Wood floors regain fashionable standing

September 05, 1993|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer

No matter what the decor, one of the most lasting impressions of a home may be what's underfoot. Flooring can change the personality of a space. Tile seems the perfect choice for casual surroundings, and marble or granite can make an elegant statement. Vinyl may be chosen for practicality and economy, whereas wall-to-wall carpeting often is favored in bedrooms. Area rugs can energize almost any floor. But perhaps no other flooring material conveys more psychological warmth than wood.

"Wood suggests a feeling of hearth and home," says Dan Droz, a Pittsburgh industrial designer and professor of design management at Carnegie Mellon University. "If we're walking on linoleum and polyester, what connects us to nature? Not much. Today, homeowners want natural materials because they create aura of warmth that synthetic materials do not have."

There was a time when wood was about the only floor of choice. The first machine capable of cutting tongues and grooves into wood flooring strips was introduced in 1885. Wood flooring production rose sharply, and in the early 1900s 30 million board feet were produced annually.

When the Depression hit the housing market, production tapered, until postwar housing lifted the wood floor industry again to new heights. In 1958 1.2 billion board feet were produced. But when the Federal Housing Administration approved the inclusion of wall-to-wall carpeting in home mortgages in the mid-'60s, wood flooring sales plummeted.

Another quarter of a century has made a difference. Although hardwood flooring has escalated in price, so has wall-to-wall carpeting. Oak might run around $3 per square foot, excluding installation, compared with about $25 a square yard for good wall-to-wall. For example, a room that measures 12 by 12 feet would cost $400 to carpet, $432 for oak flooring. But carpeting eventually needs to be replaced, whereas hardwood floors, with proper maintenance, will last for the life of a home.

Wood acts as a natural insulator, which can mean additional cost savings by reducing energy consumption. It would take 15 inches of concrete to equal the insulation value of one inch of hardwood, according to the National Wood Flooring Association.

Wood flooring also adds monetary value to a home. According to Builder magazine's annual survey, wood floors are among the leading "hot buttons" that enhance a home's value. According to a national survey of real estate agents, there is a perception that hardwood flooring means quality.

Finally, maintaining hardwood flooring is a lot easier than many think. The improvement of sealers and finishes has minimized the care requirements: Arduous waxing on hands and knees is a thankless practice of the past. And today's non-yellowing polyurethane finishes have all but eliminated the tendency of sealers to yellow with age.

Trends underfoot

Now that homeowners are rediscovering the benefits of hardwood flooring, the choice of styles is inspiring original creative designs. Each year the National Wood Flooring Association sponsors a nationwide competition, which has drawn examples of some of the most sophisticated one-of-a kind floors. The results, announced in late May 1993, clearly indicate some of the latest trends:

* Species of wood other than oak, including exotic varieties, are being employed more and more. Some of these woods include maple, birch, walnut, Brazilian cherry, mahogany and ash. Which wood species you select is a matter of taste. Keep in mind that the harder woods, such as oak, maple, Brazilian cherry and walnut, hold up better in heavy traffic areas. Not surprisingly, there is a premium for some of the more unusual species such as ebony, rosewood, purpleheart, lacewood, padauk, jatoba, cumaru and zebrawood; some run more than $6 a square foot, excluding installation.

To set off one space from another, many designers are shifting from one wood and hue to another. In a Nantucket, R.I., home, for example, the area adjacent to the dining room has a floor of bird's-eye maple decorated with purpleheart circles and Brazilian rosewood squares to define the space. In the dining area itself, the floor is composed of 30-inch square modules, combining Brazilian rosewood with a lighter Brazilian cherry and embellished with brass inlays on the diagonal. The pattern, called "American Marie Antoinette," is from Kentucky Wood Floors of Louisville, Ky., and is available on a custom quote basis.

* There's a new palette of colors. The desire for white, bleached, pickled and pastel floors that were extremely popular in the late '80s has faded. The pale pastels now appear too stark and cold next to the more honeyed natural to medium tones. There appear to be some regional preferences, with burgundy, dark cherry and a classic antique brown often chosen in the Northeast and reddish earth tones in the Southwest.

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