Cork Flooring: A modern floor choice

Bob Borson —  May 12, 2011 — 49 Comments

Cork flooring is a bit of a mystery – not just to me but to everyone I’ve ever asked … although they don’t all admit it. If you do any research on cork at all, you will find all sorts of conflicting information. Normally I could turn to my overwhelming experience and share more information than you would ever want to know except I have only used cork on the floor in a project once before – in this kitchen:

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Cork Floor in the Meaders Residence

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The client who requested this cork floor does a lot of entertaining and cooking so invariably spends hours at a time on her feet while in the kitchen. I do love the way this kitchen looks – so clean and modern – every time I look at it I ask myself “why aren’t more people using cork?”

I spent a lot of time looking for reasons to use or not use cork. I’ve skimmed millions of pro/con lists … and I have come to the conclusion that everybody has different opinions and experiences. People equally love it or hate it, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency and it’s driving me crazy!!!! The cork I’m talking about isn’t the stuff you buy to use on the typical bulletin board – that stuff is not nearly as dense and can fall apart fairly easily. No, the cork used for floors can be some amazing stuff.

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Cork Flooring tile

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Commercial flooring applications in Europe have been using cork for well over a century, but the growing interest in green living is making cork a more popular choice for residential living in the United States. From harvest to installation, cork flooring is possibly the most environmentally sustainable, non-toxic and healthy of all flooring surfaces.

Cork is harvested from the bark of the Quercus suber tree, more commonly referred to as a cork oak tree, which is grown in the Mediterranean region and has a life span up to 250 years. After the first 25 years of growth, the tree is stripped of its bark for the first time using traditional hand labor methods. This process is repeated every nine years with little or no affect on the health of the tree. During each harvest, about 50 percent of the bark is removed.

Unlike traditional wood flooring, the entire tree is not cut down, only the outside is removed. Harvesting does not harm the tree and a new layer of cork bark grows, making it a renewable resource. Ultimately, old age is what kills the trees, not the harvesting process.

Similar to growth of the raw material, manufacturing methods are also geared to protect the environment. To produce cork flooring, virgin cork bark and post-industrial waste cork from the manufacturing of other cork products is ground into small granules. During the manufacturing process, all raw materials are consumed, either for the finished flooring product or as an energy source. Production waste of cork dust and tree trimmings are burned in furnaces that supply heat to bake the cork tiles.

For people with allergies, cork flooring is an ideal surface. It is antimicrobial and less likely to be affected by mold and mildew. It does not absorb dust or pollen, making it easier to rid the home of these potential allergens.

The benefits of cork don’t end there. The bark contains a substance called suberin, a waxy waterproof substance present in the cell walls of cork tissue and a natural insect repellent. Suberin also protects cork from fire and when cork is burned, it does not release any toxic gasses.

And to add to its bounty of riches, the insulating properties of cork flooring contribute to energy efficiency. Experts say that even a cork under-layment will provide significant insulation in the cold months.

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Cork flooring tile

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Cork Facts:

  • Cork is a completely natural product, largely unchanged by processing.
  • Cork is naturally fire resistant and it does not release any toxic gases on combustion.
  • Cork flooring is regarded as one of the better choices in flooring for natural sound insulation because it absorbs ambient sound and generally reduces noise
  • Due to the elastic nature and miniature cells composition, it is an extremely durable flooring material.
  • Cork is worth considering  for people with allergies. Due to the presence of  a naturally occurring substance called suberin, cork is naturally resistant to deterioration and water damage, resists the growth of mold, mildew, bacteria, prevents the cultivation of mold, and keeps away bugs and dust mites.
  • Cork flooring is warm under foot and insulates heat and cold.
  • Cork has a unique cellular structure with millions of cells enclosed with a gaseous substance, providing a comfortable cushioned surface that gives a soft feeling to the feet and joints of people walking and standing on cork floors for extended periods.
  • Cork floors have a very long life and can be repaired if damaged.
  • Cork is an anti-static surface

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cork flooring tile

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Cleaning Cork Floors:

The daunting task of re-finishing or re-staining cork can become a burden due to the nature of the material. Cork must be initially sealed, and re-sealed every few years in order to protect the integrity of the material by keeping dirt and moisture at bay. Since cork has a thin outer layer, moisture and excessive dirt can damage the flooring. In addition to the added maintenance of sealing the floor, cork cannot tolerate regular cleaning products and, therefore, requires special attention. A solvent paste wax is recommended, but this process can be rather time consuming to apply.

