Hardwood: The Natural Choice for Flooring

By Kemp Harr

Think of how restful and relaxing a beachside nap can be, with the rhythmic sound of the surf allowing you to travel into a deep hypnotic state. A leading movement within the architectural community is called biophilic design; the practice of integrating natural components into the built environment. Studies have proven that humans have an inherent need to connect with nature. We function on a different level when we are surrounded by natural materials. Today’s artificially lit, airconditioned homes and offices filled with manmade materials take us far away from our evolutionary roots. And this disconnect can be stressful. One of the easiest ways to integrate nature back into our indoor lives is by installing natural and real hardwood flooring.

For centuries, humankind evolved from natural environments; we have really only isolated ourselves to indoor space in the last century with the advent of recirculating air, drywall, and other building materials. Fortunately, the one plane in the cube of an indoor room that we touch is the floor, and by installing wood flooring, we stay in contact with nature.

Initially, hardwood floors were found only in European castles due to the intense labor of turning lumber into a smooth, decorative walking surface, and at that time, craftsmen opted for parquet squares or herringbone installations because smaller pieces were easier to work with before the days of power tools. Early American settlers found an abundance of old-growth trees that formed the roughhewn floors for their dwellings. In the late 19th century, the invention of tongue and groove planks eliminated issues that gave hardwood another boost in popularity. Power saws and sanders also brought the cost down and gave the floors a more-refined look.

In the late 1940s, hardwood flooring was given a huge boost in popularity with the minimum standards for homes that qualified for the Veterans Affairs department’s home-loan guarantee program, which was created after World War II. Homes that were built for returning American soldiers had to be built with hardwood floors to qualify for the government-backed loan program. This federal requirement remained in place until 1967 when home builders convinced the government that plywood subfloors covered with resilient sheet or wall to wall carpet should be allowed as a minimum standard.

Once solid hardwood flooring was no longer a housing standard, the volume fell, prices rose, and its use shifted to predominantly upper-end homes.

The next boost in growth came with the development of engineered hardwood. Cross-ply core construction broadened the use of hardwood to installations over concrete or in basements. Around that same time, factory finishes with aluminum oxide were developed, and the installation window, in comparison to site-finished flooring, was reduced. Homebuilders welcomed these developments, knowing that homes with hardwood floors sold faster and for more money.

Unfortunately, many domestic wood flooring producers mistakenly attempted to imitate the cheaply constructed, foreign-made engineered hardwood products with sawdust cores, razor-thin veneers, and board thicknesses under a half-inch. Margins fell as manufacturing standards flew out the window, and the home centers encouraged the race to the bottom in hardwood pricing. Homebuilders were forced to look for flooring that would hold up during the final stages of the building process and not end up on the punch list due to damage.

There is plenty of blame to be shared as we analyze this shift away from quality hardwood flooring. Margin-focused homebuilders certainly own a piece of it. Discount-oriented home centers own a part of it. The consolidated supply base, which turned from category specialists into generalists, also played a part. And let’s not forget the internet. The consumer naively thinks the search engine they are using is an objective research tool.

So, where is the hardwood flooring business today? Wholesale revenue for the category peaked in 2016 at $3.3 billion dollars. Since then, rigid LVT, laminate, and to a lesser degree, digitally printed ceramic planks have been taking market share from traditional hardwood flooring. Hardwood flooring, which for years was the second largest flooring category in annual sales dollars, is now in fourth place, behind ceramic, resilient, and carpet.

Fortunately, the game is not over. Two of the biggest news items in 2020 could contribute to a resurgence in hardwood flooring. The first, and easiest to explain, is the 25 percent tariff on rigid LVT. The majority of rigid LVT is produced in China, and now that it is more expensive, the cost gap between LVT and hardwood is much less. This narrows the investment decision between lookalike and real wood for the consumer.

However, the bigger factor is COVID-19. Consumers have discovered a new love for their homes and their nation. They’re willing to spend more of their disposable income to improve their homes. At the same time, homeowners also want products that are made here in America so that the U.S. economy is the first to recover.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they’re looking for a natural product. Yes, it’s time to shuffle the deck and live in peace with mother nature. Quality-made hardwood floors last forever, increase the resale value of the home, connect us with nature, and reduce our stress, so why not?

Kemp Harr is the Publisher and Owner of Floor Focus Magazine and
FloorDaily.net. He can be reached at kemp@floorfocus.com.

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