As recently as a year ago, Epcon Communities was not specifying hardwood flooring in its home market of Columbus, Ohio. The builder of slab-on-grade, ranch condominiums in the $180,000 to $250,000 price range installed carpet and vinyl surfaces in its homes, says Craig Thomas, vice president of development and construction for the Dublin, Ohio-based developer.

An influx of design-savvy baby boomers and success with hardwood floors among the company's franchise builders caused an attitude shift. Hardwood flooring "showcases the home and it gives it such a homier feel," Thomas says. Improvements in technology and maintenance requirements were the kicker. The Shaw Epic engineered tongue-and-groove flooring his company now specs provides consistent installation, he says, and the product's durable finish makes the surface harder and long-lasting—a particular boon for the developer's active adult buyers, who often favor lower-maintenance products.

Furthermore, Thomas notes, the product's environmental record—more efficient resource use and timber from suppliers committed to sound forest practices—helps builders and developers find a balance between cost and sustainability.

But Shaw's engineered Epic isn't the only hardwood flooring product with a green story. Both solid and engineered hardwood floors are made from a renewable resource, and both are available with certified sustainable credentials. Whether because of the green message, enhanced technologies, or simply the product's consistent, natural look, hardwood flooring of both types has seen swelling sales in recent years.

Planting the Seed
As pros like Thomas become more interested in the "green"-ness of their materials, more hardwood flooring manufacturers are touting the material's inherent environmental sustainability and finding new ways to make the most of the resource.

If forests are managed properly—and in North America, they usually are, says Timm Locke, executive vice president of the Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association (NOFMA)—they can continue to produce hardwood lumber for a long time without much environmental impact. Hardwood surfaces are also durable and often reusable, he adds. "Solid wood will outlast the people in the building, and sometimes the life of the building," he says.

Plus, hardwood supplies in the United States are continuing to grow, industry experts say. The volume of standing hardwood timber in the eastern United States, where most hardwood is found, has doubled since 1953, according to Art Raymond of A.G. Raymond & Co., a consultant for the Hardwood Manufacturers Association. And, he adds, in a recent survey of the Appalachian region, the U.S. Forest Service found that annual growth is exceeding annual harvest by 229 percent, virtually the definition of sustainability.

Many manufacturers are making even more efficient use of forest resources with engineered wood flooring that uses small strips of wood instead of one solid piece. The Shaw Epic product used by Thomas, for instance, is constructed using wood veneers on a wood core made from sawmill waste material. The 3/4-inch flooring uses two-thirds fewer trees than comparable solid wood flooring, according to John Bradshaw, environmental marketing manager for Shaw. The wood veneers are obtained from suppliers committed to sound forestry practices, the manufacturer adds. "It's a great product at a good price, and it's green," Thomas says.

Some experts, however, argue that since engineered flooring often has less of a wear layer, it cannot be sanded as many times (usually three to five times, versus four to six times with solid flooring), meaning solid flooring has a potentially longer life.

Green Grades
To verify that their products are grown and harvested in a sustainable manner, some manufacturers are turning to third-party certification. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is the most popular, manufacturers say, and is recognized by green building programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED, NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines, and Green Globes. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is another popular program, and is recognized by NAHB and Green Globes.

A product with the FSC label has come from a well-managed forest that meets the organization's standards, which encompass environmental, social, and economic issues, says Katie Miller, communications director for the FSC. "For a consumer looking to purchase flooring, this is an independent, third-party guarantee" that they're getting flooring from a well-managed forest, she says.

Products certified by the SFI must also meet a set of environmental standards.

Kentucky Wood Floors' parent company, Koetter Woodworking, is one firm that passed an FSC audit in response to customer demand. But because of higher costs for certified products (which pros estimate can range from the same as non-certified wood up to double the cost), only about one-quarter of the demand is for residential use, estimates Mike Litchkowski, sales and marketing manager for Kentucky Wood Floors. "A lot of people, when they find out the cost, that kind of makes people go away," he says.

Still, with the number of companies offering certified products having increased exponentially over the past two years, according to both the FSC and SFI, certified flooring is quickly gaining momentum, meaning pricing and availability should improve. While most consumer interest in green flooring is limited to the East and West coasts for now, builders expect they'll be thinking more and more about green building. "We're not seeing a lot of people being aware of that kind of construction," Thomas says. But, he adds, "They will be."

New Growth
Whether or not it's certified, demand for hardwood flooring is on the rise. The use of American hardwoods in the flooring market has grown 56 percent over the past five years, according to a TrendTracker report published for members of the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, despite an 8.4 percent decline in shipments of strip flooring last year due to the shrinking housing market. And according to a study published in April 2007 by National Floor Trends magazine, hardwood ranks as the second leading floor covering category (behind carpet) with just over 20 percent of sales.
Industry experts point out that as consumers become more knowledgeable about environmental issues, they're moving beyond just thinking about recycled milk jugs, concrete, or bamboo, and becoming more interested in renewable wood products. "The green mind-set has matured," says Locke. Homeowners realize, he adds, that "just because you have to cut down a tree doesn't mean it's so bad." -- BUILDING PRODUCTS

The Word on Wood

Hardwood flooring makers offer more choices then ever, with prefinished, engineered models; hand-distressed planks; and a swelling number of colors, species, and sizes. Here are the hottest trends, according to industry insiders:

  • Prefinished flooring. It's not a new trend, but manufacturers estimate prefinished flooring now makes up about 70 percent to 75 percent of the market because of its high-quality finish and fast installation. "We used to shut the house down for three or four days" during flooring installation, says hardwood flooring dealer Ken Schumacher, president of Schumacher & Co. Custom Hardwood Floors and chairman of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA). "We can put prefinished down and there's no shutting the house down."
  • Engineered flooring. Engineered wood isn't just more resource-efficient, it's also more dimensionally stable, and it can go below grade or over concrete. While it often has less of a wear layer, the flooring is more resistant to moisture, will not curve or shrink as much, and is usually available in wider planks for the same price. Westport Homes, for instance, specs engineered flooring because a lot of the company's first-time or move-up clients are harder on their wood floors—one even tried to use a steam cleaner on her wood floor, says Charlie Giese, general manager for the company's Ft. Wayne, Ind., division. "Engineered is better able to stand up to that abuse," he says.
  • Hand-distressed products. The popularity of products with hand-scraped or distressed surfaces is continuing to expand, manufacturers say. "People love the look of aged wood," says Rose Gilbert, interior design author and columnist behind the syndicated DÉcor Score. "It makes the house feel as if it has been there long enough to have a personality."
  • Darker colors. Gilbert also is seeing darker, more dramatic floors, even products with a black urethane finish. "The dark floor comes because the American consumer is more adventuresome, willing to go for an edgier look than in the past," she says. Matching the color of the cabinets exactly, however, is out.
  • Wider sizes. Particularly with engineered wood flooring making wider planks more stable and less expensive, wider sizes are one of the newest trends. Widths of 3 to 5 inches are particularly popular, but high-end products can go as wide as 8 inches.
  • More species. Fifty years ago, 90 percent of flooring was oak. While it still dominates, more than 200 other species, many of them exotic, are filling out the demand. Exotics provide different looks, grains, and colors, but also can be more expensive and require more environmental examination, experts say.