Cork flooring: What Exactly is it?
Cork, a unique material, may evoke images of wine stoppers and school bulletin boards. But as a flooring option, cork is completely renewable — making it one of the most environmentally friendly resources on the planet — and can provide unparalleled comfort in the form of sound absorption, compressibility, and thermal insulation. Additionally, it’s cost-effective compared to other traditional flooring materials.
In this article, we’ll explain how this unconventional material can provide value to commercial applications, ranging from healthcare facilities to recreational spaces and high-rise office buildings. We will also discuss how cork flooring is made, describe the advantages of cork, and walk you through installation and maintenance best practices for your cork flooring system.
What is Cork Flooring?
To make cork flooring, the materials are first harvested from the bark of the cork oak trees. Once the harvest has taken place, the stripped planks are steamed in boilers to eliminate contaminants. Wine stoppers are punched out of the planks, and from there the scraps are processed into flooring materials — meaning every part of the bark is used.
The raw scrap material is then ground up, mixed with resin binders, compressed, and then cut into large sheets or blocks. The sheets are baked at varying temperatures to produce different shades of color and cut into planks or tiles. Multilayered planks are made with a bottom layer of compressed cork, a core layer of high-density fiberboard (HDF) and a top layer of cork, while the tiles are solid, homogenous cork.
Overall, this waste-free production process, combined with the fact that the trees regenerate their bark every nine years, makes cork a highly renewable and sustainable material.
Cork’s environmentally friendly attributes can help you gain LEED certification points because it is a renewable resource and low-emitting material. And if you use cork flooring to achieve high ratings in energy efficiency, comfort or health benefits (more on these advantages in the next section), you can earn points for innovation and design processes. Even if you’re not seeking this U.S. Green Building Council certification, cork flooring can still contribute to your vision for an environmentally friendly facility.
What Does Cork Flooring Look Like?
The traditional shade and texture of cork is one we’re all familiar with — but by no means is it the only option at your disposal. Innovations in the design of cork flooring materials have opened up exciting visual opportunities for flooring system designs.
Designs can range in color from warm, off-white to deep, mocha browns or combinations of shades in modern striped patterns. Textures can mimic artfully aged leather or even the appearance of wood or tile. Planks can offer a seamless look, while tiles of different colors can be placed in patterns to complement the room layout and overall facility aesthetic.
Is Cork Flooring Waterproof?
In short, cork isn’t waterproof but is, however, water-resistant. Don’t worry, we’ll explain.
Cork, on its own, has characteristics that stand up to liquid such as its sponge-like qualities and the fact that more than half of its structure is composed of air. Where things get a bit tricky is that while cork flooring is ultimately water-resistant, there are still variables that need to be considered such as top coating corks surface and considering a moisture barrier above the subfloor.
Cork Flooring Pros and Cons
One of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly flooring materials
As discussed above, cork can be harvested without harm, and the forests themselves are sustainably managed, replanted and government regulated. Further, rejected material or waste goes directly back into production.
Superior comfort alongside durability
Cork is 50% air and has a unique softness underfoot. At the same time, it’s dense enough to withstand heavy traffic and weight — which is why it has historically been used in museums and government buildings. This also helps in children’s and older resident’s rooms where falls are often a concern.
Increased thermal insulation
Those same air-filled cells also provide insulation against heat and cold. Floors will feel warmer throughout the year, making them an optimal choice for yoga studios and other recreational areas.
Improved sound and vibration control
Cork flooring absorbs sound, helping achieve better Impact Isolation Class (ICC) ratings. This is beneficial in multi-tenant facilities to meet building codes. Additionally, the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) now measures noise among other attributes. Quieter flooring options like cork can meet these standards by creating a peaceful environment for patients.
A hypoallergenic and antimicrobial flooring option
Cork is naturally mold, mildew and insect resistant, and it’s antimicrobial, too. This once again makes cork a viable option for healthcare facilities.
