Want (ever)green floors? Try reclaimed wood.

February 4, 2011

When we imagine a green product, most of us envision something that looks just like the conventional one, minus the offending ingredients and manufacturing processes.

But several adventurous entrepreneurs in the wood-flooring business have developed green products that can be more beautiful and exotic than the ones they seek to replace, and that greenness can connect us to a past we may have thought was lost forever: old growth timber. We still have huge, untapped reserves, albeit not in trees but in old and often long-abandoned buildings.

Willie Drake, a self-described "accidental environmentalist," has been turning reclaimed lumber into flooring for nearly 40 years. He got his start when he and a friend were building a house in rural Virginia for a homeowner who wanted wood paneling made from "something unusual." They decided to use "wormy chestnut," undaunted by the fact that this once-plentiful species was wiped out by a blight in the early 1900s.

They located a large number of rough-cut chestnut boards in a barn in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, stacked there decades before by a farmer trying to salvage the wood after the blight killed his trees. They turned it into finished paneling.

Drake soon learned there was enough old lumber in southwestern Virginia to make sourcing and producing finished paneling and flooring a full-time pursuit. He founded Mountain Lumber (mountainlumber.com) in Ruckersville, Va., in 1974.

To assess the viability of "often really awful-looking wood," he needed to be a timber specialist as well as a title-searching archivist. If a 150-year old abandoned factory was once used as a tannery, for example, the workers probably used heavy metals. These often migrated into the wood, making it unsuitable for reclamation. The wood has advantages: The planks can be as wide as 14 inches, and they have gorgeous depth and luminosity that can be found only in old wood that has been exposed to air for many decades.

Pete Nichols's unique green-flooring products required vision and determination of another sort. A lifelong environmentalist, he has always loved the man-made engineered wood that American builders have used to frame houses for more than 30 years. Structurally, the engineered-wood products are far superior to the dimensional lumber sawn from logs that they have replaced. To him, its wood strands compressed in resin looked like fossilized plant matter suspended in amber, but builders, ever solicitous of their buyers' opinions, continued to conceal what many people characterized as "fake wood."

Nichols finally got his chance to explore the idea when he visited a Chinese bamboo flooring factory in the late 1990s. There he found technicians trying to do with bamboo what he wanted to do with wood: create an "engineered bamboo" flooring from bamboo scraps that was stronger, more stable and more beautiful than natural bamboo. Nichols soon joined them, introducing American technologies to perfect a flooring product they called "stranded bamboo." His firm, Engineered Timber Resources of Boulder, Colo., (etimberr.com) began selling it in the United States in 2001.

When natural-colored dyes are used in Nichols's stranded-bamboo product, the finished flooring can be a dead ringer for African ebony (very dark brown with reddish streaks) or black walnut.

Using a similar process, Nichols's firm developed another flooring product made from poplar waste sourced from the furniture and paper industries. The poplar is treated to remove toxic residue before it is made into flooring. Depending on how the stranded poplar boards are cut, the flooring will look like an unusual wood with multicolored streaks or like a beautiful marbleized material that Mother Nature would envy.

Engineered Timber Resources manufactures the flooring, which is re-branded by the firms that sell it, including Eco Timber (ecotimber.com), which sells through dealers, and Sustainable Flooring (sustainableflooring.com), which sells directly to home builders.

Dan Smith's involvement in the green flooring industry in China and Taiwan began with a long backpacking trip through Asia before he started college. He returned to China after graduation, working for several companies before starting Smith & Fong in 1989.

Initially, the firm manufactured and imported bamboo handicrafts, but Smith saw bamboo's potential as a finished flooring material. In 1993, the firm began manufacturing it in China, and it was the first to import it to the United States.

Smith's initial bamboo flooring products, sold through the firm's Plyboo division (plyboo.com) are recognizably bamboo. His firm's later ones, including its own version of stranded bamboo, are not. For example, the eye-catching "Neopolitan," with its alternating light and dark strands, looks like zebra or tiger wood, both exotic and costly African species.

Smith's most unusual flooring, also sold through Plyboo, is Durapalm. It's made from "retired" sugar and coconut palms that are sourced throughout Southeast Asia and manufactured in Taiwan. The palms are routinely cut down after their productivity ends, usually when the trees are about 60 years old. In the past, the palm wood was used to make curios or simply scrapped because it's an odd mix of terrific and horrible wood within the same tree trunk, Smith said.

The Durapalm flooring looks like a tropical hardwood with heavy dark lines from its pronounced grain pattern. The look is so unusual, even an experienced agro-forester would be stumped as to its origin.

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