The floors in your home — more than doorknobs, cabinetry hinges, kitchen appliances and practically any piece of furniture — take the most brutal of beatings.
Supporting gaggles of children running in muddy boots and herds of ravenous teenagers hunting in the kitchen at midnight, your floors are witness to a family’s lifestyle. It is important to know your options when it comes to the flooring in your home to ensure it will work with your lifestyle and not against it.
Low maintenance is universally desired when it comes to residential flooring, but most materials are relative to their context. In highly trafficked areas, such as a mudroom or kitchen, low maintenance equals high durability. Specifically, the floors need to be able to withstand piles of wet shoes, unnoticed spilled ingredients and the constant tread of foot traffic.
The choice between ceramic vs. porcelain tile ultimately comes down to usage, installation and cost. Porcelain tile is denser, more durable and less water-absorptive than ceramic tile. However, that makes porcelain a costlier material and typically more expensive to install. If a low-budget or DIY installation is a priority, ceramic tile typically fits the bill. However, if you need the industry’s best tile for durability, including day-to-day trials, trekking and a product’s overall life span, porcelain tile may be the better solution.
Grout also plays into the ultimate tile design. Most designers specify the thinnest grout line recommended by the manufacturer (which will vary slightly by tile). The most popular trend is to find a grout that nearly disappears into the tile, so when you step back a few feet, you can barely notice the difference between the color of the grout and the color of the tile. However, if you want to draw focus to the tile pattern (more than the tile itself) or an accent color (such as one found in a decorative mosaic listello), a contrasting grout can be an effective tool to achieve this.
To properly lay a new tile (or any) floor, the existing floor must be demolished all the way down to the subfloor to create or ensure as level a laying surface as possible. The primary exception to this is if the existing floor has asbestos, which can often be identified on sight by an experienced contractor or architect. In these cases, it is more acceptable to lay new flooring on top of the existing tile to avoid disturbing — and thus spreading — the hazardous asbestos fibers into the air. Professional asbestos abatement is the alternate option.
If the tile is installed properly, it can be extremely durable and prone to cracking only if that gaggle or herd also happens to enjoy testing gravity’s effect on bowling balls. If bowling ball drops abound in your abode, you may consider polished concrete floors as a better fit. Growing more popular in residential settings for its high durability and low maintenance, poured concrete floors can be stained or left their neutral gray, depending on the palette of your home and decor, and are then buffed to a soft finished sheen. This may not be the best floor for the perfectionist, however, as polishing can produce a higher variety in the coloring than you may expect from concrete, and long hairline cracks can be expected to form naturally from the concrete shrinking as it cures and hardens from its original liquid state into a solid.
A new development on the high-durability flooring front is luxury vinyl tile (LVT). Unfortunately, this is not a particularly regulated label, and “LVT” has started popping up on relatively standard, non-luxury vinyl tiling.
Although vinyl tiles are among the least expensive flooring options on the market, their durability matches their price point. If you are light on your floors, do not need to worry about cat claws or dog nails, and want a cheap and fast solution for a floor refresh, vinyl tile may be worth considering.
However, if you want better durability, more secure installation and a much stronger product, LVT comes with a significantly higher recommendation. Much thicker than traditional vinyl but thinner and lighter in weight than ceramic or porcelain tile, LVT tiles snap together for easy installation. Current industry trends feature most LVTs as waterproof planks with increasingly convincing faux wood grain patterns. This can give the warm, inviting aesthetic of wood floors without some of the maintenance drawbacks. For highly trafficked areas of the home, multiple variations on tile are the most popular options. However, true wood floors still reign as the most desired flooring throughout the rest (living room, bedrooms, etc.) of the home.
There are two categories of hardwood floors: sand-and-stain (S&S) and prefinished. S&S hardwoods are the traditional hardwood floors that come to most people’s minds: Solid planks of the raw wood (frequently oak) are installed in the house then sanded down and stained on site. The disadvantages include needing to vacate the premise for at least a day (if not a few days) while the dust from sanding settles and the odor from the stain dissipates. However, you are rewarded with beautifully smooth and practically seamless hardwood floors. Another advantage is if trends or tastes change, the floors can be sanded down and re-stained practically infinitely.
The alternative is prefinished hardwood, which comes as either solid hardwoods or engineered (a.k.a. composite) veneer planks. Both have a real-wood top surface. I have never known a homeowner or professional to be able to tell the difference between these two prefinished options, except by contextual clues.
As its name indicates, prefinished flooring is finished plank by plank in the factory instead of on site, which leads to a faster installation timeline and the ability to walk on top of it the moment it is installed (no waiting period for the polyurethane to dry or its odor to dissipate). The factory-finish makes it slightly stronger than what you typically see with S&S. However, you have limited (or sometimes no) opportunity to sand down and re-stain if there is significant wear over time or if you want to change its color.
A great advantage of engineered prefinished hardwood is the wide variety of wood species available and a greater range of applications (for instance, on a basement slab). From sustainable bamboo to exotic zebrawood, nearly every species of wood is an option.
The telltale sign of a prefinished floor is a slight bevel between the planks of wood, compared with the seamless finish of S&S. Today’s trends in prefinished floors lean toward a hand-carved plank texture, which softly undulates across the surface of the floorboards to give subtle texture and character (as you might find in the original flooring of a 19th-century home). Popular design aesthetics are also gravitating toward rich, dark stained floor tones — but this is typically only recommended for families with a live-in maid, as dark hardwoods will show every speck of dust and dirt that finds its way into your home, despite “just having cleaned that.”
The next factor to consider for your hardwood selection is the width of the planks. S&S flooring is typically offered in 2.2- or 3.25-inch widths. Some prefinished floors are offered as wide as five inches or six inches. Regardless of installation/finishing method (prefinished or S&S), wider planks tend to be preferred. However, many designers and contractors do not recommend installing flooring wider than four inches because of the warping: Wood, at the end of the day, will still expand and contract as humidity changes and the air transitions between seasons. As a result, minor warping is expected to occur — at four inches and narrower, though, it is negligible. The wider the plank becomes, the more likely it is to warp across its width and be noticed by sliding socks and unsuspecting toes.
Temperature is a factor that often comes up in the discussion of floor options: Tile and concrete feel cooler to the touch than wood, carpet or LVT. However, heated floors can solve that issue and create a wonderful greeting to bare feet first thing in the morning or late at night. Best of all, it is not necessary to run heating throughout an entire room: It is a much better use of energy to run it beneath just the main circulation paths of a space.
Finally, acoustics should be considered with any flooring option. Carpet (typically higher maintenance than many of the other options discussed, but at a low price point) is the best floor surface for sound absorption; tile or concrete would be among the worst. Designing based on the different acoustical properties of flooring can help influence what material may be best for different areas of your home.
There are a number of popular flooring options in today’s residential market. Recognizing the kind of traffic, durability and comfort (from thermal to acoustical) desired in each space will help you determine which flooring would be best throughout your home.
Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.