A Look at What’s Going on Underfoot

by WOHe

The floors of the kitchens and baths we design are one aspect of
space planning in which the current renaissance of appreciation for
arts and crafts can be seen.

Tried-and-true materials are showing up in new applications. At
the same time, there’s a myriad of new products to consider. Our
choices are more heavily influenced, too, by safety and
environmental concerns. And because the spaces we’re working with
are often larger with higher ceilings and less separation from
adjoining space our selection of flooring material, color, pattern
and performance must be adjusted.

That said, now seems like a good time to explore what’s
happening underfoot in kitchens and baths.

As always, appearance is at the top of the list for reasons we
specify a particular flooring. Even if we were not living in a
time-starved age, we’d wish for easy maintenance and durability.
Warmth and comfort both physical and visual are also prime
considerations.

As the space given to the kitchen and bath continues to grow in
square footage, height and openness to adjacent areas, we look to
flooring to help define and balance the space. Environmental
concerns have us examining the content and sources of flooring
materials, as well as their ability to absorb sound and repel
bacteria or mold, and improve the home environment. Because we’re
concerned about safety, slip resistance and other features that
improve our ability to move safely over the floor are also
important.

Wood floors grow in popularity as their positive contribution to
the warmth and richness of a room continues, and related
maintenance issues are reduced. Patterns are created in the way the
wood is laid out, in varying the finish on the wood, or in painting
or stenciling on the wood. Beyond solid wood and laminates, bamboo
is a relatively new wood floor. Because bamboo rejuvenates quickly,
it’s a self-sustaining product and responds to the need to preserve
our environment.
Also a longtime favorite, porcelain tiles seem to be making news,
particularly as stone look-alikes, for indoor/outdoor applications
with high-durability ratings. Slip-resistance in tile is more
readily achieved today through scoring or applications of finishes.
The coefficient of friction, a slip resistance rating long
available in commercial tiles, is more readily available now in
tiles for residential use, as well. In addition, the cold physical
nature of tile that once discouraged some people from selecting it
has all but been eliminated by the growing availability of in-floor
radiant heat. In fact, some tile can provide thermal mass in
passive solar homes.

From commercial sources, slip-retardant vinyl flooring is
available, some textured for wet, barefoot safety. Linoleum is back
with new and retro patterns and, made from linseed oil and without
chlorine it’s a more environmentally responsible choice. On the
environmental front, there are even carpets available made from
recycled materials by manufacturing processes that run on renewable
energy, and that can be recycled when their use is exhausted.

An effective response to the need to absorb sound, cork flooring
is making a comeback due, in part, to the environmental movement.
Generally, it provides sound and thermal insulation, it cushions
the foot and it’s harvested from trees in a sustainable manner.
Natural cork tiles are the highest in cost and the easiest on the
environment. Vinyl wear-layered cork tiles or planks, some with a
wood veneer sandwiched between the cork and vinyl, are somewhat
lower in cost, but don’t score as high with environmentalists.

Lastly, pattern-colonized concrete has become much more flexible
and is gaining ground in high-end applications. One application
I’ve seen is through a kitchen and patio, where the floor helped to
bring the indoors and outdoors together. In another application,
bronze tones were worked into the concrete with stone tile inlays
as accents, and the result looked like a rich leather floor. There
seem to be many opportunities for personalization and creativity
with this product.

Design concepts
In response to current trends, options and design solutions are
changing and expanding. With regard to appearance, we’re seeing not
only a single material these days, but a combination of materials
and patterns that strongly impact the sense and style of the
space.

Larger rooms with higher ceilings make it possible and even
desirable to use deeper tones and bolder contrasts to bring warmth
and balance to the space. It may be a tumbled stone tile floor with
a deeply-colored contrasting tile in a medallion, a border or a
pattern that moves across the floor and perhaps up the wall of the
shower to unify the space. Or, it may be a warm-toned wood floor
with a tile inlay in the wet areas of a bathroom, or that same tile
in a kitchen with a wood inlay around the island, in front of the
sink or as a border. This combining of materials can be done easily
if advance planning considers the various thicknesses of materials
and other installation requirements. For safety and aesthetics, the
floors should be level throughout, with the installation absorbing
any differences in thickness of materials.

Another interesting inlay that serves aesthetic and maintenance
needs is the inlay of a grid over a drain or trap in wet areas,
inside entries or where boots are dropped. I’ve seen this done as a
teak inlay in tile in a Japanese bath, solid surface in a tile
floor to facilitate proper drainage in a no-threshold shower, or
with a metallic finish inside an entrance where the clearance at
the bottom of the door would not allow for a traditional floor
mat.

By extending the inlaid grille, problems with the door swing are
eliminated, a place to let wet boots or umbrellas dry can be
created and the possibility of slipping or tripping on a floor mat
is reduced. Intended use would influence whether a clean-out or a
full drain would be required below the grille.

The use of wood floors in the kitchen, popular today but rarely
seen 10 years ago, offers the advantage of carrying the eye
throughout the kitchen and adjoining family space, and making a
smaller space larger. With the trend to huge volumes of space in
the kitchen/great room, some definition or interest in the wood of
the floor seems appealing. Also, the overwhelming use of wood
cabinetry in warmer tones sometimes calls for a lighter kitchen
floor than is desired in the adjoining space.

In one such situation I’m familiar with, the deeper finish that
was used in the family or social portion of the great room was
continued as a border in the lighter finish of the same wood used
for the kitchen prep area floor. In another situation, the two
tones were worked into a pattern in the butler’s pantry, with the
lighter tone continuing into the kitchen and the deeper finish
continuing through the dining room and front gallery. This worked
beautifully with wood, and can also be done well with other
materials.

With so much to choose from, and changing criteria for
selection, kitchen and bath designers can stretch their “creative
muscles” and enhance their work with what goes underfoot today.

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