A rising star and problem-solver in the world of flooring is luxury vinyl tile, which imitates the look of wood or stone with amazing precision. The floor pictured here is luxury Floorte vinyl plank by Shaw.

The Right Flooring Makes All the Difference

One of the most important visual elements in our home, flooring and countertops are an essential component that ties together a home. Learn how new technologies and materials are enabling cozy new looks in our homes.

A rising star and problem-solver in the world of flooring is luxury vinyl tile, which imitates the look of wood or stone with amazing precision. The floor pictured here is luxury Floorte vinyl plank by Shaw.
A rising star and problem-solver in the world of flooring is luxury vinyl tile, which imitates the look of wood or stone with amazing precision. The floor pictured here is luxury Floorte vinyl plank by Shaw.

Floors are the single biggest visual element in a home. They create the mood and tie the house together. Putting the floor to work as a design element is paramount.

“The floor is like the fifth wall,” says Lisa Nelson, co-owner of Carlson’s Flooring in Geneva. “Great flooring can make a statement in any room. When I started in this business, flooring was merely a staple that you needed before you could move into a home. Now flooring is much more than that. It’s a true expression of the homeowner’s personality.”

Trends in flooring this year include softer carpets, a continued love affair with wood floors, porcelain tile in bathrooms and a movement toward luxury vinyl – a rising star and a problem-solver in the world of flooring.

“The flooring in any room accounts for as much as 50 percent of the room’s impact,” says Rick Lenhardt, retail manager of Abbey Tri-State Carpet and Floor, in Elgin. “Well-chosen flooring can add beauty to any room and dramatically improve the look of a home. And if you’re thinking about selling your home, flooring is a fairly inexpensive way to help with the resale.”

The Beauty of Tile Flooring

Lisa Nelson has been in the flooring business for 35 years. Her parents, Donald and Shirley Carlson, started Carlson’s Flooring in the basement of their home nearly 50 years ago. Now Nelson and her brother, Greg Carlson, co-own the family business. Carlson’s Flooring, 728 W. State St., Geneva, sells all flooring types and is a member of the International Design Guild, the largest flooring cooperative in the country. Nelson recently returned from an annual flooring show in Orlando.

“Just when I think there’s nothing new going on, they always surprise us with something else,” says Nelson. “We’re seeing more organic looks that are clean and transitional. We’re also seeing wider widths, longer lengths and deeper finishes.”

One trend is the use of porcelain tile for bathrooms, which see a lot of moisture. Porcelain is a dense material that handles stain and water resistance better than ceramic tile. Tiles come in a dizzying array of looks and can mimic natural stone.

There are two types of porcelain tile: Through-bodied and glazed. As its name implies, through-bodied has color and texture that runs all the way through it, which helps to disguise chips or scratches. Strong and durable, it contains no glaze that can wear off. It’s suitable for floors, walls and countertops.

By contrast, glazed tile is completely covered in a hard finish. It’s strong and dense, but if the top layer is chipped, a different color may show through.

Both kinds of porcelain tile are popular choices for bathrooms and kitchens and are more economical than natural stone.

“It’s difficult to tell the difference between porcelain and natural stone,” says Carlson. “But with porcelain you don’t have the maintenance aspect and there is a savings in the initial purchase.”

The biggest flooring trend of all, says Nelson, is increased customer knowledge.

“When customers come in today, 90 percent of them have been on the Internet educating themselves about flooring products,” she says. “The Internet itself has created customers who know what they want. Before, they would just come in to see if they could afford it. Not anymore. They’ve already made up their minds.”

Nelson says customers can expect good hard-surface flooring – whether tile, stone or hardwood – to last 10 to 20 years.

Popular flooring colors right now include grays and blues, as well as taupes, tans and other neutrals. The Color Marketing Group, an international nonprofit group, is largely responsible for putting home decor color and design trends into motion, Nelson explains.

“Housing values are starting to creep up,” she says. “This is a great time to be updating your home.”

Carpet: Softer, Stronger, Cleaner

The flooring business is rebounding along with the economy, and Abbey Tri-State Carpet and Floor, 1525 Fleetwood Dr., Elgin, sells every type of flooring – laminate, wood, natural stone, ceramic tile, luxury vinyl and carpet.

