But which product offers the most benefits and bang for your buck? Which one is more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing? And which one will set you back more money? The answers aren’t easy ones, but read on to get a better idea if you should go with the new stuff or stick with the old standby.
Pros for Wood
Desirable. There’s a good reason why home builders and agents put hardwood floors prominently in their listings and ads: The perceived (and actual) value of wood is extremely high, and it conveys quality. “In fact, in a national survey of real estate agents, 90 percent said that houses with wood flooring sell faster and for higher prices than houses without wood floors,” says National Wood Flooring Association in Chesterfield, Mo.
Beautiful. A wood floor is inherently beautiful, and it enhances any room. Plus, it only gets better with age and patina. Even wood’s idiosyncrasies are highly prized. No two floor boards are the same, but it’s this variation in appearance, color, and grain that make the products so attractive and exciting.
Dependable. Builders and consumers know and trust wood because they know the material lasts a long time. It’s not unusual to see commercial structures with original wood floors dating back 100 years. With the availability of long-lasting finishes, today’s flooring—new or salvaged—could well last for another 100 years.
Wide selection. Wood is available in countless species, finishes, and textures. In addition, a long list of medallions, exotic species, and decorative inlays makes the category one of the most dynamic in the flooring sector.
Earth friendly. As a natural resource, wood is renewable and recyclable. Today’s suppliers are salvaging timbers from commercial structures, bridges, and industrial buildings, or finding logs resting on the bottom of rivers and milling new products. Wood also has low embodied energy.
Affordable. Once a pricey option, wood floors today can be had for a relatively low price.
Cons for Wood
Does not mix well with moisture. Wood is a durable material, but unless a moisture-resistant species is chosen it does not handle standing water and constant wetness very well. Though manufacturers have developed finishes and coatings that make this less of a problem, it’s a good idea to keep it out of master bathrooms and moisture-prone areas.
Prone to color changes. More UV coatings and finishes help prevent discoloration, but constant exposure to the light will eventually affect the finish. The color change is merely aesthetic, but it can be unsightly depending on the location of the floor.
Use over radiant heat can be problematic. Using wood floors over radiant heat is possible, but it has to be done very carefully to avoid cupping and extreme contraction. Manufacturers usually recommend narrower flooring strips rather than wide-plank flooring, and engineered wood versus solid planks. Moreover, some species are not recommended over radiant heat at all.
Low maintenance, but … . Wood floors are not that hard to maintain, but when it does get damaged the repairs can be problematic. Deep scratches and dents from heavy objects are not easily repaired. Plus, the repaired areas don’t often blend seamlessly with the factory finish.
Can be expensive. Budget-friendly wood floors are widely available, but truly exotic looks and species or amazing salvaged options can approach $15 or $20 per square foot.
Pros for Bamboo
Hard and stable. In general, bamboo falls at about 1,200 to 1,400 on the Janka Hardness Scale, which means it’s a little harder than oak and ash. Some manufacturers claim the product is 12 percent harder than North American maple, but that’s hard to say. Either way, the material’s hardness results in a much more stable floor that better resists expansion and contraction.
Rapidly renewable. Bamboo grows exceptionally fast, so plants reach maturity faster than trees and can be harvested in less than 10 years.
Installs just like wood. Anything wood can do, bamboo can do too—at least where installation is concerned. The two products can be nailed, glued, or set as a floating floor.
Variety. In the old days, you could have any color bamboo you wanted, as long as it was natural or carbonized. Manufacturers have moved way beyond that now, offering products with a variety of stains, colors, and looks. One manufacturer even offers bamboo that looks like typical wood floor.
Cons for Bamboo
High-embodied energy. Despite it rapidly renewable street cred, most of the bamboo flooring in the U.S. has to be shipped great distances such as from China or some other Asian country. Some green experts say this fact kills the sustainable mojo the product has. The good news is that FSC-certified bamboo does exist.
Not a solid product. Unlike wood, which can be solid or engineered, all bamboo is made from laminated strips that are glued together. While this does not necessarily mean the product is inferior, it opens the possibility for delamination; manufacturers say this is unlikely.
Inconsistent product quality. Bamboo is manufactured in many ways so performance depends on process and varies from product to product and company to company. “Some bamboo floors are more durable than others or emit varying levels of volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, depending upon how they are manufactured,” Teragren says.
Questionable refinishing data. There probably aren’t that many bamboo floors installed in this country over 15 or so years, the data of refinishing such a floor is incomplete. The University of Tennessee says “the hard surface layer of bamboo flooring is relatively thin, so it cannot be sanded and refinished like solid wood.” But Elwell says it depends on the product. “The prefinished flooring can be refinished and recoated using finish formulas that are similar to our custom finish,” he says. ”Depending upon the style purchased the floors can be refinished usually two to three times over the lifetime of the floor.”
Relatively pricey. You can find bamboo for about $4 to $8 per square foot, which isn’t exactly expensive but not exactly cheap either. Plus, many products exceed that.
Nigel F. Maynard is a senior editor with Builder magazine.