A Look at What's Going on Underfoot

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.