  • Wipe away spills immediately.
  • Sweep or vacuum your cork floors regularly to remove dirt, dust, grit or debris which may act like sandpaper and will scratch any floor. This will prevent abrasion or scratches on the surface of cork floor.
  • To clean a heavy stain or spill, use only the cleaners especially recommended for cleaning cork floors.
  • Cork floors being a natural wood product can absorb moisture. Never allow any liquid to stand on cork floors; water can seriously damage the floor over time.
  • Damp mop the floor at least once a week or as required. Avoid wet mopping. Be sure to use only a ‘damp’ mop as excess water will harm the floor in the long term.
  • Do not flood the floor while cleaning or mopping.
  • You can use mild wood-floor detergent once in a while for cleaning cork floors thoroughly.
  • Use only non-abrasive soaps and cleaning materials when cleaning cork floors. Do not use oils or waxes or ammonia-based cleaning products. Never use harsh solvents or cleaners; many solvents can discolor or damage the floor’s surface.
  • Place door mats and pads at the entrances, to prevent dirt, sand and grit being tracked onto the floor. However, do not use mats with rubber or other non-porous backings since these could trap moisture

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Cork Flooring tiles

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Resources:

I’d like to thank the following sites for contributing to my research on this post:

US Floors   Build Direct   WE Cork   Wicanders   APC Cork

but most of all I would like to thank Floor Covering News. Since I was having a hard time getting some information I felt was reliable, I shot an email off to FCNews and they responded back immediately. The next morning I found an email waiting for me that was full of data, resources, pictures and links. It really was above and beyond and I will remember it. I love getting such good service – makes me feel special.

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  • Lloyd Hohn

    We installed cork flooring in our home because of the softness of the floor. (my wife has a bad back). It is very easy on the feet and not a cold floor as installed over concrete floor in our home. However, it mars VERY easily and you can accidentally scratch or nick it with a finger nail when retrieving debris off the floor. We are senior citizens and I cannot imagine this flooring holding up in a home with children. Did I mention it scratches far too easily in my opinion. Our previous home had true hardwood flooring and that took a beating and still looked great.

  • Olivia

    Hi I loved this floor in the kitchen. Did you use any finish on that or it is just wax? What kind? Also the spec. Thank you in advance.

  • Sue Knott

    Thanks for the info

  • waterman II

    My un cle (also an architect) installed cork floors in a summer home on the east end of Long Island in the mid 50′s. I too remember everyone take turns in putting past wax and buffing the floor. Today it is as good as when it was first installed. PS after a mid 1980 renovation the floor was continued to the other parts of the home and blends in with the old floor perfectly.

  • Brenda Ellis

    Totally agree. Cork floors were the in thing in the 70s and went out of fashion but the fact they have remained out of fashion in an eco conscious world is crazy. Bring them back, Warm, good looking, sustainable, easy to lay, huge varieties of uses. Dont lay them up the side of a bath though, on the floor only. They are fantastic. Also the cork farms in Portugal to survive need us to buy cork products. They farm ecologically and provide a huge number of wildlife a wonderful home amongst and in the trees. Brenda Ellis

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  • http://twitter.com/arqrosadasilva António R. da Silva

    Another fact: – The world biggest cork producer is Portugal.

  • Jennifer

    Cork flooring is actually water resistant and liquids will simply bead up on top of cork. Please don’t mistake an engineered cork floor which is mostly fiberboard with a real cork floor which is 100% cork. Cork has been used in wine bottles for 3000 years so it definitely doesn’t absorb liquids. 100% cork tiles will withstand floods due to appliance breakdowns or even natural flooding events.  Cork is water-resistant due to the natural Suberin within the cells.  Engineered floating floors can’t provide the same water resistance because they are 60% fiberboard, a material that swells when it gets wet and sometimes even in just high humidity.  100% cork tiles gives you all the benefits of cork. 

  • AZimmerman

    cork (and it’s lovely cousin, linoleum, are great floors as you indicated.  Only downsides are cost and their susceptibility to water damage, more than other sheet or tile floors.

