Flooring: MATERIALS ENCYcLOPEDIA
Applications for this system
Finished flooring. Can be applied on wooden sub-floors. May require strapping or sheathing if applied on wet-poured floors.
At greater thicknesses (40 mm or 1½ inch), can be sub-floor and finished floor in one layer.
Softwood planks, milled with a tongue-and-groove profile to a variety of widths
Finishes can range from natural oils and waxes to petrochemical products
Ratings Chart for Softwood flooring
The ratings chart shows comparative performance in each criteria category. Click on the tabs below for detailed analysis of each criteria.
- HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
- ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
- EMBODIED CARBON
- ENERGY EFFICIENCY
- MATERIAL COSTS
- LABOUR INPUT
- SKILL LEVEL REQUIRED
- SOURCING & AVAILABILITY
- CODE COMPLIANCE
- INDOOR AIR QUALITY
- FUTURE DEVELOPMENT
Strips of softwood with typical widths varying from 40–150 mm (1½–6 inches) are laid in successive rows, interlocked by the tongue-and-groove fit between pieces and fastened with nails are staples driven through the tongue or groove to remain invisible on the finished floor surface.
Environmental Impact Rating
Harvesting — Negligible to High
Priority should be placed on sustainably harvested softwood in order to minimize impacts. Locally produced wood allows the homeowner to speak directly to the forester to ascertain practices. Third-party certifications should be sought whenever buying from a supplier with whom personal connection cannot be made. It is possible to have softwood trees from the building site turned into flooring locally, resulting in the lowest possible impacts.
Softwoods are typically faster-growing species than hardwood, and are therefore renewable on a shorter timeframe than hardwoods.
Finishing products may have impacts ranging from low for some natural oils and waxes to very high for petrochemical-based finishes.
Manufacturing — Low to Moderate
The process of milling wood into flooring has relatively low impacts, and many third-party certification programs ensure that manufacturing processes meet high environmental standards.
The manufacturing of finishing products has impacts ranging from low for some natural oils and waxes to very high for petrochemical-based finishes.
Transportation — Negligible to High
Sample building uses 796.5 kg of softwood flooring:
1.2 MJ per km by 15 ton truck
0.75 MJ per km by 35 ton truck
Softwood is a heavy material with a correspondingly high transportation impact dependent upon distance traveled. Most regions will have softwoods suitable for flooring locally available.
Installation — Negligible
Compostable — Untreated wood offcuts. Quantity can be low to high, depending on the requirements of the installation.
Recyclable — Metal fasteners. Quantities will be negligible.
Landfill — Treated wood offcuts. Quantity can be low to high, depending on the requirements of the installation.
Chart of Embodied energy & carbon
There will be no energy efficiency effect from softwood flooring.
Material costs: Low to moderate
Labour Input: moderate to High
Softwood floors have a similar amount of labor input as other finished flooring materials. Prefinished options will have much lower labor inputs than site-finished floors.
Skill level required for homeowners
Preparation of sub-floor — Easy
Installation of floor — Easy to Moderate
A homeowner with the carpentry skills to build a wooden sub-floor structure will be able to install softwood flooring. The installation usually requires a pneumatic nailer, which can be rented.
Finishing of floor — Easy
Pre-finished floors require no effort. Finishing raw wood involves the straightforward brush or roller application of a liquid product according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Sourcing & availability: Easy
Softwood flooring is not widely available through conventional flooring suppliers. Local saw mills tend to be the best source for this type of material, though building supply centers can often special order softwood flooring. Sustainably harvested wood with nontoxic finishes may be more difficult to source.
Softwood flooring is very durable, with lifespan ranging from forty to a hundred years. It will not maintain a pristine surface, but the wood itself will last a very long time. Quality of finish will have an impact on durability, and finishes can require maintenance or reapplication on a cycle of one to twenty years, depending on the finish.
Most codes are not prescriptive when it comes to finished flooring materials, as long as the sub-floor has been constructed to code and in a manner intended to support the dead load imposed by the flooring.
Indoor air quality: low to high
Softwood flooring generally has little to no negative impact on IAQ. Certain species of softwoods may contain natural oils that are allergens to some people.
Finishes will have a range of impacts from negligible to high, depending on the type. It is uncommon to find pre-finished softwood flooring, so the installer or homeowner will be responsible for choosing and applying the finish in most cases. Look for Greenguard or similar certifications for petrochemical finishes to ensure minimal impacts.
Resources for further research
Jeffries, Dennis. The Flooring Handbook: The Complete Guide to Choosing and Installing Floors. Toronto, ON: Firefly, 2004. Print.
Softwood floors were common historically in North America, and there is some indication that acceptance of softwood floors may be returning. The wear patterns that show on softwood floors give a home much sought after character, an antidote to a too-pristine new home appearance.
The use of thick softwood planks that act as both sub-floor and finished floor may rise in popularity as a low cost option that minimizes the number of steps and different materials required.
The growth of third-party certification programs for forest products will likely increase the availability of sustainably harvested softwood flooring. Similar programs for the chemical content of finishes seem to be spurring R&D into less toxic products.
Tips for a successful softwood floor
1. Softwood flooring should be stored in the home where it is to be installed for a minimum of one week prior to installation, to give the wood a chance to come to balance with the ambient humidity of the home. Softwood expands or contracts less than hardwood as it gains or loses moisture, but should still be allowed to arrive at the size that matches the humidity level of the home. If conditions are unusually dry or moist, the flooring may shrink or swell when conditions return to normal.
2. Softwood flooring is not as widely available through commercial flooring sources as hardwood. As it is more likely to come from smaller, local mills it may not come with installation instructions. Homeowners may need advice from experienced installers or other resources for instructions.
3. Narrower strips of softwood will be less likely to expand, contract or cup than wider boards.
4. If thick softwood is to be both the structural sub-floor and the finished floor, be sure the thickness of wood selected is appropriate for the intended loads and for the floor joist spacing.