Comparing engineered wood vs. real hardwood vs. LVT
It’s an undeniable truth in commercial flooring — facility managers, building owners and clientele respond to wood floors. As one director put it in Floor Trends Magazine: “That’s why you see all these LVT and ceramic tile and laminate [lookalikes], the visuals are wood because that’s what people want.”
There are a few ways to go about achieving this sought-after look: Engineered hardwood, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and, of course, real hardwood flooring.
Each of these options come with their own preconceived notions (“Isn’t engineered hardwood just a lower quality alternative?”) and truisms, too (“Sometimes, nothing beats the look and feel of a real wood floor” or “LVT can be installed pretty much anywhere”).
In this article, we’re here to help you cut through the noise and understand the full picture of each wood flooring option. This isn’t about giving you the end-all-be-all answer of which wood flooring option is “best” writ large — it’s about which one is best for your unique needs.
We’ll talk through comparisons of durability, cost, aesthetics and more so you can land on a flooring material that works for your budget, design and facility as a whole.
First, let’s define each material
What is engineered hardwood?
This material is comprised of 3-9 ply layers of hardwood or soft plywood fused together to support stability. These layers are designed to be resistant to higher moisture levels than solid wood. The surface or wear, also known as the veneer, is made up of solid hardwood. This makes sanding and refinishing possible (depending on the thickness of the boards chosen).
What is real hardwood?
Solid hardwood uses planks that come from a single piece of wood. The look, feel and pattern of the material depends on the species; you can pick a domestic, such as a cherry, or an exotic, such as bamboo. You must also choose the width of the planks (the wider the planks, the fewer visible seams), the hardness according to the Janka scale (for commercial settings, you want the hardest species that fits your design, so your floor will last) and aesthetic options like finish, color and gloss.
What is LVT?
Three layers make up LVT: A base layer composed of vinyl to provide dimensional stability, a digital graphic film and an outer wear layer. This material comes equipped with all of the durability characteristics needed to fight the daily stresses faced by commercial floors. On the design side, LVT has been the center of innovation in vinyl flooring. Digital graphic film layers have improved to the point that many are indistinguishable from natural materials, including rich wood floors.
As you would assume, real hardwood flooring will likely be the greatest initial investment out of the three. Engineered will be comparatively cheaper than true hardwood because the bottom layers are recycled, and LVT also generally costs less than solid hardwood.
But material prices are only one piece of the puzzle. For example, LVT lifetime costs tend to be lower due to its superior durability. Or with real hardwood, the frequency with which it can be refinished (6-8 times during its lifespan) can save money on complete flooring replacements in the future. And there’s always the maintenance factor.
For insight on the maintenance investment you can expect from each option, read more here and here. And in the following sections, we’ll cover other considerations that directly or indirectly affect project cost.
Commercial flooring faces a multitude of daily stressors: scuffing, scratching, staining, water, mold and mildew, to name a few. LVT is resistant to all of these. Its composites and wear layers make the material durable enough to withstand some of the most heavy-duty settings, often replacing traditional materials like ceramic, marble and, yes, wood.
For example, some high end restaurants will make the choice to actually take out wood flooring and install LVT. Because of the near-constant traffic and the likelihood of spills, a more functional option makes a difference in that commercial environment. Further, LVT is easy to clean, won’t chip and is resistant to moisture, which makes it a reliable choice for kitchens, bathrooms and areas below ground level.
Next, engineered hardwood is more dimensionally stable than traditional hardwood because of the layers of plywood. This leads to a lot less shrinkage and expansion and greater resistance to high moisture levels. Your engineered wood flooring won’t expand or contract as easily due to changing temperatures or humidity.
However, this does not mean it’s completely impervious to moisture — it’s still comprised of wood, after all. Engineered wood is still durable enough to install in areas in which you wouldn’t be able to install solid wood. But you will still need to be diligent about preventing moisture to prevent buckling or warping and ensure a lifetime of durable performance.
