November 10/17, 2014; Volume 28/Number 11
By Louis Iannaco
As cork floors have continued to take starring roles in design and DIY shows, as well as in many showrooms throughout the country, consumers have become more intrigued by cork’s visuals and applications. And upon further research, they are learning even more about the product’s durability, growing pattern choices and resilience.
Modernized visuals, combined with comfort underfoot, are creating increased opportunities for this niche product, and a growing number of manufacturers are reaping the benefits. Consumers now see that cork offers both an appealing aesthetic and durable performance.
Cork has had a bit of an identity crisis in the categorization of flooring, according to Ann Wicander, president of WE Cork. “As it comes from tree bark, one would think it would be a wood floor, which it is. However, because of its cellular structure—200 million closed air cells per square inch—it has, since its infusion with linoleum in the mid-1800s, been actually in the resilient category.”
The resiliency related to cork flooring is built into the product by Mother Nature, noted Tim Tompkins, national marketing director of Amorim Flooring North America. This natural characteristic is a direct result of cork’s physical makeup and chemical composition, “which provide cork flooring with its compressibility and elasticity, along with excellent acoustical, thermal and vibratic insulating properties. This elasticity and reduced vibration is what gives the consumer added physical comfort underfoot.”
Research shows that cork absorbs over 30 heel strikes per hour, more than any other flooring product, including carpet. “The absorption of heel strikes provides tremendous health benefits for the consumer by minimizing vibration traveling throughout the body,” Tompkins added. “Cork basically has its own built-in shock absorber.”
Like Tompkins, Gary Keeble, product and marketing manager of USFloors, emphasized that Mother Nature plays a major role in cork’s resilience and desirability. “Resiliency is part of the inherent characteristics of the product,” he said, “as cork is comprised of a 14-sided tetrahydron—full pockets of air that give the product natural bounce, elasticity and resilience.”
The environmental story of cork is also unique. “Because cork flooring is only made from the cork of the cork oak, no tree is ever cut down in the manufacturing of our floors,” said Courtney Brophy, marketing manager of Expanko Resilient Flooring and FritzTile. “The trees are stripped of their bark every seven to nine years, and no harm is done to the tree in the process.”
According to Keeble, one of cork’s biggest advantages is demonstrated when a chair has been moved across it or furniture rearranged. “In a few hours or days, the indentation from that chair will repair itself and not be noticeable. There is nothing that needs to be done in the manufacturing process to improve cork’s resilience. In manufacturing, we are just making it easier to install, and putting a finish on it that makes it suitable to walk on.”
According to Wicander, WE Cork offers several degrees in resilience, which can be changed through density and granule size. “Our Serenity collection, which is our newest offering, is digitally printed with high definition wood and stone images. In order to print directly onto our cork, we have to make a higher density cork top layer. The higher density combines with our hot coat finish to provide a 5 AC rating (castor test), which is better than our other resilient competitors, LVT and linoleum.”
With its Serenity technology, WE Cork offers a 10-year commercial warranty with visuals of wood and stone, as well as the ability for custom visuals.
All of cork’s inherent qualities have allowed it to travel to parts of the home where it has not typically been used. Expanko has always encouraged its customers to consider using cork in places where they would have had wood installed. “While wood can be a great option,” Brophy explained, “cork can offer a similar visual feel with many unique performance characteristics that wood cannot, including resistance to damage.”
Cork flooring in the U.S. market is predominantly used in residential replacement applications, Tompkins noted. Because of its resiliency, cork is being installed in more traditional areas of the homes as opposed to years past where it was mainly used in recreation rooms. “It is very popular now in larger living, formal dining and kitchen areas of the home. People love the beauty, warmth and comfort that cork floors provide.”
While residential use continues to grow, commercial use of cork is also starting to become more widely accepted. “We’re seeing growth in the commercial use of our products due to the enhanced durability that Amorim’s finish technologies have to offer,” Tompkins said. “The HPS (High Performance System) finishes in our cork, as well as our wood and LVT products, provide the multi-family/condo high rise market with a variety of flooring options that come with tremendous durability for long-term wear.”
To differentiate cork from resilient offerings, USFloors in 2002 launched Almada, which provides the traditional look of hardwood floors with all the benefits of cork. Featuring beveled narrow planks, it is a floating floor requiring no glue or nails. “We introduced Almada in this format to get it out of the vinyl area,” Keeble explained, “as oftentimes cork is clumped in with resilient products. But in our opinion, it’s more of a wood product.”
This product positioning has helped Almada find its way into additional rooms of the home. “With its hardwood plank look, it enabled us to position it with hardwood, and it has become more viable for the average consumer.”
Another popular USFloors cork offering is Menorca from its Wide Cork Tile collection.
While cork has always been a viable option residentially, Expanko’s products are engineered to meet the demands of the commercial environment, Brophy said. “We provide a commercial-friendly selection of visuals, dimensions, finishes and installation systems. We currently offer our flooring in both glue down and floating formats. In fact, last month we debuted an expansion of our floating line, Vallarex.”
Vallarex has always offered fresh looking, patterned cork on a click-together floating system, she said, but Expanko is expanding its visual options to include high resolution, digitally printed wood and stone looks. “These offerings will expand the opportunities for specifiers to include the high performance characteristics of cork without sacrificing the visual textures and colors they crave. By expanding the design and performance options of Vallarex, Expanko is helping to expand the markets for cork flooring.”
Due to the recent “evolution technology” embodied in the Serenity collection, Wicander noted, the company is seeing WE Cork products used in not just a single room in a residence, but “the whole floor and sometimes the whole house, which is typical to wood flooring jobs. This is likely due to the visuals offered in the Woods of the Serenity collection. The customer can now have the French Oak that appealed to her visually while having the warm, quiet resilience of cork.”
Commercially, she added, WE Cork is seeing great enthusiasm from the retail space designer, as the product’s “customization offers them the ability to brand their customer while offering a hard-wearing, quiet and eco-friendly solution.”