Sustainable Building Materials – Cork Flooring

Put a Cork in It: Filling in the Floor Gaps with Cork.  Cork isn’t a new idea for sustainable building in flooring, but it’s gaining popularity.

Cork Flooring Swatches

Cork flooring comes in a variety of finishes.

Traditional flooring products are made of non-renewable resources, slowly regenerating resources or man-made, sometimes caustic, ingredients. The majority of residential and commercial flooring today consist of:

  • carpeting
  • cement
  • tile
  • hardwood
  • laminate

Why is cork a better choice?

Holding dynamically diverse properties, cork, by nature, is commonly utilized in the creation of a number of products we use daily. When most people think about cork, they often turn their minds to that pesky plug that stands between them and the contents of a wine or champagne bottle. Other uses are flooring, textiles, clothing, jewelry and crafts.

Cork Tree - Sustainable Building Materials

Cork is the outer bark layer of the cork oak tree which can be harvested without harming the tree itself.

Sustainability: unlike harvesting wood products, the collection of cork is done without destroying a single tree. Taken from the bark of a cork oak tree, cork can be collected from an individual tree multiple times throughout the tree’s life. Harvesting can occur after a sapling reaches 25 to 30 years of age.  Or any time after the trunk reaches a circumference or roughly 70cm. Cork trees are slow growing and can live upwards of 170 to 250 years. Since the harvesting occurs every 9 to 12 years, each tree can be harvested up to 16 times in its life.1

Benefits of cork flooring in sustainable building:

  • Thermal Insulation – cork historically was used in refrigeration applications, such as in the walls of freezers
  • Impermeability – Since the inter-connected pockets of air are truly so tiny and microscopic, cork is considered impermeable yet breathable – which is why it’s desirable for corking wine.
  • Give – the pockets of air compress and then expand again, never collapsing within the product core, giving the cork resilience and memory. It has excelled for use as flooring due to the softness under foot, as it is often recommended for people with back pain who stand on a floor for an extended amount of time.
  • Design Flexibility – the beauty of cork is that it can be cut in numerous ways that enable veneers with different aesthetics to create highly decorative surfaces. Cork conglomerate, a recycled cork material,  is also readily available.  Cork conglomerate is often used in conjunction with veneers.
  • Buoyancy – Cork floats, and has been used as buoys, floating decoys, and as runners for pontoons and other water craft.
  • Slip resistance – cork, due to the softness and bounce-back, is very slip resistant, and has been used extensively on the deck of naval ships.1
  • Beauty – cork offers a natural beauty and organic feel to homes.  It pairs well with bamboo to create style in  a sustainable building plan.

Cost outlay – the price of installed cork flooring ranges from $2 to $20 per square foot depending on the shape and intricacy of patterns. (2) Prices do increase slightly as the majority of cork forests come from the Mediterranean basin, in countries such as: North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco), southern France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. (3) Forests that contain cork oak in the region are threatened by population growth and clear-cutting.

Luckily a viable cork industry could soon be established and flourish right here in the U.S.. The trick is finding the right conditions to allow such an industry to grow. Cork requires minimal rain and nutrition and grows in sandy (nitrogen and potassium rich soils).3 Cork trees are relatively common in the western US as they are cared for and maintained in nurseries. Much of the west coast and southernmost regions of the United States could provide ideal conditions for a successful, nationally based, cork industry. (4) With a little vision a viable, sustainable, locally produced and harvested cork industry could be established that would create new jobs and reduce importing costs.

Resources for Sustainable Building with Cork Flooring
(1)   Cork - SustainableMaterials.com
(2)   Benefits of CorkFlooring – Mother Earth News
(3)   Part 1: The Real Cork – Where does cork come from?,  Gabriella Opaz
(4)   Cork Oaks in America – corkqc.com

Have you considered using Cork as a sustainable building material?

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