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Making a Truly 'Green' Wood Floor Spec

Today I got a "green" spec across my desk for a big commercial project: 180,000 square feet of 3¼ (only), select-and-better (only) red oak … and all FSC-certified. Here's somebody saying that they want to be environmentally friendly, but the spec itself encourages waste. They don't realize the hypocrisy of what they're spec'ing for that project.

The problem is there is a disconnect between the specifier-the architect and/or designer-and the manufacturer. The specifiers don't understand that the more specific they make a large order of flooring, the more likely it is resources will be wasted to produce that flooring.

A Natural Product

To understand why, you have to think about the manufacturing process for wood flooring. It is a natural product. When we process logs, we don't get lumber blanks that are all 4 inches wide (the size that will produce 3¼-inch flooring) and the same grade.

Say we have a spec for 100,000 square feet of 4-inch select-and-better red oak. To fill that spec, there are two options: The first is for us to run enough lumber to accumulate the required amount of material while maintaining an efficient yield. Looking at a real yield sheet with typical numbers, only 17 percent of a run resulted in 4-inch select-and-better flooring. We would have to make this same production run another six times to accumulate 100,000 square feet of the specified item. That is 562,680 square feet of red oak produced just to get the 100,000 to fill the order. Unless a manufacturer already has a market for all the other items, it is difficult to justify this amount of production.

A Wasteful Option

The second and only other way to fill this order would be to take all the 5-inch from the yield and run it down into 4-inch flooring. Filling the spec like this would, in effect, waste nearly 33,000 square feet of usable lumber. Although this can and does happen, it is a terrible waste of our natural resources.

This is why when this type of specification crosses our desk we try to educate the end-user that multiple widths and grades, or for that matter species, in the specification is the environmentally friendly way to specify wood flooring. Here is one example of how this has worked for us: We had a spec for a commercial job that required 97,000 square feet of 4-inch No. 2 red oak. After we explained that this was very difficult to fill, we proposed two options. The first was to consider keeping the product 4-inch red oak but to change the grade specification to mill run, which simply means keeping all of the grades from the yield together instead of sorting them apart. The second option was to have the model unit showing the 4-inch red oak as the base grade, but also have a display showing five other flooring options in various species and widths.

Their initial response was that they wanted to go with all 4-inch red oak even if it would mean we would lose yield in the raw material. The architect and builder didn't think any potential buyers would be willing to spend more to upgrade to a different type of flooring. They did, however, agree to place the display and offer the five other flooring options after the model unit was finished with the 4-inch mill-run red oak.

In the end, nearly 80 percent of the buyers chose to pay the upgrade costs to use different flooring. This prevented us from having to waste raw material to fill the specification and at the same time gave the homeowners the option to customize their homes.

Random-Width & Green

Another option that helps makes specs more environmentally friendly is to include random-width flooring. Traditionally this has been thought of as a more rustic floor, but it is gaining in popularity and is inherently green. In fact, if you had to compare the two, I'd say between 31?4-inch FSC-certified red oak floor and a random-width non-FSC red oak floor, the  latter would probably be more environmentally responsible.

Unfortunately, many times once the specification reaches us, it's too late in the process to convince them to change the specification. I hope that as an industry we will be better able to educate the designers and architects working on these big projects, especially LEED projects requiring FSC flooring, to help them understand what truly makes tens of thousands of square feet of wood flooring "green."

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