    I know first hand when a water heater broke at one of my apts. and had to replace all the flooring which is not cheap.  subfloor was ok.

    We are using rubber composition ecofloor sheet which has a grainy surface and comes in a lot of great neutral color combinations on a recent project that came in a bid below budget. The floor is expensive but will be great for the impact noise, kids falling (shelter for victims of domestic violence), and ease of maintenance for eternally under funded client.

    best and thank you! love your shares!

    • pixiedust8

      100% cork is not susceptible to water damage at all, but if you used floating tiles, that is partially wood-based and will get damaged by water.

  • avimom

    Three years ago we replaced our home’s original 12-inch cork floor tiles installed in 1956 with 24-inch tiles.  We have radiant heat and have had no issues.  The seams between the tiles are slightly more noticable when they contract, but that’s it.  I would note, however, that any flaws in the subfloor will telescope through the cork.  We have had to replace one tile a couple times due to a bad seam in the concrete pad that runs right below the middle of that tile.  Also, cork is not color-fast.  It will fade significantly.  We were warned about this and chose the lightest color tiles, but we do have noticable fading.  We chose to keep the original tiles in one windowless back hallway and had them refinished, as you would a wood floor.  They are amazingly beautiful even now at age 55.

    As for maintenance, we sweep daily and damp mop in spots as needed.  We opted not to seal or otherwise coat the tiles and so I never wet-mop the entire floor.  So far nothing has spilled and caused a stain.  I have dropped a knife, which landed point-down and stuck out of the floor like I’d stabbed it.  The kids got a big kick out of that.     

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      thank you for sharing your experience. Sounds like you have had a great experience with your floors but you also have realistic expectations on the limits of cork flooring.

      Cheers.

    • pixiedust8

      Interesting. I wonder if it depends on the brand of cork? I put dark gray cork in a kitchen five years ago, and there has been no fading at all. However, it is a northern exposure. Perhaps that makes a difference.

  • http://www.bobscarpet.com/contentpage.aspx?Id=9507 Steven Lodrhowe

    That last example of cork floorings looks pretty nice, by the way. Maintaining cork flooring is quite worth it, since cork flooring has this carpet-like feel, only with more cushion, and less insulation for those who cool their rooms naturally.

  • Mr. S. Fas

    that last one looks like coffee gone bad

  • http://twitter.com/Kitchen_Sync Kelly Morisseau

    Good post, Bob! I specify cork for homeowners with joint or back problems. It’s much more forgiving than any of the hard surfaces.  

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

       I suppose I knew that but I was surprised that the article was picked up by as many aging in place experts as it was – what a great bit of fortune!

      • JOHN-CORK

        totally agree more warmth more peaceful more comfortble

  • http://twitter.com/ExtremelyAvg Brian Meeks

    I am fascinated by wood and wood products. Despite all of the pros, the con of refinishing every couple of years, would be more than I could stand. I really liked all of the details of the article though. Well done.

  • Girlfuturist

    I LOVE the idea of cork, but sadly my experience has proven otherwise. I remodeled a house with 30 yr old cork floors, and most were seriously damaged and dented where chairs would be sliding back and forth. Needless to say, they were replaced with hardwoods.

    The cork was certainly quiet and sustainable, but very delicate. I don’t understand when I read how “durable” they are. Based on my experience, the floors under the chairs in that beautiful dining room picture in your post would be scarred and pock-marked. And it’s a difficult surface if exposed to water and not adequately (and frequently) sealed. Most homeowners don’t seal them often enough.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Maintenance is important, that’s for sure. As far as the picture above, the legs on the chair were a consideration which is why those particular ones were chosen. The flat bars remove an excessive point load and allow the chairs to slide along the floor. A more traditional chair with 4 legs would eventually tear that floor to bits.

  • Greatfallsinc

    We have started to install a lot more cork when doing renovations over the past 6 months and people are truly blown away by its unique feel and look! Great article!

    Todd

    http://www.greatfallsinc.com

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Todd, thanks for sharing!

