Everyone has their own choices of materials when it comes to their own house or office. Different factors are considered while selecting the flooring materials. Today, one of the most important factors that are taken into consideration is the impact of building materials on the environment and human health. Every person an architect, an interior designer or homeowner all have variety of choices that can have great impacts on the quality of life and environment.
Flooring is one of the most important parts and the most used part of the building. Hence the materials used in flooring need to be long lasting with minimum impact on the environment and health and need to be economical. Several options of flooring materials include ceramic tile, marble tiles, vinyl composite tiles, linoleum, bamboo, hardwood, carpet made of natural or a variety of synthetic fibers, etc. With the variation of these materials there is also a great variation in their environmental impacts. For those interested in minimizing the environmental impacts associated with their choice of flooring material the Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) can be of great help. It is easy to compare hardwood flooring against carpeting, natural materials versus synthetic, or substituting older appliances with energy competent ones. Good choices have long-term effects on sustainability. This paper compares various green construction flooring materials in terms of economy, sustainability eco-friendliness, and impact on human health.
Sustainable and environment-friendly construction is gaining popularity and for this purpose, material selection is a fundamental component. For instance, it is important to select based on material properties, production, cost and effects on indoor air quality, etc. Grading materials based on their environmental impact is a widespread practice, to decrease harmful environmental impacts. Nevertheless, evaluating environmental impact for a variety of construction materials is somewhat difficult, because intricate factors and interactions have to be taken into account (Jonsson, 2000).
Life Cycle Assessment
This is the assessment that is used to determine the eco-friendly nature of any material. A life cycle assessment abbreviated as LCA presents a system for scientifically assessing the ecological impacts associated with a product or methodology. As a result of LCA the final outcome can be used to guide methodology or product development efforts. Additionally, it is also possible to give adequate insights into the environmental impacts of raw material and product choices, and safeguarding and . The systematic nature and its incomparability as an assessment tool make this option very popular in the building industry. Besides it also helps in comparing alternative processes and materials.
At this point in time, it is important to know the methodology for LCA. It is initiated with a vigilant accounting of all the quantifiable raw material inputs together with the energy involved, manufactured goods and co-product outputs, and pollution involved particularly the emissions to air, water, and land. More specifically, the evaluation is called Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). Often times LCI just provides the details of product manufacture or it may also be extended to include all stages in manufacture, utilization and disposal, together with raw material mining, shipping, processing, refined products, maintenance and repair, and clearance. The systematic nature of LCI and standardized guidelines from ISO help the analyzer from any part of the world to get results that are uniform if the set of assumptions is kept constant.
Environmental Aspects of Flooring Products
The software developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) called the Building for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (BEES) is a one-stop source of life cycle assessment of various flooring options. In this system, they have analyzed about 25-floor covering products that can be readily used based on the need of the individual or organization.
Each and every material has there distinct set of impacts on the environment. For instance, the impact of flooring materials such as linoleum, VCT, bamboo, natural wood, nylon carpet tile, composite marble tile, ceramic tile, terrazzo, cork and rubber flooring are all diverse. As a result these products and the raw materials have across all stages of the product life-cycle various environmental impact (Aksamija, 2010). LCA is carried out for these materials, in order to study in detail the environmental and economic factors.
In the case of complete buildings, the energy consumption of the use phase, in general, has a significantly higher environmental impact when compared to the other parts of the life cycle. Even though not all impacts of the use phase may possibly be directly linked to the building products used, those that take account of material-related emissions and the impacts of finish products and methods associated with the use and maintenance need to be considered. It should be noted that in majority of the cases the emissions arise from surface materials such as floor coverings. For instance, when emissions from the flooring materials are considered the most important group of emission is the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) or the total VOCs (TVOCs) that are a commonly studied group of emissions (Jnsson, 1999).
As mentioned earlier, the homeowners and the building designers have a wide variety of flooring materials to select ranging from resilient sheet and ceramic tile, linoleum, and rubber, to natural materials such as wood, bamboo, and cork to stone and tile options, such as ceramics, granite, and marble slab etc. Studies suggest that resilient and hard flooring products are among the top in providing good life-cycle performance. The reason for this is that resilient and hard flooring products tend to be long-lasting and involve less replacement than other soft flooring materials such as carpeting (Sullivan, 2008).
