• Consider durability, maintenance requirements, and ease of cleaning when selecting flooring
  • Choose flooring that will be serviceable through the end of the first mortgage term, usually 30 years
  • Avoid products that contain PVC, which have serious impacts on the environment and human health (look for alternatives to using PVC products, such as linoleum or ceramic tile)
  • If considering carpet, choose carpets that are made with recycled fiber and are manufactured by companies with recycling programs that take carpet back at the end of its service life
  • To reduce VOC emissions, look for carpet that is certified CRI Green Label or Green Label Plus

Options and Analysis

alternatives installed cost/sf* installed cost/sf/yr of life expected product life (years) life cycle thinking IAQ
wood flooring $7.68-9.68 $0.139 25-100good, if solid products potential off-gassing during installation and maintenance
laminate flooring $5.50-6.65$0.27 15-30typical no significant effects
vinyl flooring, marbelized 12" x 12" $1.89-2.35 (low range)$0.134 10-25typical off-gassing during installation and maintenance
linoleum $3.00-4.00 $0.0830-40 goodoff-gassing during installation and maintenance
ceramic tile, thin set 8" x 8" tiles $6.61$0.106 25-100very good no significant effects
cork flooring, standard finish 1/8" $6.70$0.191 30-40good off-gassing during installation and maintenance
carpet, nylon $3.36-6.79 $0.5348-11 typicalOff-gassing during installation and maintenance
carpet, wool $13.57 $0.49325-30 typicalOff-gassing during installation and maintenance

*Cost information includes installation and is based on Means Cost Works 2007, except for laminate and linoleum flooring, which are based on estimates from ifloor.com and Environmental Building News.
Installed cost/yr of life does not include maintenance costs.

Flooring cost varies widely by material type and durability within a given material. For example, a $1 per square foot sheet product is generally less durable than a $2 option. A low initial cost will typically cost more over time when early replacement is considered. In terms of first cost, vinyl flooring is the least expensive material, typically between $1.89-2.35 per square foot installed. Natural linoleum is second, with first costs between $3.00-$4.00 per square foot installed. Carpet is another flooring material with low first costs, between 3.36-6.79 per square foot installed. When the expected product life of a material is factored into the costs of flooring, many of the more expensive options prove to be the most economical. Ceramic tile is the least expensive flooring material on an installed cost per year basis, at 10.0 cents per square foot per year. Linoleum also performs well, at 10.8 cents per square foot per year. Using this metric, hardwood flooring performs comparably to vinyl, with costs per square foot per year between 13.4 and 13.9 cents. (Note that this metric does not include maintenance or refinishing costs.)

Expected Product Life
Hardwood flooring has the longest potential life. If properly maintained, it can achieve more than 100 years of serviceable life. Proper maintenance includes refinishing as the sealer wears. Conservative sanding during refinishing will lengthen the useful life of the boards. Ceramic tile also has a very long useful life if the grout joints are well maintained. Linoleum products have long been known as a 40-year floor. Cork flooring will also last about 40 years, but can last longer with proper maintenance. Carpets typically last the shortest amount of time, with an average life expectancy of 8-11 years for nylon fibers and 25-30 years for wool fibers. Vinyl flooring lasts 10-25 years, depending on quality of the product and intensity of use. Laminate flooring needs to be replaced after about 25 years and can likely only be refinished once.

Life Cycle Thinking

Energy Consumption
Vinyls, petroleum-based carpets, and tiles use the most energy during extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, and disposal. In general, wood products have lower embodied energy. In particular, cork flooring, although it is produced in Europe and North Africa, requires little energy over its life cycle.

Pollutants Generated in Production
Vinyls produce toxins throughout their extraction, manufacturing, use, and disposal cycle. If possible, they should be avoided, even though they have the lowest first cost. Carpets, including wools, generally produce more pollutants than other floorings. Tile creates more air pollutants during its energy-intensive manufacturing process.

Floor finishes that can be cleaned with water and light detergents and need no additional coatings or waxes (tiles, some laminates, solid woods, and bamboos) produce fewer harmful indoor air emissions. These flooring materials also tend to be a hard surface, making them easier to dust. This reduces the accumulation of allergens in the indoor environment. Flooring materials that require resurfacing (wood, cork, linoleum, and vinyl) often emit VOCs during the resurfacing process and require adequate ventilation to remove those during application and curing periods. Carpets have the greatest negative impacts on indoor air quality because they accumulate dirt, dust, and allergens. They also off-gas from both their materials and from the adhesives, pads, and accessories used in their installation. If possible, it is best to have the carpet off-gas in a well-ventilated location for a minimum of 10 days prior to installation. Some recent tests indicate linoleum may off-gas significant amounts of VOCs. However, some manufacturers may now be providing a factory-applied coating which helps to eliminate off-gassing. Wood, engineered wood products, and laminate flooring should be sealed to prevent formaldehyde and other VOCs from off-gassing. Cork has no significant off-gassing issues.

Future Recycling
Currently, carpets have the greatest potential for recycling because they can be removed in the largest pieces and shipped easily. Many carpet manufacturers and other entities are starting to accept recycled carpet. Cork can be ground up and reused or composted; ceramic tile can be ground up and used for fill; linoleum and wool are biodegradable. Additives and finishes contained in any of these products may minimize or prevent recycling or composting efforts.

All of the flooring selections examined here are common finish flooring materials and use standard installation methods.

Other Considerations
The environmental impact and cost of wood flooring can be reduced by specifying and sourcing reclaimed and hardwood floors.