By Katy Tomasulo and Stephanie Herzfeld. A few years ago, laminate flooring made headlines with new technologies and more convincing natural looks. And while laminates continue to experience significant growth, they're not alone in innovation. During the past year, several vinyl-flooring manufacturers unveiled unique looks and new technologies that give this flooring category a whole new aesthetic and added durability.

"Today, there are deviations of vinyl. Now we use nylon, urethanes, polymers, resins, limestone, and wood pulp," says Leonard A. Ludovico, Congoleum's vice president of product styling and design.

While chemistry allows the materials to be cross-linked to create stronger, more light-stable flooring with better stain resistance, computers allow manufacturers to model performance characteristics and create digital data for patterns.

"The advantage to vinyl flooring is that it's a printed material so you can make it look like anything you want. That's what makes it a fun category," says Roger Oates, vice president of residential flooring for Armstrong.

New pressing techniques, special glosses, and greater resilience are making vinyl's reputation as a glossy, ho-hum product a thing of the past. At first glance, it's difficult to tell that the patterns in Armstrong's Urban Setting floors are vinyl because hip designs resemble materials like fabric and leather. Rather than imitating other materials, "We wanted to come out with designs that were unique and unexpected," says Oates. The Crocodile pattern, for instance, uses a reverse embossing technique that concentrates texture on the "down" areas, enhancing its visual texture.

John Audet, head of the bath and kitchen division of Falls Church, Va.-based Case Design/Remodeling, is impressed. "I have seen some newer vinyl flooring that looks great and has long-term warranties. I was surprised at the variety of what was available."

Better Durability

Armstrong was one of the first to step up durability with the introduction of ToughGuard several years ago. The ToughGuard technology guarantees flooring against rips and gouges. Several other companies followed suit, with more durable wear layers and warranties against tearing -- a relief to builders and remodelers accustomed to callbacks due to torn and scuffed floors.

"The performance of [resilient] floors has improved considerably," says Chip Braulick, director of marketing for Tarkett. "The products have much more resistance to cuts, gouges, etc., at no extra cost to the consumer."

In addition to greater durability, Domco Tarkett introduced TruTex, an embossing technology that creates more realistic natural styles. Ceramic-look products, for example, feature a low-gloss "grout" area with high- or mid-gloss stone areas.

"Right now there's really a significant trend toward natural designs, whether it's wood, stone, or ceramic," Braulick says. "The popularity of these products is something sheet flooring manufacturers have to pay close attention to."

Amtico's Techno utilizes the company's magnetic embossing, a technology that creates a visually raised pattern for a 3-D effect. Available for commercial and residential markets, the durable flooring comes with a 20-year residential wear warranty.

Furthermore, Mannington introduced NatureForm Textures embossing technology that provides a mix of surface textures for realistic stone, slate, and metal looks. The company has two patterns available: Shenandoah, a replica of European limestone, and Cozumel, which combines Jerusalem stone, pitted limestone, and painted ceramic tile into one modular design.

Besides better-looking designs and increased strength, vinyl continues to be a cost-effective flooring. Vinyl tiles range in price from 40 cents a square foot to $4 a square foot. Comparatively, ceramic tiles are $2 a square foot to $10 a square foot.

And now that vinyl flooring can be fabricated in almost any style desired, Oates predicts that "contradential flooring," a blending of residential and commercial aesthetics, will become popular.

"You need to have flooring to coordinate with all the professional-looking appliances out there," he says. "You need a mix of traditional and outlandish."

With hip new looks and better guarantees, manufacturers continue to change vinyl's image. And as manufacturing techniques improve, don't be surprised if the latest floors cause your clients to do a double take.

Congoleum. Utopia vinyl flooring is 25 percent to 50 percent thicker than other vinyl flooring, claims the firm. The sheet product comes in nine designs and in 42 colors. It features the firm's ArmorGuard protection to protect against tearing, and a natural gloss urethane finish to protect against scuffing, staining, dulling, and scratching. 800-234-8811.

Domco. Vintage vinyl flooring features TruTex, a dimensional wear layer that offers realistic replication of textured grout, slate tile, tumbled pavers, and textured ceramic tile, says the firm. The flooring, shown here in the Homestead pattern, is available in five colors. It comes with a 10-year limited warranty. 800-367-8275.

Armstrong. Inspired by unique visuals such as reptile skin and woven textiles, the Urban Settings collection of vinyl sheet flooring is available in five patterns and in more than 30 colors. Shown here in the Kyoto pattern in gray flannel, the flooring comes with the firm's ToughGuard 15-year limited warranty. 800-233-3823.

Tarkett. Contours vinyl flooring is available in 12 patterns and in 54 colors. It features a CeramiGuard wear layer, a densified foam layer, and a high-performance felt: Aquaguard SB stain block or Aquaguard II backing. The line comes with a 10-year limited warranty against rips, tears, gouges, and asphalt staining. 800-367-8275.

Mannington. Benchmark vinyl sheet flooring is the firm's latest addition to its extensive product line. The flooring is available in 16 colors and in five patterns, including four stone designs and one wood pattern. All patterns come in 6- and 12-foot widths. The flooring comes with a six-year limited warranty. 856-935-3000.

Nafco. PermaStone vinyl flooring comes in an array of 16-inch-by-16-inch tiles that have the look and feel of real ceramic, stone, and marble, says the firm. The flooring features GroutFit, a two-sided grout treatment that allows tiles to fit together seamlessly. It has a patented wear layer and a 20-year limited warranty. 800-227-4662.

Published in BUILDING PRODUCTS Magazine, January/February 2003. Portions of this story first appeared in PROSALES magazine.