Product Trends: Flooring That Blurs the Lines

Hardwood flooring’s visual appeal can come with maintenance challenges. New wood-look options in vinyl, ceramic and engineered materials provide high-performance alternatives.

authors Chuck Ross | August 18, 2020

When it comes to living area and bedroom flooring, the choice used to be much simpler for homeowners: carpet or hardwood. Today, those buyers face a broad spectrum of options—with a concomitant range of acronyms and abbreviations—and many of those products seem to blur the line between formerly clear-cut categories. However, one characteristic of this otherwise shifting market seems to be holding steady: While hardwood sales might be static to slipping, consumer interest in hardwood looks remains as strong as ever.

Where We Are Now

Understanding today’s flooring market is obviously complicated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty created by the unknowns related to homeowner budget makes it much more difficult to forecast future growth or decline from trends spotted before the pandemic began. However, the most recent full-year figures, which track sales from 2018, provide a starting point, at the very least.

Residential building products analysts with Catalina Research note the U.S. hardwood flooring market—which also includes engineered wood—fell by 3.7 percent in 2018. While other economic factors, including a slower homebuilding market, played a role in this decline, the growing popularity of luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and other more waterproof materials also pushed hardwood sales down. Laminate flooring, once a leading lower-cost hardwood alternative, is facing even harder headwinds, dropping 6.7 percent in 2018. Remodelers are big players in both these markets, according to Catalina, accounting for more than 75 percent of laminate flooring sales and about 50 percent of hardwood during that year.

In terms of current conditions, Steve Stocki, marketing manager with LL Flooring, the company previously known as Lumber Liquidators, says he’s seen business pick up again after the initial shutdowns the nation weathered in March and early April. “We saw a little bit of a lag in March, but it’s stayed pretty steady. We’ve seen business hold relatively strong.”

Yon Hinkle, product management vice president with Armstrong Flooring, says the initial slowdown his company experienced is now history. “We never saw a complete grind to a halt,” he says, noting that DIY-inclined homeowners helped keep business going during the time professional construction went offline. “A lot of that has started to pick up. Construction, in general, is active even in states where restaurants and bars aren’t fully open.”

Carpet Sheds Market Share

The COVID-related slowdown certainly did not have an impact on consumer tastes that are moving increasingly away from carpet and toward more hard surfaces. “Definitely hard surfaces, in general, are continuing to be more popular than carpet,” says Adam Ward, senior product director for Mohawk Industries wood and laminate flooring lines, adding the importance of organic looks to today’s shoppers. “Hardwood and wood looks are really driving the market. As people are updating their homes, they’re ripping up the carpet and putting in hard surfaces.”

Stocki says he’s seen similar trends continuing. “Carpet has continued to be on the decline over the past three to five years, if not longer than that, as hard-surface products continue to increase,” he says, including the broad range of hardwood, laminate and vinyl and tile in this category.

In terms of finishes, he says the neutrals that have conquered walls and furnishings are also an increasingly popular flooring option. “We’re still continuing to see color tones in grays and the onset of beiges, which have started to come back a bit,” he says, noting that the particular species of a wood product is often less important than its appearance.

“Each customer can be different—some come in looking for a particular wood species, but the others come in saying they’re looking for particular colors,” he says. “It’s really just the overall look of the completed project.”

RevWood Plus laminate flooring from Mohawk Industries incorporates the company’s Hydroseal technology to coat joints in the click-to-assemble planks for added water resistance. It’s shown here in the Urban Mist Maple finish from the Hartwick collection.

At the higher end, Ward says consumers are moving away from some of the exotic wood varieties that were popular 10 to 15 years ago. “Oak is driving the market right now,” he says, though in lighter finishes than have been seen in the past. “It’s kind of like cotton—it’s a timeless choice, and you can do a lot with it.

“Five to 10 years ago, very dark chocolate browns, darker colors, were really popular; and what you’ve seen is that go to really light now,” he says. “Natural white oaks, whitewashed oaks, light grays, are really popular on the market right now. It’s more the coastal, beach-y vibe, Bohemian vibe—that’s really where the market has gone.”

However, as much as they might appreciate the aesthetics of these new, more casual wood looks, not all homeowners want to achieve them with actual solid hardwood. As Laura Grill, senior manager for product development with Daltile Corp., notes, a number of motivators can move fans of wood’s natural aesthetic to consider other materials designed to mimic its appearance.

“When consumers begin looking at non-wood materials, they are wanting to address several issues,” she says. “They are wanting a material that performs better than hardwood in wet areas; they want to avoid the color fading, damaged boards or wear marks that hardwood exhibits over time; and in today’s germ-aware world, they are also looking for a more hygienic, yet still easy-to-clean product.”

Additionally, homeowners might be looking for longer and wider planks than are widely available in solid hardwood. The wide-plank floors one might see in a New England antique home simply are hard to replicate affordably. Those planks were milled from old-growth trees, while today’s commercial milling operations generally depend on younger forests. Trying to get wider planks out of skinnier trees can result in warping problems over time.

“With a solid hardwood, if you get much wider than 5 or 6 inches, you could start running into issues, product performance issues,” Ward says. “The nature of that wood is not to lay flat.”

