Going cork: All you really need to know if you're considering a cork floor

As Cane explains in his post about cork flooring, we knew before we bought the house that the carpet in the main living areas had to go.  (It’s also got to go in the bedrooms and family room, but that will have to wait a bit.  Yes, financial renovations are also in the works.)  

living room precork 576x383 Going cork:

We both loved the open and light-filled space in the living room (and the groovy wavy-gold windows flanking the fireplace), but hated the carpet. The previous owner loved floral room fresheners and we knew the scent was trapped in it. Not to mention that her dog had a ginormous "event" all over it right before we saw it. Gross, but good to know, you know?

kitchen precork 576x383 Going cork:

There's plenty not to love in our kitchen, but I knew I could live with much of it (for now) if we could eliminate the clashing patterns and dim the everywhere-you-look-white by installing different flooring. That meant the kitchen had to be included in the floor makeover, which meant high-priced options weren't options for us.

We knew we didn’t want carpet, but it took us some time to figure out what we did want.  The more we researched our flooring options, the more it came down to cork vs. engineered bamboo.  (Because of our dogs, we didn’t want any kind of carpet, and our particle-board sub-floor can’t handle solid hardwoods.)  The more we read and talked and thought about which flooring to go with, the more it seemed that cork was the right choice for us.

Yeah, but…

Cane was easily sold on it, but me?  I really liked the look of a wood floor better than a cork floor.  I was also concerned about re-sale value.  While a cork floor would be no problem from a re-sale standpoint in Portland proper, it might not fly so high in the ‘burb we’re living in.

I hemmed and hawed and dragged my feet until I finally recognized the choice as the test it was:  With the flooring decision I had my first opportunity to put my money (literally) where my mouth is:  I can talk all the talk I want about being authentic and living in the present and making choices based on sustaining a simpler, better lifestyle, but could I walk it?

In the end, yes–and these are the reasons why:

1.  Cork is the environmentally better choice.

Both cork and bamboo are better environmental choices than a new traditional hardwood floor or a carpeted floor.  Why did cork edge out bamboo for us?  Cork doesn’t require the harvesting of trees, only of bark.  It’s done by hand.  To make sure that the brand we were considering (Wicanders) truly was environmentally correct, we looked for information about how they manage their forests and harvest their cork. We were pleased to find that Amorim (the parent company of Wicanders) is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; you can search the council’s site to see if the company you want is also certified.  We also liked everything we read on this (admittedly corporate) blog about how they get their cork.  (For a nice overview of environmental flooring considerations, check out Finding the Best Green Floor.)

2.  Cork functions better than bamboo (for us).

Our research told us that it’s softer under your feet.  Also that it’s warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and it’s quieter. It’s easier to maintain.  It’s easier to install, as it requires no underlay or prep of the subfloor.  It’s healthier, being free from allergens and naturally anti-microbial and anti-bacterial.  While I liked the look of bamboo better, I really don’t like a cold floor, especially in the winter.  Looks are not unimportant, but I decided that function and comfort need to be more important.  I want a house that is comfortable and manageable, and if those are truly my priorities, cork is the right choice.

3.  Cork is affordable.

The bamboo we saw in our scouting trips was generally close to $4 a square foot, but we found high-quality cork from a reputable manufacturer on sale for $2.99 a square foot.  (At a small, independent, eco-friendly, locally-owned shop!  Rug Bug flooring in Portland.)  Now, it’s not my favorite kind of cork floor.  I really like the kind that comes in planks that are about the same dimension as hardwood planks (which makes it look much more like a wood floor), but that was about $7/square foot. Ouch.

Part of a manageable life for us is living within our means.  For $2.99 a square foot, I could get a good-looking, environmentally friendly floor that is easy to install and maintain, and we could then afford to hire someone else to install it.  Having installed a click-floor ourselves in my last house, we know how much work that is, and how hard it can be to deal with tricky cuts and angles.

It was August by the time we moved, and with school/work starting up and two households to combine/unpack (not to mention the three kids to help adjust to the big change in our lives), we weren’t sure how we could install a new floor and keep all of us sane.  While we’re all about DIY, sometimes it’s just better to hire a pro.  At $2.99, we could get a good product, installed well, and have time to take care of things that only we can care for. That’s spending money in accordance with our values.

4.  Cork has long-term value (for us).

At first, I worried about the re-sale value of cork (having just lived through the pain of trying to sell my last house in this brutal real estate market). Although cork is increasing in popularity, it’s still not a common choice in our area.  We want to make financially smart long-term decisions, but we also want to live for the day we’re in.  What to do?

Considering how long we think we’ll be in this house (at least 5 years, and maybe more like 10), we decided to tip the scales in favor of what we like and what works for us.  Who knows what will sell in 10 years?  Maybe cork will be the in-thing then; it takes a while for trends to move to our area.  Or maybe it will be no big deal to change the flooring when we’re ready to sell.  Maybe we’ll live here for longer than we think.  We can’t really know, so we decided to make a choice based upon the house we want to live in, not the one we want to sell–an idea that will guide us through all our house renovations.  (That said, we’re not planning to do anything crazy that might make the house a really hard sell down the road.)

So, how has it turned out?

In a word:  Fantabulous

I love the cork floors way more than I thought I would.  I had to attend a work-related conference just days after we moved, and when I came home the floors were almost done.  I can show you a picture of how different the main living area looks, but I don’t think it quite captures how much more open and warm the space feels with the cork instead of the carpet:

cork install 576x383 Going cork:

This is how it looked when I came home. Big thanks to Cane's friend Rick, who did the installation. Would recommend him to everyone.

And let’s do a little before and after on the kitchen:

kitchen wall before 576x383 Going cork:

We were really not loving the fake-tile vinyl and all those squares and stripes and fruits and white everwhere...

kitchen wall after 2 576x383 Going cork:

We've still got the bad light, funky stripes, and horrible wedding-cake ceiling, but the floors make them all a bit more tolerable.

Here’s one that shows you more of the floor:

kitchen wall after1 576x383 Going cork:

No, that's not a stunt fridge. The white one died during nearly-100 degree heat at the end of August. Wishing we'd gotten a counter-depth model, but needing one immediately won out over waiting for a better deal.

But more than its looks, I love how the floor functions.  We’ve got three kids and two dogs–which means we’ve got 5 dirt-tracking machines living here–but the floor never looks dirty.  We do a good sweep/cleaning every two weeks or so.  In my last house, with wood floors, that needed to happen every two days or so.  And, there are no scratches or signs of wear. I definitely had both within the first two months of the wood floor’s life at the old house.

Better still, it feels good.  It’s October now, and I’m still walking on it with bare feet in the morning.  It truly is warmer. And it feels softer under my feet, which is nicer for my back.

So, to sum it up, this is what we got:

  • A good price
  • Good looks
  • Easy maintenance
  • Durability
  • Comfort

What’s not to love about all that?

But the thing that probably matters most to me is the larger lesson I learned from this decision:  Living simpler really is the route to more happiness.  Would I like the look of a wood floor better?  Probably. But a choice with a higher aesthetic value just doesn’t matter to me as much as a choice that is within my means.  This was the more affordable choice not only in terms of money, but also in energy and time.

With this floor, I have more money to take care of the people I love, plus I’ve got more time and energy to give them.  Time not spent on cleaning the floors is time I can spend hanging out the backyard with the kids, reading books and teaching them how to make a Cabbage Patch doll face:

cabbage patch grace 576x383 Going cork:

When she’s all grown up and gone, I’m going to treasure this photo way more than I would a pretty wood floor.