  • Duquellatile

    I grew up in a home that has cork flooring. It was installed nearly 65 years ago. My mom would use a past wax on it but as she is very old now, it hasn’t seen much care for quite a few years and is still very beautiful. It probably has so many layers of wax that it doesn’t need any more!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Cyra,

      It seems like some products and materials start to look even better after they have aged in place for a while. I’m starting to believe that cork tiles fall into this category.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

  • Tara

    what about cork with radiant floor heating?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Tara,

      That’s a good question – since cork is a natural product, it is subject to expansion and contraction with changes in humidity (affected here by the underfloor radiant heat). I would presume that the floor would feel warmer just based on the material but I would stay away from combining cork and radiant heating systems.

      At least until I’m shown otherwise.

      Thanks for the question – Bob

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    I’ve actually bounced the idea back and forth. I love that it is such a renewal resource and love the textured look. The cleaning part doesn’t sound as wonderful, but all good things have cons, I guess.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Amy,

      Even weighing in with all the pro’s and con’s it really comes down to your individual priorities. The things that you respond to favorably might outweigh the detracting items by a mile.

      It’s all about finding your balance – just like most things.

  • http://twitter.com/RigginsConst Riggins Construction

    I did not realize cork had so many great properties. I am definitely sharing this post.

  • http://twitter.com/FCNewsmag Floor Covering News

    Great post Bob. Happy to help out but happier to help people learn more about cork. It’s pretty cool stuff.

    @simplybrinn:disqus
    I’m shocked that the floor sample chipped like that! Do you remember what it was by any chance?

    • Brinn Miracle

      We were shocked, too! My husband and I went to a store in Houston called “Venetian Blind Carpet One Flr” and asked if they carried US Floor cork floors. We took home a dark stained cork plank assembly sample; I believe it was the Tira Cinzento color.

      • http://twitter.com/FCNewsmag Floor Covering News

        That Almada collection has a proprietary wearlayer that the company lauds as pretty durable… I’m wondering if they would skip that for the sample pieces?

        What made you seek out US Floors?

        • Brinn Miracle

          I didn’t know about the wear layer. Is it applied pre or post installation? I looked online at several companies for inspiration and saw a few pictures that I liked from US Floors. Also, the company was recommended by another blogger, Paul Anater.

  • http://profiles.google.com/acrackeddoor Ginny Powell

    My parents added a “Florida Room” onto their home in the late 1960′s and used cork for the flooring. 2 kids, lots of ping pong tournaments and 20 years later (when we sold the house) it still looked good. Great article Bob.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for the affirmation Ginny. I have heard many stories like yours where the cork flooring was put down a long time ago and still looks good. Glad to hear you had a good experience with the product.

  • Rob Jones

    Great post, Bob. And thanks for referencing BuildDirect in the post-script. Like you, I was faced with the task of gathering a lot of information about cork flooring. Luckily, I had a number of experts around to help me out as I was pulling the information together. I’m glad you were able to find it useful for this piece.

    It really is an amazing floor covering, for all of the reasons you’ve stated. And, it has its fans and detractors, for sure. But, I’ve got to say – that shot of the kitchen you designed is a real winner, and perfect for someone who is on their feet cooking. Since cork is naturally shock absorbent (because of its elastic nature), being on one’s feet for long periods of time on cork is a dream. This is coming from a guy who’s done time in a kitchen based on a concrete slab!

    Thanks again for the post, and the reference to BuildDirect!

  • Rob Jones

    Great post, Bob. And thanks for referencing BuildDirect in the post-script. Like you, I was faced with the task of gathering a lot of information about cork flooring. Luckily, I had a number of experts around to help me out as I was pulling the information together. I’m glad you were able to find it useful for this piece.

    It really is an amazing floor covering, for all of the reasons you’ve stated. And, it has its fans and detractors, for sure. But, I’ve got to say – that shot of the kitchen you designed is a real winner, and perfect for someone who is on their feet cooking. Since cork is naturally shock absorbent (because of its elastic nature), being on one’s feet for long periods of time on cork is a dream. This is coming from a guy who’s done time in a kitchen based on a concrete slab!

    Thanks again for the post, and the reference to BuildDirect!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Rob,

      the reference was easy to provide – I love BuildDirect and think it’s a great resource. I find myself visiting there frequently and tell many of the homeowners I work with the swing by if they are searching for information.