Cost-effective compared to traditional materials
This material is cost-effective as compared to other more traditional flooring options such as hardwood, carpeting or tile. Combined with the potential for reduced energy costs due to its insulating properties, cork can be a reasonably priced option for your flooring project.
Minimal maintenance needed
Cleaning and maintaining a cork flooring system is simple and straightforward; brooms, vacuums on bare floor settings and pH neutral cleaners (similar to what you’d use on hardwood floors) will take care of regular and periodic cleaning.
Cork and the sun
Long-term exposure to sunlight can cause fading over time.
Blunt or sharp objects
While cork is a great scratch-resistant flooring option, extremely sharp or heavy objects can ultimately pierce cork’s surface and cause permanent damage.
Cork Flooring Installation
Cork is available in two install applications: glue down cork flooring and floating cork flooring.
The first method is used with solid cork tiles and calls for contact adhesive. Glue down cork flooring is recommended for commercial and residential areas with higher traffic and moisture-prone areas like kitchens or laundry rooms (as the tiles don’t have an HDF core that’s more vulnerable to water damage). After setting, installers should press cork tiles into place with a rubber mallet or roller to prevent curling.
Floating cork flooring is installed by clicking planks together using a tongue-and-groove system, without the need for tools or adhesives. The flooring system can sit right on top of virtually any surface — but like all floating floors, make sure the substrate is smooth and any dips or high spots are leveled prior to installation.
Whichever method best suits your project, be sure to have your flooring installation team follow these tips:
- Cork manufacturers often have different guidelines. Follow their installation instructions by the book to ensure a successful job.
- Like wood, cork is subject to changes in dimension due to temperature, humidity and moisture. Make sure the space is enclosed with functioning HVAC units before starting the installation.
- On that same note, the materials should be on the job three days or longer before installation to acclimate to the job site temperature and humidity conditions.
- Cork flooring systems should only be installed after all the other trades are finished to minimize any possibility of damage to the floor.
- No two cork tiles or cork planks are alike. Check that installers know to shuffle the product so shading variations are randomly spaced throughout the floor.
For more cork flooring installation tips, check out this resource from Floor Covering Installer.
Cork Flooring Care and Maintenance
Even in the busiest of commercial settings, cork flooring can last for decades when properly maintained. The key is implementing routine procedures and a variety of precautionary measures to prevent problems before they even exist.
For day-to-day maintenance, brooms and vacuums (on the bare floor setting) can sweep up debris and lose dirt, while damp (not soaking wet) microfiber towels or mops work well on general spills. Use a non-toxic, pH neutral cleaner for periodic deep cleaning.
Like any resilient or wood floor, preventing damage is important. We suggest coating your cork flooring to maximize protection. Use proper furniture glides that won’t scuff the floor, and use chair pads if there are roller chairs in the space. Walk-off mats can make a difference in keeping outside dirt and liquid from coming inside. Finally, use window coverings to prevent fading due to UV exposure.
Cork Flooring Considerations
Cork may not be the right choice for every project. Keep these considerations in mind when evaluating whether cork is right for your flooring installation:
- Fading in prolonged exposure direct sunlight. Like any natural material, cork can fade or become discolored under a lot of sun. Homogeneous cork tiles can be sanded and refinished, but it’s best to prevent damage in the first place by using window coverings.
- Denting under extreme weight. While cork can spring back, it’s not invincible. Heavy furniture can permanently indent cork flooring surfaces, so use floor protectors to prevent damage.
- Susceptible to water damage. Specifically, the HDF layer in engineered cork planks is what’s vulnerable. Standing water can permeate and lead to warping of the core, so it’s best not to install a floating cork floor in areas in high moisture areas. Additionally, make sure your flooring installer conducts the appropriate moisture testing.
Still Have Questions About Cork Flooring?
Or want to compare it to other flooring materials you’re considering for your upcoming project?
We’re your go-to resource.
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 floor for your budget, design vision and environment. Start a conversation with a commercial flooring expert.
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