Tips from the Architect: Selecting Hardwood Flooring

March 18, 2016

Hardwood flooring plays a classic role in American homes and often plays a large role in defining the ambiance of a space. There are a few key factors that will affect your decision when selecting hardwood floors. Wood species, stain, finish, plank width, and patterning are all factors that contribute to the look and feel of your hardwood floors and should be considered carefully. 

Hardwood Species

Oak and cherry are two of the most common flooring types, as they are hard/durable and widely available.

Maple and bamboo are two other common hardwoods, with the latter seeing an increase in popularity in recent years due to its sustainability. Maple offers a naturally light, muted hue with minimal grain variation while bamboo has an accentuated linear grain. Both hardwoods lend themselves well to clean, contemporary spaces by offering a monolithic look across the expanse of a floor.

Other common flooring types that are rising in popularity are, among others, walnut, mahogany, and cumaru. These hardwoods offer a more exotic look, and their deep, rich colors can provide a powerful counterpoint to a cleaner minimalist interior design.

Stain

The wide range of stain colors offers many possibilities for customization. This can be particularly helpful during renovations or additions when attempting to match new wood flooring to existing wood flooring or to particular colors within a home’s existing interior design.

Staining imbues wood with a darker and/or more saturated color while lime washing and bleaching can soften and lighten the color of the hardwood. These two lightening techniques can provide a milky, whitewashed appearance to hardwood and accentuate a more pronounced grain.

Finish

While species is the strongest factor affecting the appearance of a wood floor, finishing techniques can create a variety of effects.

The most common finish is a clear-coat polyurethane finish. A clear finish can range in gloss (light reflection) from matte to semi-gloss to high-gloss. Matte finish generally elicits a more natural characteristic while high gloss imparts a more refined, polished aesthetic.

A less common option is a painted finish. Painted hardwood offers a limitless range of color and patterning and can add a unique element to a space. As the paint wears the floors take on a worn character that reveals multiple layers and hues (though they can always be repainted).

Plank Width

Typical planks run in widths of 2-1/4” to 5”. Any boards over 5” are usually considered ‘wide-plank’ and are more expensive as they require trees mature enough to provide the larger board widths. Wide-plank boards generally come in longer lengths as well, often reducing or eliminating any butt joints within a room.

Patterning

While running parallel boards is the most common and economical installation method for flooring, there are many patterning options that can give a space a distinct character.

Patterned inlays, borders, and accents can add detail and help define a space, particularly when contrasting wood species are used. Herringbone (planks interlock perpendicularly to create a zigzag pattern) and parquet (planks laid out in a geometric pattern, alternating in direction to form a grid) are two common specialty installations. Interestingly enough, one of the most well-known, unique uses of the parquet technique can be found on the Boston Celtics’ distinctive basketball court at the TD Garden.

Engineered Flooring vs. Traditional Solid Hardwood:

In recent years, engineered flooring has become an increasingly popular option in residential design. Engineered flooring consists of a substrate (bottom layer) similar to plywood that is water-resistant or waterproof with a thin veneer (top layer) of a selected hardwood. Since the veneer is the only visible component of the flooring, it does not have any affect on the appearance of the floors.

Engineered hardwood offers a few advantages over traditional solid hardwood. Traditional solid hardwood will expand and contract in response to temperature and humidity. This can lead to warping, gaps, and buckling in the floor. Engineered flooring, however, is more dimensionally stable and less prone to expansion and contraction. This makes engineered floors great for areas that experience humid or wet conditions such as bathrooms, mud rooms, kitchens, and basements. One disadvantage is that engineered floors, due to their thin hardwood veneer, cannot be re-sanded and re-finished like solid hardwood floors.

Conclusion

The right hardwood will vary for every project depending on budget, location/region, and, of course, design style. Your architect and contractor can help you make informed decisions, connect you with the right suppliers, and coordinate the process of design and construction.

As you decide on flooring for your home, we hope this guide provides you with a better understanding of the role of hardwood in your overall design and insight into the wide range of options available.

Examples from Catalano Projects (see images below)

The bunk room of the Bay View Residence utilizes a teak and holly boat sole flooring for an added layer of detail. The high-gloss finish on the wood mimics a vintage wood boat deck, playing into the nautical theme of the room.

In the Oyster Harbors residence, Catalano used wood flooring with a checkerboard paint pattern. The painted floors offer a unique intermediate between wood and tile, imparting the geometry of tile and the warmth of hardwood. In this project, the muted color palate allows the unique design pattern to be the defining visual element of the space.

The Hopkinton Hills Bar & Lounge utilized wide-plank reclaimed American chestnut floors that play off the western motif of the space. While it was a new construction project, the reclaimed wood lends a sense of antiquity to the design.

In the Old Farm Residence, the dark rich hardwood floors contrast and compliment the crisp white millwork throughout the house.