• Embodied energy used to make the floor
Choose the product that has the least materials. If you have timber or other hard flooring, avoid covering it with carpet, which involves significant additional materials and energy to produce, or limit it to a few rooms, or use smaller rugs or mats.
• Regular floor cleaning
One of the biggest environmental impacts of floors is the energy spent on cleaning them. Carpet is the worst culprit compared with tiles, rubber, vinyl and other hard floors because they are vacuumed every week and regularly steam cleaned. Low-maintenance surfaces such as bamboo, polished stone or concrete, or resilient finishes such as natural linoleum or cork, are better.
The longer lasting a material is, the fewer resources are required over time. Carpets have a short lifespan – popular low-cost carpets only last five to 10 years, both because of wear and changing interior design tastes. Hard floors such as timber, stone, concrete or tiles last considerably longer.
• Floor finishes
Even if a floor is certified eco-timber, it may be finished with a high-embodied energy, potentially toxic polyurethane coating. Instead, choose a natural-oil hard-finish coating.
• Toxic emissions
Some floorcoverings are known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals linked with health problems including damage to the nervous system, allergic reactions and cancer. Adequate ventilation can help, but may not be enough to ensure healthy air quality, so avoid these.
• The rise of bamboo
Experts believe harvesting fast-growing bamboo has fewer environmental and greenhouse impacts than harvesting timber. However, although it makes a tough, durable flooring material, bamboo is often manufactured using glue that can emit VOCs. Most bamboo floorboards available in Australia use low-emission glues (rated E0 or E1 under the Australian Standard for formaldehyde emissions), but do your research to be sure.
• Thermal mass
A high thermal mass material absorbs heat from the sun (via windows) or from indoor heating to warm the inside of a building in winter, while in hot weather shaded thermal mass can help cool the interior by absorbing heat. Floors with a high thermal mass include stone, tile, concrete, rammed earth and bricks. Covering these with carpet, linoleum or floorboards will reduce the benefits. On the other hand, carpet does provide some insulation for the floor, which can reduce heating costs in winter, as well as feel more comfortable. A concrete slab is one of the most common flooring systems and can offer benefits of thermal mass. However, concrete also has a high embodied energy. If you need to use concrete, choose a “green” concrete that contains extenders such as fly ash.
• Using carpet sustainably
Buy a second-hand carpet and have it fitted to your space. Some carpet products are made from recycled materials such as PET and other plastics; otherwise, look for sustainable natural fibres such as coir, sisal or seagrass. There are also systems that minimise wastage, such as carpet tiles that can be replaced in areas of wear and tear.