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With an eye on the current fashion

How you can stay on trend as a contractor without throwing away a perfectly good floor?, asks Richard Aylen.

ONE of the main forces that drives changes in fashion is the one which tries to persuade us that what we currently own is no longer fashionable, and our lives, or our place in the market will be enhanced if we replace it with something different and new. After all, trends aren’t a force of nature, they’re brought about by the conscious efforts of clever influencers and marketing people, often in response to other indirect cultural changes.

Depending on which market sector you’re in, this process will happen at different speeds, but in some sectors, it can result in floor finishes being thrown away before they are worn out.

This isn’t the most sustainable way of doing things, all the more so if the said floor finishes do not last very long, have limited or no recyclability, and the new floor you’re going to use for replacement requires energy and raw materials to get it to site and installed.

The truth is that although they can add a bit of colour to our lives, trends can be bad news for the environment.

Increased focus on the circular economy should be challenging manufacturers, clients, and designers to think about their flooring choices, sustainability and lifespan of the product they’re choosing.

I want to examine how preferences for different types of wooden floor are influenced by trends and if traditional timber floors are better or worse than other types of floor finishes when it comes to the sustainability issues that arise when fashions change.

Let’s start by looking at some recent trends in this sector of our industry. Tastes in floor finishes have of course followed the main trends in interior design, including furniture and decoration.

Recently, modernist styles have been popular and wooden floors have reflected this with plainer grey, white and lighter finishes.

Timbers such as beech, ash and maple have been popular, either in their natural colours or with white or grey surface colour treatments. For a long time now there has a been a preference for plain colours and timber floors with few knots and little colour variation.

But this is changing. Interiors in general are undergoing a change of style, moving away from a plain, light, minimalist look towards warmer colours, natural finishes, and a more eclectic mix of brighter colours and textures.

In the hardwood flooring market one of the first signs of change was the reappearance of wood block herringbone and chevron pattern floors.

Since the mid-20th century these floors were rarely considered for new projects and for many people they had associations with dowdy public buildings – their local council building or old school. Over the past few years, herringbone pattern floors have re-emerged, both as new floors and as reclaimed products.

For wooden floors we’re moving towards darker timber colours or achieving warmer shades using coloured primers and oil treatments. Alongside this is a new liking for wood with more knots and colour variation to create more defined textures.

This is part of a general trend towards using more natural materials and it is in perfectly alignment with general concern for sustainability and the future of the planet. Environmental concerns are also materialising in the growing acceptability of using second hand furniture and finishes, often categorised as ‘vintage’.

Large format plank floors may still be used in heritage buildings but elsewhere, when we look at plank and strip wooden floors for example, we can see increasing interest in the ‘busier’ look of a two-strip floorboard. The style of these boards, and indeed strip floors in general, can create warmth and interest, especially when made from mid to dark coloured timbers.

The good news for sustainability is that a solid floor made from narrower strips generates significantly less wood waste than larger, traditional planks and there is often a greater amount of knottier and variable grain wood in raw logs than there is in very plain-coloured wood.

In the past the main way to follow changing design trends in flooring was to uplift and replace your old floor. If the flooring product is carbon neutral (ideally achieved without resort to carbon offsetting) and can easily be recycled or disposed of, then this might be OK, but so often that isn’t the case.

You would not want to do this with synthetic floorcoverings derived from crude oil, for example. Then what are the solutions? How can you act in a sustainable way but avoid the stigma or commercial risk of being unfashionable?

One strategy, as just mentioned, is to use floor coverings that are made from sustainable materials, have little or no effect upon global warming and can be easily recycled. Natural stone, timber and natural textiles may fit this category.

When clients change from one floor type to another there’ll be some effect on global warming, but less effect than would be the case for high embodied carbon products.

If the old floor can be removed and disposed of or recycled without detriment to global warming, then why not replace it with a reclaimed floor? Stone or timber floors can often be reclaimed, and opportunities can be increased if clients and designers choose floating floor systems or use fixing methods where the flooring elements won’t become contaminated with adhesives etc, that cannot easily be removed.

Floors that can be refurbished many times over or deep-cleaned lend themselves well to this kind of repurposing.

Choosing a product that has an exceptionally long lifespan can be a very sustainable option as it makes low demands upon raw material supplies, energy use and mechanism for disposal or recycling.

For this to work in the context of changing fashions the floor needs to have a ‘classic’ look. By this I mean a style that may only rarely occupy a place at the cutting edge of fashion but will never be out of fashion either.

For floor types that don’t have a classic appeal you can be burdened with a floor that’s ‘old hat’ for a very long time. But, knowing how trends can be changed by influencers and industry experts’ opinions, I suggest it’s perfectly possible that it would be enough to bring about a change of attitude if influencers were to express the idea that the floor’s sustainable qualities is why it’s fashionable; the floor’s ‘backstory’ and sustainability taking priority over aesthetics.

Clients can use this unilaterally for their own purposes. For example, a cutting-edge retailer or hospitality chain could decide to use sustainable floor finishes instead of throwing away fashionable floor finishes every five years or so.

Their new ‘style’ and corporate image will be based upon sustainability and if communicated to their customers in the right way their brand will retain its value. You could argue this is a high-risk strategy that substantially changes the company’s identity and may involve them in moving away from an image that has taken significant investment to create.

However, climate change issues and corporate social responsibility is here to stay for the foreseeable future so you may argue that companies cannot afford not to change.

Perhaps the best scenario will be to have a floor that is not only long lasting but can be adapted to suit changing fashions.

I confess I’m drawing on my own experience here and suggest one of the best options all round is a solid hardwood floor. Solid because of the greater number of sandings and longer lifespan that solid floors offer compared with engineered boards.

In attempting to put forward a balanced case I’ve tried to think of other low carbon floor finishes that can offer an equivalent lifespan and ability to change completely the floors appearance, but I cannot.

Carpets, tiles, synthetics, stone linoleum; they all tie you in to the same colour and texture for the whole of the floor’s life. One exception perhaps is polyurethane sports floors, where it’s possible to over-coat existing floors, but on sustainable grounds it’s becoming harder to justify using this type of material because it’s made from crude oil.

You can sand a hardwood floor back to bare wood. Here the most sustainable option will be solid hardwood because you can sand these floors many more times than engineered wood floors – and after many sandings a solid floor will not lose its stability as an engineered floor will.

While you cannot change the number of knots and other natural characteristics, you often have a wide choice of coloured primers and oils you can use to completely change the colour. Timbers such as oak and ash take coloured treatments very well with oils and stains enhancing the wood grain in a very pleasing way.

If you have a lighter coloured floor, then refurbishing it to create the fashionable warm tones we’re now seeing is relatively easy. Anyone with a mid- to dark shade floor will be in keeping with current trends anyway.

Surface treatments for wood floors tend to fall into two categories: oil and lacquer. But for both types, most customers are looking for matt finishes, so as to enhance the natural look of the wood.
A matt lacquer will protect the floor from wear-and-tear but can make it resemble natural untreated wood. Oiled finishes perhaps are the most natural of all because the oil penetrates the wood fibres, rather than forming a film on top of the timber. With an oiled floor you really can see the texture of the wood.

We’re going to have to think differently about the ways we respond to fashions if we’re to act in a sustainable way. No doubt this will be taken on board by style influencers, and they’ll steer fashions in a more sustainable direction.

As far as floor types are concerned, I think the strongest contenders will probably be those that offer a long lifespan, adaptability, the ability to be refurbished and those which use sustainable raw materials. Yes, I would say this, but I think in this respect solid hardwood floors are instant classics.
Richard Aylen is technical manager, Junckers

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