An architect’s guide to wood flooring

January 1, 1970

What do architects need to know about timber flooring?

While on the surface, wood doesn’t seem like a complicated material, the number of choices it brings carries its own set of complications. It is often very easy to distinguish a good floor from a bad one. But when choosing its component features, more often than not it comes down to the question of what role the wood flooring will play in the design. 

Determine plank width

In the past, two-to-three-inch strips were used in the installation of nearly all hardwood flooring. But the more popular trend today is for wider planks, due to the sense of luxury and space they afford. As a result, the standard across the board is now for four-to-six-inch planks, with most designers leaning towards seven inches or more. However, this drive for an expansive look does come with added expense. 

Additionally, while floors with wide planks may appear to feature fewer seams than floors with thin strips, the passage of time will change that. As wood expands and contracts, the movements will appear more exaggerated due to the lack of change distribution across a larger number of boards. 

How to pick your grain pattern

Although the choice of grain pattern does not have an immediate effect in terms of structural stability or longevity, its aesthetic effect should not be underestimated. Broadly speaking, logs can only be cut three different ways; plain-sawn, rift-sawn and quarter-sawn, all of which produce three distinct grain patterns. The most traditional wood grain, with its wavy pattern, comes from plain-sawn wood. Boards that are rift-sawn feature a longer, rectilinear type of grain, which is similar to quarter-sawn boards, though these are distinguished by the irregular figuring with its three dimensional-like quality.

Whether to choose prefinished or site finish

When purchasing planks, the option exists of buying them with either a raw face that will be finished on site by a professional, or with the stain and topcoat pre-applied. The advantage of the former is that designers will know what they’re buying beforehand. However, with an on-site finish, there is a great deal more control over the stain and sheen throughout the process. The final product also tends to look far more impressive.

Choose the type of finish

The type of finish used for hardwood flooring will both enhance the final look of the grain and ensure its protection into the future. And though this list does not detail all possible finish options, it does cover some of the most commonly used. 

Water-based polyurethane, probably the most popular option on the market, gives hardwood flooring a clear finish and provides that traditional, exposed hardwood look.

Penetrating oil sealer is one of the most easily undertaken options for finishing hardwood, as the application process is simple enough for most DIY enthusiasts to achieve themselves. Although it doesn’t dry as firmly as polyurethane, its process of penetration does make for a more visually enhanced final look. 

There is also acid curing. The most durable option, this finish not only gives flooring a smooth texture but also adds an extra degree of protection for more exotic woods. However, high toxicity levels generated during the process necessitates it be done by a professional. 

Consider wood types

The choice of wood you go for often depends on the available budget. Hardwoods such as oak, maple or cherry are certainly one of the most durable options, but they are also much more expensive. Soft species such as pine are more affordable but tend to scratch easily. 

For those with a mind for achieving a truly authentic look, there is also the option of using reclaimed wood floors. This salvaged wood is already aged, giving it the kind of acclimatisation that would allow it to be used alongside underfloor heating without risk of damage. Although it is important to note that reclaiming antique wood floors comes with a complicated restoration process. 

It is also worth considering whether the type of wood will be appropriate for the project in question. Providing oak flooring for listed buildings brings its own set of complications, and there are many regulations dictating the types of materials that may be used during restoration work. 

Should authentic hard or soft woods not appeal, however, there are other options. Using laminate on a floor is one of the cheapest possible options, which is why laminate flooring for affordable housing is usually the standard. It is also simple; laminating through lock system floors can be done by a single person but can cover a wide surface area very quickly. 

Then of course there is also the option of using engineered wood flooring. 

Which is better? Engineered vs. solid hardwood flooring

There are a few key design differences between these two options, as can be seen in the cross-sections of engineered (top) and solid wood flooring. At its most basic level, engineered wood is a layered product, composed of a thin slice of hardwood which sits on a base of high-quality, manufactured plywood. Both have their own distinct benefits which may appeal to different designers and architects.

• While solid hardwood is more durable, engineered wood flooring is much less costly
• Though there may be a preference for the authentic look of hardwood, it is very difficult to tell the difference between that and engineered flooring
• Engineered wood can actually prove more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity than solid wood, and thus is also compatible for combination with underfloor heating
• As it features only a thin hardwood top layer, it is much less resistant to the sanding and finishing process than solid wood
• It is possible to customise the different wood species, styles, colours, finishes and plank widths that engineered wood flooring comes in

Given their similarities and interchangeable uses, it can be hard to determine which of these options is truly better, and instead it should be a question of which would better suit the designs of the architect or homeowner in question.

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