      Cheers,
      Bob

  • http://twitter.com/cupboards Nick @ Cupboards

    Bob, this is one of the BEST posts I have ever read on cork flooring- Thanks so much for gathering the info together… this post is bookmarked for me to use in the future. As far as the “cons”, every material has drawbacks- super analysis on benefits.

  • Brinn Miracle

    I have to admit, I wasn’t very impressed with the cork flooring sample I tested out from US Floors. As you may know, we are remodeling our kitchen. As my husband and I talked about the cork sample we had brought home for color testing, he made a big gesture with his arms, and in the process his hand scraped the surface. His fingernail took a huge chunk of the cork right out of the sample and we just stopped and stared at each other in disbelief.

    If his fingernail is able to rip a chunk of the floor up, what would high heels do? What if we dropped a knife on the kitchen floor? What if someone shuffles their feet or sits on the floor with a studded belt and decides to ‘scoot over’? Not only did the cork just come right off, but the sample we had was a dark stain; once that chunk came out, the natural color of the cork underneath was clearly visible, making it impossible to ignore. I really wanted cork for our kitchen (I still love the idea of it), but honestly I was too concerned about the longevity and performance issues to buy it (especially for a potential rental unit). I would love to see someone’s actual home where they installed it and see what it looks like after years of use. I’m really curious as to how it can last so long if we saw so many problems from the beginning. (In the end we chose a porcelain tile from Spain)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hard to go wrong with tile from Spain (they know what their doing when it comes to tile!).

      What you are describing is part of my (and probably everyone else’s frustration) is that personal experience with the product varies wildly. You look at the lists of pro’s and what’s not to like? You read people’s reviews of the product and someone will say “it’s been in my house for 30 years – I love it!!” and the next person will have a horror story.

      What I have deduced so far is manufacturer counts a lot, installation is crucial, but selecting the right type of cork pattern is absolutely where it should start – and that means talking with the right vendors. I literally just got off the phone with the contractor who built the house that kitchen photo is from and he confirmed that the floor looks great – except for all the dents and squishes in the cork over the years from the chairs. He thought that the first 50 dents looked terrible but now that there’s so many, they sort of disappear. It reminds me of stainless steel when used as a counter top, it starts off perfect but you will probably have your first scratch on day 1. Eventually the entire surface becomes marred and its a non-issue.

      I suppose I am trying to say that you should manage you and your clients expectations. If that happens, all the other really great aspects of cork flooring make for a great floor.

      • Brinn Miracle

        I think our particular application was just unsuited for cork (we wanted a dark floor, which would show any imperfections in the cork). I think had we gone for a lighter, natural color, any dents or chips would not show so plainly. I’d still consider it for future projects, but I’d definitely want to sample more products. Great comparison with the stainless steel.

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          another consideration for dark floors – they will fade in sunlight. The post was already getting too long so I didn’t mention it but you should always buy extra cork for attic storage so it will match your installation (not that it matters if the color has changed to to UV rays).

          You really do have to use it in the proper locations – it’s not right everywhere but when it is right, you can’t go wrong. (Ooo – bumper sticker talk)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hard to go wrong with tile from Spain (they know what their doing when it comes to tile!).

      What you are describing is part of my (and probably everyone else’s frustration) is that personal experience with the product varies wildly. You look at the lists of pro’s and what’s not to like? You read people’s reviews of the product and someone will say “it’s been in my house for 30 years – I love it!!” and the next person will have a horror story.

      What I have deduced so far is manufacturer counts a lot, installation is crucial, but selecting the right type of cork pattern is absolutely where it should start – and that means talking with the right vendors. I literally just got off the phone with the contractor who built the house that kitchen photo is from and he confirmed that the floor looks great – except for all the dents and squishes in the cork over the years from the chairs. He thought that the first 50 dents looked terrible but now that there’s so many, they sort of disappear. It reminds me of stainless steel when used as a counter top, it starts off perfect but you will probably have your first scratch on day 1. Eventually the entire surface becomes marred and its a non-issue.

      I suppose I am trying to say that you should manage you and your clients expectations. If that happens, all the other really great aspects of cork flooring make for a great floor.

  • Kim

    I grew up in a house with cork floors, so for me they are “homey,” “warm,” and “mom would pick”…all good things.