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Doing things the natural way

Sustainability issues and clients’ concern for the environment is leading a movement towards natural
and alternative floorcoverings.

Natural and alternative floorings covers such a wide spectrum that it includes paper; aluminium; metal; glass; medieval matting and leather flooring; as well as sisal, coir and seagrass.

Here, independent flooring consultant, CFJ awards judge and columnist, Richard Renouf, provides you with all the essential background information you need:
Many modern ideas turn out to be old ones. Underfloor heating, for example, was a feature of Roman buildings thousands of years ago but, of course, modern systems are rather more efficient than the Roman originals.

It would be easy to think flooring itself was different. After all, mass production and the introduction of plastics has made a considerable difference to our customers’ homes. Stone age man could not have foreseen many of the modern floor products that are now possible owing to technological advances.

But is that really the case? Sustainability issues and customers’ concern for the environment is leading a movement towards natural and alternative floorcoverings, many of which point back to the times of our ancestors.

The Egyptians developed stone construction and then brick manufacture between 5,000 and 3,000 BC, and soon these materials began to be used for floors in place of hay-strewn mud. The Greeks used pebbles to create mosaics, and then the Romans started to add ceramic tiles to create dramatic pieces of art, some of which are still around, and ceramic tiles have never gone away.

The oldest known rug, the Pazyryk rug, is believed to date back to between 400 and 300BC and shows sophisticated weaving techniques and design, so wool rugs were no doubt in fashion well before this period. In less wealthy homes, animal skins would’ve been used.

Nowadays we once again have the option of leather for flooring. Combining this traditional material with modern design and technology can create floors which look great and which are plastic-free, a very important selling point for some. The flooring is easy to install and shouldn’t present problems to a floorlayer.

Metal has, since the industrial revolution, been seen as an industrial floor. Fire escapes and factory walkways have been made from metal grating or stamped metal ‘deck-‘ or ‘tread-plate’, which are common. Now flooring is being produced for the home and commercial environment that has the durability of metal, but also has the designer look that can wow customers seeking something different. And some manufacturers are combining metal with stone to create stunning design. Again, metal is considered to be ‘infinitely recyclable’, so it’s a sustainable product with plenty going for it.
For some years the terms ‘alternative’ and ‘natural’ have been applied to woven floor coverings made from vegetable fibres such as coconut fibre (coir – pronounced ‘coy-a’), seagrass, sisal and jute. These materials are once again coming to our customers’ attention because their environmental impact is so much less than some modern options.

Coir fibre is familiar to most people as it’s been used for door mats for many years, and coir matting can be bought in various widths on the roll to cover large areas and protect other floorcoverings from dirt, debris and moisture trodden into a building from outside.

Take another look, however, and the fibres can be flatwoven to create an even more welcoming floor covering. The fibre can be bleached to lighten its colour, although the colour will inevitably change in direct sunlight.

Seagrass is a natural plant which grows in the far east on the margins of rivers and in coastal meadows. It can’t be bleached or dyed, so it has its own natural colour which can vary from yellow to green depending on where it is grown and when it is harvested. Like coir, many people are familiar with this material because it has long been used for woven stool tops, but although it is hardwearing it isn’t for use on stairs as it can be very slippery.

Sisal is another plant fibre which has been around for a very long time. It makes excellent, strong, but quite hairy string for tying parcels, which is what used to be done before the advent of cellulose tapes and cling film.

My parents always had a carrier bag under the stairs and every parcel was dutifully unwrapped and the string coiled and knotted for re-use. Recycling is not as modern as you may think! When woven into a floorcovering, sisal creates a very strong flooring and as the fibre can be dyed to almost any colour, it comes in a wide variety of shades.

The last of the main fibres currently in use is jute, again this has been around for many years as it is used for sacking (hessian) and also as the weft for woven carpets and the secondary backing for some tufted carpets. It’s the softest of this group of fibres, so it’s better suited to lighter use areas and it’s ideal for a bedroom because it has a much softer feel underfoot.

These natural fibres, woven in flatweave designs, are avoided by many installers. They demand more careful installation than ‘normal’ carpets. Fitters who treat them like a tufted product will find the edges fraying before they can get them tucked in. However, the floorcovering manufacturers provide instructions to ensure this can be avoided.

The products are best installed using a double-stick method over underlay and with blind (unpinned) gripper around the edge to create a tucked finish. The floorcoverings should be cut slightly oversize. Leaving the excess turned upwards around the perimeter. The floorcovering should be stuck down all over before the edges are carefully cut and sealed to prevent fraying, and only then tucked into the gripper gully. FITA run specialist courses on natural floorcovering installation at their Loughborough and Kirkcaldy training centres (www.fita.co.uk), and as the fitting cost for naturals is much higher than for carpets, the extra care required is well rewarded for the fitters who can install these products correctly.

As I was looking at the history of floorcoverings I came across an old idea that just might reappear like some of these traditional materials.

Mint, the herb, was first used in flooring. It was strewn across hay and dirt floors so its scent was released as a deodorant and air freshener when the flooring was walked on, probably because the ‘dirt’ in the floors was more organic than we might consider healthy today. But plug-in air fresheners are very common these days in spite of their unnatural scents.

Perhaps someone can be inspired to produce a natural air freshener that doesn’t require plugging in, and which can be part of a woven product so the fragrance is released according to the level of use?
Richard Renouf is an independent flooring consultant

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