In today’s carpet, “soft” is the key word. Carpet fibers are softer to the touch than ever before, as implied by the names of popular brands: Shaw’s Caress line, Mohawk Flooring’s SmartStrand Silk line, and Dream Weaver from Engineered Floors, which Lenhardt describes as “a very thick, plush carpet that offers great value.”

Even looped construction carpets, such as Berber, are becoming softer, although cut pile carpets like frieze or plush Saxony are most in demand.

Two of the most popular fibers used in carpet are nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Natural fibers like cotton and wool are also popular. “The twisted and textured fibers make frieze perfect for high-traffic areas,” Lenhardt says. “They hide dirt, stains and footprints, and come in a wide variety of color patterns.”

While just two major mills produce nearly 50 percent of all U.S. carpet fiber, there are significant differences in how these fibers are put together. Durability depends not only on the type of fiber used, but also the weight, density and twist of the carpet.

“Weight” refers to how much fiber is used. “Density” refers to how closely the fibers are stitched together into the carpet backing and the thickness of the yarns. “Twist” is how tightly yarns in each tuft are twisted together. This is measured per inch and is important because loose twists lead to worn, fuzzy-looking carpet. Most carpets are labeled to provide ratings from 1 to 5 in these categories, 5 being the best quality.

Not surprisingly, carpets with better weight, density and twist are more durable and more expensive.

Stain resistance in carpets just keeps getting better. Some brands offer completely waterproof carpet backing that won’t allow any liquids to get through to the pad below. And many carpet fibers are now filled with a clear material that prohibits any absorption of stains.

While solid neutral colors are classic, the fashion trend is toward multi-tone or “flecked” carpets.

“They hide dirt better,” says Lenhardt. “The trend is toward carpet or flooring with some personality to it. The patterns or textures of carpets, hardwood or even luxury vinyl can enhance the look of your furniture and your room.”

The good news is that carpeting is more durable than ever. “Two decades ago you could expect to get 10 years out of your carpet,” says Lenhardt. “Now, with new fibers like SmartStrand, you can get 20 years or more.”

Wood Flooring: A Classic Choice

Engineered wood flooring is hot these days. “It’s pretty much all we sell, as opposed to the solid three-quarter inch hardwood flooring,” says senior designer Hawley Haleblian, who, along with husband Haig, owns Exceed Floor and Home, 5186 Northwest Hwy., in Crystal Lake.

The Haleblians serve commercial and residential clients in Chicagoland and Lake Geneva with products ranging from flooring to countertops. “The engineered flooring performs so much better, given the summer humidity and winter dryness of our climate,” Haleblian explains.

Fluctuating humidity and temperatures cause hardwood to expand and contract dramatically. Engineered wood is a man-made product in which thin layers of wood are bound together by adhesive, with an attractive veneer layer on top. The direction of wood grain is alternated so that each runs in the opposite direction of the layer above and below it; this causes the wood to expand and contract evenly as levels of humidity change and prevents the warping and cupping that can happen to solid hardwood floors.

“Engineered flooring is so important for stability,” says Haleblian. “It won’t cup.”

The top layer of engineered wood is thin and can be sanded down depending on the thickness of the wear layer and refinished in the same way a hardwood floor can be rejuvenated. However, today’s factory-applied UV protective coatings make both solid hardwood and engineered wood highly durable and less likely to need refinishing.

Solid hardwood floors aren’t going away anytime soon, despite the popularity of engineered wood. They’re naturally beautiful, stain-resistant, easy-to-clean and can be sanded and refinished to look like new.
“People are putting a lot of hardwood down, especially in living rooms, dining rooms and family rooms, and they’re topping it with area rugs,” Haleblian says. “I’m seeing plenty of it in bedrooms.”

Consumers are steering away from shiny finishes, choosing an oiled look instead. “You might have to re-oil it once a year, but it’s so much easier to maintain,” says Haleblian. “You can take a scrub brush to a dog claw mark, re-oil it, and it’s gone.”

When it comes to style, the shape and size of wood flooring planks is changing.

“We’re selling a lot of wide planks,” says Haleblian. “When homes were built 20 years ago, we were selling 2-inch planks. Now they’re as wide as 9 inches.”

