Floors are the single biggest visual element in a home. They set the mood and tie the house together. In kitchens and, increasingly, great rooms, putting the floor to work as a warm visual element is paramount.
Open floor plans present a challenge when specing flooring. Great rooms lend themselves to a monolithic look for which wood floors are well suited. “Running the same species, the same color, through the entire floor of the house creates a seamless look for open floor plans,” says Sara Babinski, principal designer for hardwood and laminate at Armstrong.
Hardwood—still less common than ceramic tile—accounted for one-third of kitchen floors installed in new homes in 2012, according to the most recent Builder Practices Survey by Home Innovation Research Labs. While tile remained steady over the past eight years, hardwood snapped up 13 percent of the market share and is the fastest growing material in the category.
The study shows that 12 percent of entry-level homes and 40 percent of move-up and luxury homes use hardwood in the kitchen. “It makes sense that people want to invest in a floor that lasts forever,” says Chris Sy, vice president of contractor sales and development at Carlisle Wide Plank Floors. “Taking out your flooring is a disruption at a high cost. With hardwood, you’re putting down a surface that may outlast the lifetime of your house.”
Dawn McElfresh, builder channel marketing manager for Armstrong, says hardwood is the best return on investment. “As the housing market comes back and there’s more money available, we’ll see more buyers taking advantage of the return hardwood offers,” which comes from appraiser recognition of resale values as well as the material’s longevity.
Moving into 2014, hardwood designs are in tune with the rising popularity of Belgian style. The transitional movement mixes raw and polished finishes, light and dark hues, and rough and soft textures. “We’re transitioning from dark black and brown colors, like natural walnuts and heavy stains, to whitewash and driftwood grays,” says Sy. “The finishes are much more matte, giving an unfinished feel to the floor.”
The lower gloss, textured products are also known to hide dust and imperfections. “Most scratches you see in wood floors are in the poly, breaks in the sheen,” Sy explains. “Matte finishes tend not to show scratches.”
The designers at Armstrong echo Sy’s observations, though Babinski predicts true rustics reached their height in 2013. “The grays won’t go away, though,” she says.
Carlisle’s most popular products aren’t just getting lighter, they’re getting wider. “In our market we’ve gone from having a 6.5-inch-wide average to a 9 to 10 inch,” Sy says, though he advises builders to be more critical of wood quality when installing wider planks.
Of the new homes from the survey built with wood in the kitchen, about two-thirds used solid hardwood and one-third used engineered hardwood. The wood-inspired look also can be achieved with laminates, vinyl sheets, and alternatives such as bamboo and cork. The challenge is staying true to what attracts homeowners to hardwood in the first place.
“It’s about warmth and comfort,” Babinski says. “Wood brings nature inside, and the natural textures are hard to beat.”