LCA of Linoleum Flooring
Linseed oil is the basic raw material and the binder in the linoleum paste. The linseed oil is chemically oxidized in the presence of a catalyst and later polymerized in presence of air in big tanks. A reddish-brown highly elastic substance known as linoxyn is formed which is then mixed with colophonium, a resin from coniferous trees to form cement. Once the cement is dried, it is further mixed with powdered cork, powdered wood, limestone and pigment. Once the mixing process is complete, a homogenous mass is obtained which is then converted to granules and fused to backing made from jute under high pressure and heat. Further processing and drying takes 3-4 weeks and later it is rolled and is ready for sale (Jnsson, Tillman and Svensson, 1997).
As it is clear from the procedure, all materials used for the formation are natural materials from renewable sources and are biodegradable in nature. Over the years the linoleum flooring does not grow fainter, because the titanium pigments are deeply rooted in the structure. Its the accumulation of dirt, dust and other small particles and consequently makes it hypoallergenic and user-friendly in nature. This kind of flooring can be used in places where people with respiratory problems reside. Today, lot of precaution is taken in terms of protection from fire. A unique property of linoleum flooring is its fire-resistant nature. Therefore, additional fire-retardants finish is not required for this flooring. It is also found that Linoleum can be incinerated and in this process releases over 65% additional energy. This suggests that it can be a source of biofuel (Sustainability at work, 2007). The lifetime of linoleum is typically thirty to forty years and requires wet or dry cleaning as maintenance (Aksamija, 2010). While most of the waste produced during the manufacturing process can be reused in the manufacturing plant, only minimal waste material goes into the landfill. In general this flooring can be easily recycled. At the end of life (approx. 30years) the linoleum flooring may need replacement. It is generally incinerated and the energy obtained from incinerating linoleum is more or less the same as that which is used for its production. Alternatively, linoleum can also be disposed of in the landfills. Since it is a natural product, it undergoes biodegradation and does not release any harmful or toxic chemicals (GreenFloors, n.d.).
Life Cycle of Solid Wood Flooring
Wood is the only raw material used for flooring. Apart from being attractive and providing warmness to an interiors aesthetic, wood gives a traditional look and a very warm atmosphere. The production cycle involves planting, growing, cutting or felling, and replanting. After cutting the trees, it has to be transported to sawmill and this requires the transportation energy. In sawmills, the wood is shaped and finally it is transported to the construction site. Since wood is renewable material, its usage supports the values of sustainability. Besides, all through the lifecycle of trees, it is a major sink for carbon. Prior to the harvesting of wood from its natural habitat, wood or trees absorb carbon all through their life. The trapped carbon remains in the wood even after harvesting for flooring purposes. At a later stage, the wood can either be reused or can be used as fuel (Hubbard and Bowe, 2008). Even if it is disposed of in the landfills it can decompose naturally.
According to a study of life cycle assessment of different flooring materials, wood flooring scored better with less energy use and CO2 emissions. Besides, wood also scored well in the environmental impact studies in terms of resource use, release of environmental toxins, air pollutants release and waste generation (Jnsson, Tillman and Svensson, 1997). Further studies also found that wood gives an aesthetic look and is easily maintained. Solid wood flooring is good as these are hypo-allergic in nature and occupants having problems of allergy, can opt for wood flooring. It is also easy the installation of wood flooring. Another study compared the solid strip hardwood flooring with other flooring alternatives, such as vinyl, linoleum and carpet, in terms of air emissions, energy use, water use, and product service life. It concluded that the solid hardwood flooring is advantageous from an environmental impact viewpoint (Hardwood Council, n.d.).
Bamboo flooring is an example of solid wood flooring. It is another highly renewable substitute to traditional wood flooring, commonly publicized as a durable, good-looking material that can mimic other wood types and also give a good finish as another wood flooring. Bamboos have faster growth when compared to other woods, even after harvesting since the root remains underground, bamboos grow quickly. Besides studies show that bamboo takes up to five tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per acre of its planting. It is also estimated that bamboos can produce about 35 % more oxygen when compared to clusters of trees (Sullivan, 2008).