Style options are endless in solid wood and wood-look materials. Oak remains the most popular wood species, because of its hardness level; white maple, birch and pine also are favorites.

Luxury Vinyl Tiles and Planks

A rising star in the flooring world is luxury vinyl tile (LVT) or plank (LVP), which looks almost exactly like real hardwood or stone, thanks to major advancements in digital photography technology.

Vinyl flooring is water-resistant, making it a great choice for bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and basements. When properly installed, it easily lasts up to 20 years.

“I’m sure people are thinking of the 12-foot vinyl that your parents rolled out in their kitchen,” Haleblian says, laughing. “But this is an all-new solid plank that truly looks like wood or stone. It has unbelievable imagery and is very easy to clean. I used it to do a couple of kitchen/dining room projects this past year.”

Laminate flooring also looks very much like real wood or stone, but its inner core is composed of melamine resin and fiberboard materials, which degrade in moisture.

“If you took on water in the basement and you had laminate flooring, that flooring would be in the dumpster, but that’s not the case with vinyl plank,” says Haleblian.

Adds Lenhardt: “If there’s water in the room, we can literally pull off the vinyl plank, clean up the water and loose lay the vinyl back down without glue, thanks to a special fiberglass backing. Over the past five years, vinyl has taken market share away from laminate.”

Countertops and Other Surfaces

Oh, how times have changed for countertop surfaces.

“Not that long ago, Corian and other man-made solid surface products were what people opted for if they were updating laminate-style, home builder countertops,” says Mike Gliszczynski, general manager of Old World Stone, 11271 Kiley Dr., Huntley, which serves both commercial and residential customers. “Today, surfaces like Corian are being edged out by natural stone or quartz surfaces.”

Old World Stone is a fabricating company that specializes in engineered stone and natural stone.

“Granite tops were once a luxury,” Gliszczynski says. “But advances in technology brought the price down, so they became very trendy. They overtook the Corian product. We’re removing Corian every day and replacing it with granite, quartz, marble or travertine products. What used to be expensive is now in almost every home.”

Old World Stone was founded 12 years ago by owner James Vaccaro. “Natural stone bath vanities and kitchen countertops are our staples,” says Gliszczynski, an electrician by trade. Among his commercial customers are United Center, Wrigley Field and the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Most of our residential work comes from designers, architects and kitchen and bath companies,” says Gliszczynski, who has seen an uptick in business since the economy improved. “There’s been a pent-up demand for such products and many homeowners are now taking the leap.”

Granite or quartz is the way to go, he says. “It’s very durable and adds value to the home. It’s a high-end finish. It’s definitely an upgrade component to any kitchen and bathroom. Real estate agents are selling homes by replacing laminate countertops with a more appealing surface like a natural stone.”

Although it’s a man-made product, quartz surfacing is popular. “I think many quartz manufacturers are keeping on top of the technology and evolving,” says Gliszczynski. “Quartz price points are becoming more comparable to natural stone.”

Quartz surfacing is made mostly of ground quartz that’s combined with resins. It’s extremely hard and durable, easy to clean and requires no sealants, as more porous solid stone surfaces do.

“Quartz surfacing is still sold mainly for kitchen countertop applications,” says Gliszczynski. “We’ve seen an increased interest coming from designers working on commercial projects.”

A majority of Old World’s natural stone is imported from India, Italy and Brazil. It’s important to remember that every single piece of natural stone is distinct because it is designed by nature, not a manufacturing company. When shopping for stone, Gliszczyski suggests finding a company with a showroom full of slab samples.

It’s also very important to work with reputable stonecutters who have the proper equipment to professionally cut and polish your stone, and fit it precisely to your space. Ask for plenty of references.

“We can give specific references in residential, commercial, even certain neighborhoods,” Gliszczynski says. “It’s our job to educate the customer and explain the pros and cons. The best customer is an educated customer.”

Big Impact

Homeowners are starting to realize just how important quality flooring and other surfacing materials are to every room in the house.

“You walk on flooring. Toddlers crawl on it. Pets live on it. That’s why it’s so important to think outside the box when it comes to your next flooring project,” says Haleblian. “Whenever I can convince a customer to go beyond their comfort zone, they’re almost always thrilled to death with the outcome.”