Engineering a Solution

Engineered wood is often the first option consumers look at, if solid hardwood isn’t an option. Engineered products feature a top, veneer layer of solid wood attached to a base that is generally thin, crossed layers of plywood that have been fused together. Some makers may use their own, proprietary base materials. This flooring is usually less expensive than solid hardwood because it’s mostly plywood or a composite.

Engineered wood also can offer some installation advantages over solid offerings. For example, hardwood is not recommended for below-grade, basement use because the added humidity in these settings could lead to warping. Engineered products, however, might be appropriate below-grade with appropriate barriers in place because their cross-laminated base offers more stability. Engineered planks also are shipped pre-finished, and some feature click-in-place, floating installation options.

LL Flooring’s AquaSeal line offers an example of the latest approaches to engineered hardwood. Featuring what the company calls a special core technology—which is also used in its laminate and engineered bamboo products—the flooring offers water protection for up to 24 hours.

With the same proprietary core technology used in its laminate and engineered bamboo products, LL Flooring’s AquaSeal 72 Engineered Hardwood offers water protection for up to 72 hours. Natural Hickory planks are shown here, and they’re available in lengths up to 72 inches.

Laminate flooring is another more affordable hardwood alternative and, as with many of today’s non-wood options, manufacturers have made strides in addressing previous homeowner pain points. As the name implies, laminates are layered products with a moisture-barrier base topped by a core of, typically, medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Then a high-resolution image layer creates the wood grain appearance and is fused together with melamine resin. A clear-coat wear layer on top can include additional melamine resin for added protection.

While first-generation laminate flooring didn’t always live up to expectations, manufacturers have made great strides over the last 10 to 15 years. For example, Mohawk is billing its RevWood Plus as a waterproof product due to advances the company has made to limit water’s ability to penetrate the MDF core. Now, the top image and resin layer wraps over the top edge of individual planks, and a hydrophobic sealant coats the joints in the click-to-assemble system. Additionally, those joints are very tight once the floor is completed, giving moisture very little access to penetrate. As a result, finished floors are actually more water-resistant than the individual boards on their own.

“We’ve seen very good consumer and retailer interest in the product,” Ward says. “We’ve grown it from 13 SKUs to over 70 SKUs.”

Vinyl Takes a Step Up

Vinyl flooring also has made great strides in the last 15 years or so. Once relegated to builder-grade kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms, the material has been reborn in the new categories of luxury and engineered vinyl tile. Those who might have grown up with vinyl tile and sheet products stamped in 1970s-style harvest gold florals will be surprised to see how realistically these new products simulate natural wood’s grain and varied hues.

“Some people can’t tell the difference between a manufactured product and solid hardwood,” says Stocki, noting that this natural wood look comes at substantial savings over the real thing. “You can get the look of wood in your entire home.”

According to Stocki, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is comprised of a thin layer of virgin vinyl that’s topped with a high-resolution image and then covered with a wear layer that offers strong protection against damage. Engineered vinyl tile (EVT) adds a core layer providing added strength. “It adds another layer of stability,” Stocki says. “You can roll a grand piano across it and not have any issues.”

Armstrong’s Hinkle notes that although both of these products are affordable alternatives to hardwood, their visual appeal punches above their weight when it comes to homeowner interest. Bevels, non-repeat patterns and other touches have opened both LVT and EVT products to high-end projects.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a $1 million home with luxury vinyl,” he says. “Now it’s not unusual to see such a home with luxury vinyl being the go-to flooring. That shows you how things have shifted in terms of the overall value curve of the products.”

Armstrong’s Empower Plank flooring offers an example of how LVT and EVT products can blur previously clear lines between materials such as vinyl and porcelain and ceramic tile. It features design and wear layers like other vinyl products, but the engineered core is actually magnesium based. This provides stability and durability and makes the planks a good option in high-moisture areas.

Wood-Style Tile

Of course, ceramic and porcelain tile are inherently waterproof as well as resistant to mold and mildew. Daltile’s Grill says wood’s natural aesthetic is proving increasingly popular in her company’s ceramic and porcelain offerings. While marble looks are still in high demand among tile shoppers, wood patterns are “neck-and-neck” in popularity.

Emerson Wood tile from Daltile features a wire-brush effect over the graining to create an impression of age and authenticity. The tile’s StepWise technology creates greater slip resistance in both interior and exterior applications.

“Wood-look tiles are some of Daltile’s top sellers,” she says. “Today’s advanced digital printing and structural technologies are so sophisticated that they enable creation of a wood look/feel that is so authentic, it is hard for many consumers to discern what is installed tile and what is the natural material.”

Like vinyl, porcelain and ceramic flooring has traditionally been regarded as best suited for baths, kitchens and other damp/wet locations. Aside from areas in the Southeast and on the West Coast where Spanish housing styles often feature terra cotta flooring, however, tile hasn’t been recognized as high-spec enough for a home’s main living areas. Grill says she’s been seeing those previous assumptions slip away.

“Wood-look tile is definitely making its way into the main living spaces, where consumers may have used real hardwood or carpet in the past,” she says. “Wood-look planks are available in all of today’s most on-trend hardwood designs. Very popular right now are visuals that offer natural light browns infused with gray, as well as the look of time-worn, gently weathered or lightly distressed hardwood.”

Grill offers Daltile’s Emerson Wood as an example of this trend toward mixed neutrals. The product is available in three extra-long plank sizes and features a wire-brush effect over the graining for an authentic-looking weathered appearance. QR

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