Linoleum: revival of an old flooring friend

Scott Gibson

Until vinyl flooring saw its post-war boom, homeowners who wanted resilient flooring would be looking at linoleum. First developed as a floor covering in the 19th century, linoleum had a lot going for it. It was comfortable under foot, durable, colorful and relatively easy to maintain. But vinyl flooring nearly killed it. It required even less maintenance than linoleum, was available in a variety of patterns and colors and was usually less expensive.

Linoleum might have disappeared completely if it weren't for the green building movement. Consumers were suddenly hungry for building materials that made a minimal impact on both the environment and human health. And linoleum fit the bill perfectly.

It's produced from linseed oil (which is made from flax seeds), rosin, ground cork and wood flour, pigments and limestone. The mixture is pressed into a jute backing. Although it off-gasses some volatile organic compounds as the linseed oil oxidizes, linoleum is fundamentally an eco-friendly product. It doesn't contain toxic materials and at the end of a fairly long service life it can safely be landfilled or burned to produce electricity.

When burned, according to the website Greenfloors, linoleum has a heat value comparable to coal. The C02 released as it's burned is about equal to the amount that was sequested by the flax and jute plants, so in that sense it's a carbon-neutral product. In a landfill, linoleum doesn't have any toxic chemicals to give off as it decomposes.

Vinyl comes with a far less winsome health pedigree. In a 2009 report on resilient flooring by the Health Care Research Collaborative (and available at the Healthy Building Network), vinyl flooring "earns a worse in class status due to its dioxin by-products and several other [persistent bioaccumulative toxicants] of concern."

Of the four resilient flooring materials the report examined (vinyl, synthetic rubber, polyolefins and linoleum), vinyl was the least attractive from a health or environmental point of view. Moreover, PVC products are essentially un-recyclable. So why not use the good stuff? Choosing linoleum over vinyl has clear environmental and health benefits, and it honors a material with solid historic credentials. Plus, it looks cool.

No longer on its death bed, linoleum flooring is available from a number of manufacturers, including Armstrong, Forbo, Tarkett, Prontolino and Nova Linoleum. You can purchase it in sheet form, as tiles or as planks that snap together.

There are, however, a few caveats. First, manufacturers usually recommend that sheet linoleum be installed by a professional. It's not a good DIY project. Linoleum also needs regular cleaning and occasional resealing. It is water resistant, not water proof, making it the wrong choice over below-grade concrete subfloors and a dicey choice in a bathroom where standing water is likely.

Still, its few shortcomings seem minor indeed when compared with vinyl flooring. This is one of those happy occasions when returning to an old building material is clearly the best choice.

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