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Go natural, and step on it!
Technology meets nature on the floor

By CARI TAYLOR-CARLSON

 

Hotel Metro’s design and décor illustrate a commitment to natural materials
and the environment. The Hotel Metro lobby features bamboo flooring
harvested from sustainable forests.


If you ask interior designer Nancy Miller of Form & Function to recommend a floor that’s reasonably priced, extremely durable, stain resistant, aesthetically pleasing and made from a renewable resource, the answer will likely be “bamboo.” Most of the hardwood floors you see in homes today have many similar qualities, however what sets bamboo apart from the rest is the ability of the bamboo plant to regenerate itself in three to five years.

Designer Miller likes it because “it’s aesthetically beautiful and interesting and because it’s environmentally a wonderful product.”

She continued, “technically bamboo is a grass and the more it’s cut, the faster it reproduces itself. It’s relatively new in this country but we’re starting to see some of it in residences now. It hasn’t caught fire yet but it’s picking up steam.”

Miller recently supervised the installation of a bamboo floor in the master bedroom at a residence in Grafton. The bamboo she used is a laminate, a three layer product that has more stability than a single layer. It has a lot of visual texture or in Miller’s words, “a strong striated look with the bamboo nodules easily seen.”

It comes in a basic 3 1/2 inch width and in two, three or six foot lengths depending on the look one wants. Miller added “shorter lengths look busier but add more texture.” Colorwise it’s also the lightest natural floor material available—even maple is a shade darker in tone. For a more formal look, a smoking process at the factory colors the grass all the way through and gives it a rich brown patina. This bamboo has then been “carbonized.” The dense quality of the grass prevents it from taking a stain well however, a natural finish sets off the beauty of the product and makes it an ideal choice for commercial and residential use.

Take a look in the lobby of Milwaukee’s downtown Hotel Metro to see a good example of bamboo floor. Since the floor in the lobby has been carbonized, the striated markings are clearly visible in the rich wood-like grass floor.

Hotel Metro’s atrium with bistro tables and chairs is French-inspired, incorporating sea grass flooring to accent the wall mural of the Cote d’Azure.


Another floor product made from a grass, albeit not as durable or stain resistant as bamboo is sisal, a fiber extracted from the leaves of the Mexican agave plant. According to Robert Kashou, president of George Kashou Company Inc., sisal became popular in the last decade after Architectural Digest started showing it in homes and commercial offices on the east coast. He said, “it’s hot right now especially with a good looking rug on top of it.”

The agave plants, native to the Yucatan of Mexico, require no fertilizers or pesticides, have a seven-year growth cycle and grow easily and abundantly in southern Mexico. The fibers are white and can be spun into yarns of varying thickness that contain some irregularities due to variations in the plant. Kashou warned, “sisal is not a good choice for an area that receives heavy foot traffic or a place where liquid spills might occur.”

The opposite of sisal when it comes to durability and stain resistance is a hardwood floor that’s been treated with Wear Max, a ceramic finish. A product of space-age technology, this finish was used on the nose of the space shuttle to protect it during re-entry. A Wear Max floor typically has an 1/8 inch layer of hardwood laminated to a 3/8 inch pine layer. Homeowners can choose from a wide variety of hardwoods from traditional oaks and maples to more elegant walnut and cherry. It’s possible to apply the finish in the home, however, it’s much more effective if it’s factory installed.

“Once the ceramic finish is in place,” Kashou said, “you can grind a quarter against the floor and you’ll wear down the quarter before you mark the floor.” He also explained, “although it’s a laminate, the hardwood layer is not much less in thickness than in a traditional wood floor.”

Since “natural is hot or anything that’s perceived to look natural is in” according to Jim Swernoff, president of Lakeside Tile and Stone, homeowners are asking for stone floors especially in kitchens and bathrooms. Choices include limestone, granite, marble, ceramic, porcelain and slate.

Selected for its marble-like appearance, the floor and wall tile chosen by Joy Anderson for Peter O’Malley’s Mequon master bathroom is 14” x 14” laurel green polished porcelain and the accent tile is 5” x 11” tumbled stone. Designed and constructed by Cream City Construction, Lakeside Tile and Stone did the installation.


The easiest floor to install and maintain, as well as the least expensive, is ceramic. Made of clay with a manmade glaze, it has a regular thickness with the pattern or color on top instead of all the way through. If it’s patterned to be a limestone look-alike, unless you look very carefully or put it right next to limestone, it looks almost identical to the real thing. “At Lakeshore Tile and Stone” Swernoff said, “we only carry ceramic lines that look like stone.” Some of these floors have fossil-like imprints that are almost indistinguishable from actual limestone fossils.

A second floor product made of clay is porcelain. Like clay, it has a hard finish and because it’s frost-proof, is often used around pools and in indoor-outdoor rooms. Swernoff explained, “while a ceramic product has a surface finish, a porcelain floor has the finish all the way through the tile.”

Natural stone floors divide into two general categories according to composition. Siliceous stone is made up of silica or quartz-like particles, is very durable and easy to clean. Granite and slate fall into this category. The minerals in granite show as tiny flecks uniformly distributed in the stone. While granite is used more for counter tops, slate is a popular choice for floors. It comes in many colors, typically dark green, gray, black, dark red or multi-colored and because it comes out of mountains and canyons, it shows infinite choices in patterns. Swernoff said, “it’s easy to maintain but may need some maintenance or sealing over time.”

In the master bedroom of the Mike and Peg Groth residence in Cedarburg, Mike and his brother Mark created and installed this mosaic inlay with a limestone field. Using 12” x 12” tiles of Turkish limestone and white and black polished marble, they broke the tiles with a hammer into irregular shapes of varying size. Each tile was then randomly set by hand into a bed of mortar. A 3” strip of black marble was then placed around the perimeter of the mosaic inlay as a border.


Calcareous stone is made primarily of calcium carbonate. Most of the marble we see, a calcareous stone with the familiar veins and easily seen concentrations of minerals, comes from Italy. It’s used more in dining rooms and hallways because it tends not to wear as well as other natural stone floors.

A second very popular calcareous stone used in today’s homes is limestone. It gives a rougher look preferred by homeowners who want to maximize the natural look. It’s usually light gray, tan or buff colored with sea fossils frequently visible on the surface. It shows the irregularity of a natural product especially when cut to a thickness that looks almost like cobblestone.

To add complexity to the choices, these stone products can be polished, honed or flamed. Polishing adds a glossy surface that reflects light and accentuates the color and pattern while a honed finish is a smooth finish with minimal light reflection. A flamed finish roughens the texture.

Each of these natural products, wood, bamboo, grass, porcelain, ceramic or stone is an investment that gives a home many years of durable service while adding elegance and beauty. There’s a floor to fill every homeowners need and taste. The possibilities are limitless, whether natural or high-tech.