Finally, real wood is, of course, vulnerable to moisture. If exposed to water, it can lead to warping and gaping of the material. The best way to avoid this susceptibility is to not install hardwood in moisture-prone areas in the first place. And as we mentioned above, it can be refinished half a dozen times over its lifetime; solid hardwood can still last for decades with the right care.
First, let’s outline the basics of how each material is installed:
- LVT: Can be installed with manufacturer-approved adhesive or with a loose-lay floor. The latter makes minimal surface preparation possible (potentially reducing installation cost and times). Overall, it has a low difficulty of installation and can be installed nearly anywhere in your facility.
- Engineered hardwood: Can be nailed down, glued down or installed as a floating floor. Engineered wood is also designed to go places that solid wood simply cannot be due to moisture, such as directly over a concrete subfloor.
- Real hardwood: Nail-down is the preferred method and it must be done over a prepared subfloor. For instance, if you want to install ¾” nailed down, field-finished wood, you’ll first need to put down ¾” plywood and ¾” insulation on top of the plywood — only then can you begin to install the actual solid hardwood flooring. Finally, many solid hardwood floors are site-finished with a selected stain.
These installation methods themselves are straightforward. But if the correct installation method and timeline isn’t taken into consideration, it can lead to unforeseen delays (and costs) for your project. Fully understanding what is required for the installation and preparing accordingly is essential.
To illustrate, here are two examples:
Installing on a tight timeline
At a doctor’s office, a facility manager sought to replace 10,000 square feet of flooring. The facility had very little downtime, so a Thursday through Sunday over Thanksgiving was the installation window.
The client initially selected a flooring option within their budget in terms of material costs (in this case, it was a porcelain tile). But when considering the labor and production, all of the grouting and floor prep weren’t possible over one weekend. And it simply wasn’t an option not to complete the flooring installation within the timeframe.
With LVT, they achieved the same look — and met the condensed schedule.
By understanding the realities of installation (i.e., LVT is faster and easier to install than porcelain tile), the client selected a flooring option that allowed them to meet their strict deadline.
Installing over the correct subfloor
For a museum project, the facility managers wanted to install a real hardwood flooring system. However, they didn’t make it clear with their flooring contractor that the facility did not have a wood subfloor. (As noted above, ¾” hardwood must be installed over a prepared subfloor).
This initial oversight caused the project quote to now include underlayment, the additional subfloor and moisture barriers. The quote tripled in size.
This is why you need to have open, detailed conversations with your flooring contractor at the outset of a flooring installation project. This additional material, labor and time could have increased the project cost significantly — showcasing the importance of installation preparedness for the chosen flooring material.
When considering the design of your new flooring system, you can approach the decision through one of two schools of thought:
On one hand, there is the intangible warmth and feel of real wood. It will always be desired for its longevity, value and aspirational quality.
- “There is a certain segment of designers and end users that prefer a natural product, whether it be wood or stone. They want that as a part of the design in their homes and in commercial spaces,” said Jamann Stepp, the Dixie Group.
- “Wood flooring has character, and you can definitely see the difference. I think that’s a driver that’s coming back around,” said Justin Atcheson, Atlanta Flooring Design Centers.
- “In today’s world of ‘wood lookalikes,’ the warmth and feel of a real hardwood floor isn’t something that can be recreated” said Dan Natkin, Mannington Mills.
On the other hand, it is likely that most clientele that come through your facility … well, won’t know the difference. Even the most trained of eyes have a hard time distinguishing LVT from the product it mimics.
If the warmth, feel and “character” of real hardwood mentioned above aren’t as important to your flooring installation as durability or ease of installation, then LVT materials that use wood patterns might better fit your facility needs.
Still have questions about wood flooring options?
So far we’ve laid the groundwork in terms of cost, durability and aesthetic considerations. The next step is to compare these options against what your facility actually needs.
How about talking options with a flooring expert?
At Spectra Contract Flooring, we’ve installed nearly every type of commercial flooring across 400,000 installations and counting. We can show you samples and help you select the best wood floor for your budget, design vision and environment. Start a conversation with a commercial flooring expert.