwing down cold hard cash, literally! For inspiration, look at the fabulous floor at Revolver shoe store in Noblesville, Indiana, which features more than 340,000 pennies. After a month of collecting pennies, the owners enlisted the help of friends to meticulously glue the coins down one by one. This rich floor required a bit of patience and close to 200 pennies per square foot, but the result is spectacular.
Installation: To install, glue the pennies down with a low- or no-VOC, nontoxic construction adhesive or epoxy glue. Start on a clean, level surface and spread the adhesive thinly in a small area, then lay the pennies close together. The key is to use only as much adhesive as is necessary to keep the penny down.
Cost: Approximately $3 a square foot
Wine Cork Floor
Cork floors are beautiful and feel great underfoot, but they are not the cheapest option. A less expensive way to go for cork is to cover your floor in wine corks. Hold a few wine-tasting parties and enlist an army of oenophiles to help you collect corks. Otherwise, ask a local restaurant to save corks for you. Treat them like tiles and lay them lengthwise in an undulating wave like Phoenix Commotion did for one of the bedrooms at the Bone House. You’ll need around 72 corks per square foot, which shouldn’t cost you a dime. If actual wine corks look too organic for you, try Missouri-based company Yemm & Hart, which recycles wine corks into tiles that cost just under $8 a square foot.
Installation: To install a wine cork floor, Phoenix Commotion founder Dan Phillips recommends gluing the corks down first, then nailing them together into the subfloor before grouting between the edges. He offers more complete instructions on the Phoenix Commotion website.
Cost: Less than $1 a square foot
Leather Belt Flooring
Have you ever seen a rich and luxurious leather floor? They’re absolutely gorgeous, but far from inexpensive. Create your own for much less by hunting vintage shops for leather belts and gluing them down to the floor. Look for men’s leather belts, which give you the most material for the cost, and try not to spend more than $3 to $4 per belt. You’ll need approximately three belts per square foot and a utility knife to cut them. Leather is best suited for areas that won’t get wet, so plan to use leather floors in a hallway, study or bedroom, but never in a bathroom or kitchen. If you’d rather splurge, check out London-based TING, which makes beautiful tiles from leather belt scraps.
Installation: After you’ve gathered enough belts, cut off the buckles and recycle them. Square off the edges of the belts and arrange them in either a straight, zigzag or chevron pattern. You can attach the belts to a prepared floor with either carpet tape or a zero-VOC adhesive. TING recommends carpet tape because it causes less damage to the floor underneath.
Cost: Approximately $10 a square foot, depending on price of belts
There are plenty of ways to get amazing and unique flooring at a low cost, but you do have to be willing to put in the time to collect the materials. And don’t be afraid to jump into an artistic endeavor! As Dan Phillips often says, “repetition creates pattern, and pattern creates design.” With enough of any material, you can create a beautiful, unique and eco-friendly low-cost floor.
nontoxic sealant, low-VOC polyurethane
low-VOC sealants and construction adhesive
Greenguard-certified thin-set mortar and grout
low-VOC construction adhesive that contributes to LEED points
Solar Cookers World Network
recipes for wheat and rice pastes