Bamboo flooring is in general considered to have ; water-resistant properties, as well as these, are extremely durable. Its setting up is easy as in the case of wood flooring. Bamboo flooring is presented with in hardwood/laminate substitutes. This type of flooring is comparatively expensive to laminate flooring, however, it is relatively cheaper than hardwood flooring. There are also few studies that point out the unsustainability of bamboo flooring as these contain the toxic chemical formaldehyde (BuildingGreen, 2008).
When LCA of bamboo products was carried out it was found that bamboo flooring has the ability to mimic other wood types. It uses low amount of additives and produces no waste during the manufacturing stage. It is also found that treated bamboo can attain a beautiful color exclusive of chemical staining. If the bamboo products are transported and fabricated at the earliest, the fungicidal property is enhanced by borate solution and can be preserved easily. In the later stages of disposal, the bamboos can be incinerated as in the case of other solid wood floorings.
Life Cycle Assessment of Cork
Cork is a natural source of flooring that has been used for ages. This kind of flooring is common in old historic buildings even today. Cork is just the bark of the tree and does not require complete harvesting of the tree. As a result, there is no question of replanting or renewability. The cork trees lifespan is roughly two centuries, and manufacturers of cork flooring collect the cork oak about 16 times all through the life span. Therefore, it can be said that the cork industry does not demolish the ecological unit where the tree lives, rather it creates prosperity without destroying nature. Researchers also say that the cork oak forests take up about 5% of the carbon dioxide from the surrounding atmosphere. As a result there is reduction in the greenhouse gases.
During the processing of cork, due to the technological advancement, it is possible to alter and adjust the color, shape, size, texture. As a result the finished product can mimic other products such as different woods, stones, etc. Due to the property of cork it is possible to use it even in kitchens, bedrooms, offices, stores etc. Another benefit of cork is that, like some other flooring materials, they also do not pose health risks to the residents. Cork flooring is resilient and is like a cushion. As a result of this property, it prevents imprints due to heavy furniture. It has and provides excellent noise insulation (Sullivan, 2008). Cork is low in volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions, and is not suitable for bathrooms, as it soaks up moisture.
Recycling of cork flooring is been taken up by many construction industries. In fact cork flooring is probably the only flooring that can be made from recycled cork as well as those that are uninstalled from the floor. It can be used for flooring again and again. This is a unique property of cork flooring (Global Green Force, n.d.). Even if it is not used, it undergoes natural decomposition.
Rubber is a natural extract from latex from the rubber tree (Havea brasiliensis). Natural rubber is an entirely renewable raw material. Further the mature rubber trees are outstandingly competent at trapping the carbon and absorbing the greenhouse gas CO2 from the atmosphere. Rubber flooring is easy to clean and requires less maintenance. It is enough to mop the floor with damp cloth and a neutral cleaner. Since rubber does not absorb water as in the case of wood, it is useful in wet areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. Rubber is impermeable to liquid, gives a soft feeling underfoot and is anti-skid in nature. Additionally, rubber flooring also provides enormous range of color and texture choices, and ends up being more enduring and more environmentally friendly when compared to another flooring. The popularity of this flooring is greater than ever as today it is easy to install this unit and maintain. It is known for the effective sound insulation and also vibration reduction. Additionally, it also provides resistance to fading and burns. While natural rubber flooring is sustainable, the synthetic rubber flooring is not sustainable (Dalsouole Aurstralasia, n.d.).
Rubber flooring is sometimes made out of recycled rubber and it can be recycled further at the end of its life. Synthetic rubber flooring is not a good option and is known to release toxic chemicals during its manufacturing. This flooring is best suited for sports rooms, Gyms, and other fitness center flooring. Recycling of natural rubber floors saves energy and does not add to air or water pollution as the process of grinding and recycling rubber is done using most recent technologies (Rubber Flooring Direct, n.d.).
LCA of Marble Tiles and Ceramic Tiles
Though the marble and ceramic tiles do not come under the green flooring materials, it is important to know the LCA of these materials as these are popular flooring materials. According to a comparative study by Nicoletti et al. (2002) it was found that the impacts of both marbles and ceramic tiles are mainly due to energy consumption. Further, this study illustrates that the ceramics tiles contribute to emission due to their composition of the raw materials that are used to produce glaze. The toxic chemicals such as arsenic and lead are released during high-temperature treatments and these can cause serious health problems in human beings. Arsenic compounds are enclosed in the raw materials utilized for preparing the frit mix.