Walk This Way! Sustainable Flooring Is More Than Just Eco-Friendliness

When it comes to specifying building materials, understanding the value of sustainably sourced products goes beyond them just being eco-friendly. Until recently flooring products were not high up in consideration when it comes to sustainability in the initial design and build phase, often leading to costly repairs and replacements down the line.

James Scully of Quadrant discusses how sustainable flooring can add value to the overall building design from construction, installation, and beyond.

Architects, specifiers and designers continually push the envelope in what they demand from building products, driving innovation in manufacturing processes to meet these needs and help suppliers develop the necessary solutions. This perfect storm is a crucial step in developing a circular economy in building design which ensures people get to live, work and socialise in purpose-built spaces that are created with the future in mind, and contribute positively to productivity, health and wellbeing. 

Sustainability in construction and building design is an ever-evolving concept. In flooring, for example, gone are the days of just having two or three basic options. The sector has advanced dramatically and the best companies have invested in new technologies to bring innovative products to market. Now the possibilities seem endless. These new products are adaptable, can be mixed and matched to create bespoke spaces as per the design intent.

Cork is a relatively new material being successfully used to make more sustainable flooring products. As a raw material cork is naturally sustainable, as no trees are felled when it is stripped. It is estimated that for every tonne of cork produced, cork oak forests absorb around 73 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The knock-on effect is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. These factors have helped cork as a flooring material increase its popularity and specification in both residential and commercial applications.

Cork flooring products also retain the ability to store carbon dioxide throughout their entire lifecycle. As a result, manufacturers are building on the natural sustainability of cork by recycling cork products, with some companies even burning production-line dust to generate biomass energy and power factories, ultimately achieving a carbon negative footprint.

Advancements in technology are also helping the traditional carpet evolve. Some flooring manufacturers have incorporated environmentally-friendly practices to transform a once basic and throw-away material into a must-have, lasting sustainable solution. The best flooring companies now manufacture carpets using ECONYL® regenerated nylon, which is made from waste products such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, old carpet and industrial plastic. The ‘waste’ is cleaned and recycled back to its original purity before being processed into carpet yarn and used for new flooring. The newly derived material can be infinitely recycled without ever losing its original quality, in a sustainable closed-loop regeneration process.  

For flooring materials to be truly sustainable, they must meet the demands of end-users. Specifying the appropriate products for each requirement means considering peoples’ health and wellbeing. In particular, how flooring can reduce noise pollution, maximise natural light, and improve indoor air quality.

Cork, for example, reduces acoustic noise by up to 50 percent, drastically negating noise pollution. The material is perfect for busy spaces such as multi-level office buildings, schools, healthcare facilities as well as hospitality venues. 

Making the most out of natural light is another consideration. Using the Light Reflectance Value, specifiers can choose flooring materials that maximise natural light, to create an environment with a positive impact on occupant mood, mental health and at the same time improve the building’s energy efficiency.

Indoor air quality has become more prevalent in the interior design of buildings. New interior design concepts are continually being developed as architects and designers try and link the outdoors with the indoors to increase occupant connectivity. To make the most of these concepts, building products must be assessed for their chemical impact. Utilising products free from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is vital to ensuring new and innovative concepts are brought to life as well as meeting current UK and EU indoor air quality standards.

Flooring products are now gaining more prominence and recognition as a sustainable building material. The best companies in the industry have adapted, evolved and invested in developing sustainable solutions for better designed buildings that consider occupant wellbeing. Choosing flooring companies that follow clear standards – from the sourcing of raw materials right through to production and distribution – can help architects and designers create better-designed buildings that consider occupant wellbeing with a lower environmental impact.

James Scully is managing director at Quadrant