Wooden flooring instantly makes a room comfortable, and the variety of available types means there's one for every kind of interior, budget and climate, even the humid UAE, writes Stella Rosato
When Donna Harper and her family moved to UAE after spending more than a decade living in Asia, the hunt for a comfortable home in Dubai was top of the priority list. But despite a generous budget, the Harpers just couldn't find what they were looking for.
"As we were shown into one villa after another, despite the space and opulence, they seemed cold and featureless compared to the homes we'd had in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur," Harper says. "I just couldn't imagine our lovingly collected furniture in any of them."
It was only when the family was shown a villa with wooden flooring in its living spaces that Donna realised why: "The creamy tile and marble floors that most of the villas have here just lacked the warmth and cosiness I was used to and it was really affecting my judgement on everything else."
The Harpers eventually bought a home in Arabian Ranches four years ago and the first thing they did was have wooden floors installed throughout. "Even though I had by then got used to not having the wonderful parquet floorings that you find in the Far East, it made such a difference and our furniture finally seemed at home again."
As popular as wooden floors always have been in Europe, North America and Asia, the Middle East has long enjoyed its love affair with cooler ceramic and marble floor coverings. Even a decade ago in the UAE it was almost impossible to find local suppliers of wood flooring - and even harder to get expert installation. But now, post-building boom, when interiors material from every part of the globe has found its way to local distributors, even the most humble local interiors shops supply a range of wooden floorings, from budget laminates to top-of-the-range solid timbers.
"I've certainly seen the trend increase in the past five years or so," says Jacquie Mavian of Milroy interiors in Dubai. "Without a doubt wood flooring gives a villa or apartment an instantly homier ambience. So many of our clients are now requesting wooden floors, especially in spaces such as the bedrooms where once they would have wanted carpet."
Even at Dubai's premier address, Burj Khalifa, the standard fittings of the residential apartments feature dark wooden floors - proof indeed that the highest echelons of residential living are eschewing the lure of showy marble.
"The dark colour of the flooring does affect decorating decisions there," Mavian says, "but it certainly lends the space an edgier, more urban feel and the clients we have dealt with in Burj Khalifa are more than happy to work with it."
Detractors of wooden flooring cite its maintenance issues, especially in harsh climates such as the Gulf's, which wavers between dry and humid atmospheres, as reasons not to install wooden floors (in fact residents of Burj Khalifa were sent stern letters from the developer on the perils of leaving their air conditioning units unattended and un-serviced; many units had been dripping and causing floors to buckle in the world's tallest tower).
"Expert installation is also key, no matter how inexpensive the floor," Mavian says. "The wood has to have room to expand and retract and it does require a skilled workman to do this. Owners and domestic staff also have to be told how to clean and care for wooden floors."
The Swedish flooring company Kahrs has been one of the leading manufacturers of wooden floors for more than 150 years and in the past decade its market has expanded in the Middle East exponentially. Its advantage? The fact that its floors are "engineered" wood, made from layers of wood over a soft wood core. The joints are "clipped" together without the use of glue, meaning that gaps never appear between boards, despite climatic changes, and they make the floor much easier to lay.
The flooring can either be fixed or "floated" over previously installed floor coverings, including carpet.
"It's a hugely versatile product and because humidity is wood flooring's worst enemy, this product acts the same in any environment," says Sean Swanson, the vice president of global business development for Kahrs. "Our clients tell us they prefer this kind of floor because marble tends to be just too cold with modern air conditioning. There's also the safety aspect to consider. People feel more at ease with children playing on wood than tiles or marble. These floors also feel 'sprung' so they are ideal for use in areas such as home gyms."
Pauline Madani, the managing director of Nordic Homeworx, the suppliers of Kahrs in the UAE, says the trend towards wooden floors is part of a regional interiors trend towards using more natural products in the home. "Clients like to mix their wooden floors with slate, for instance, which looks extremely stylish and contemporary."
In regards to colour, "chocolate and mocha shades" are very popular now, Madani says, although in Europe Swanson reports more exotic tastes in vogue, including distressed flooring that "looks old and scratched", as well as white and metallic-finish wood floors.
Engineered flooring does not come cheap. Kahrs ranges from Dh250 per square metre to Dh600 per square metre, which includes underlay and installation. It also comes with matching skirting and trim.
"We have to educate clients on why engineered flooring is better and therefore often more expensive than solid oak, for instance," Swanson says. "We put so much research into our products that we can guarantee them for 50 years."
But what of the environmental impact of using wood as flooring for the masses? Can the destruction of millions of trees justify the simple pleasure of seeing a glossy oak floor peek from beneath a scatter rug?
"That is probably the biggest misnomer people have about hardwood flooring," says Rod Wiles, a regional director for the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). "We are currently in a situation in our industry where for every tree felled, up to five are replanted and, especially in our major forests on the East Coast, which supplies at least 50 export markets, we are at the point where the trees are encroaching onto valuable farm land and have to be continually felled."
It is the same story in the European markets. "Kahrs uses 30,000 different farmers," Swanson says. "They have to be certified growers and this measured approach has caused a massive explosion in the forests of northern Europe. Of course that replanting is only the start of being truly certified 'green'. At every stage of manufacture, from the cutting of the trees to sound reductions, emissions are taken into account at Kahrs - nothing goes into the atmosphere that shouldn't."
However, despite the portability of most engineered wood floors many of the UAE's more transient residents simply don't have the budget or desire to spend tens of thousands of dirhams on a floor that they might only use for a couple of years before they move on. In answer, many tenants and homeowners are turning to laminate, which, although made of plastic, certainly gives the look of wood at a fraction of the price - often as little as Dh25 per metre. On average, it costs around Dh5,000 to install laminate in a one-bedroom flat. (You must, however, check with your landlord before any undertaking any work that may put you in breach of contract.)
"You don't get that hollow floor feeling that you do with a solid wood or engineered floor but laminates are very easy to install and incredibly hard-wearing," says Mavian. She has used a product called Antico in several restaurants and residential projects where the luxury feel of wood was wanted but not the headache of maintenance.
"It comes in every colour imaginable and is easily laid in strips on a backing," she says. "With the choice that is around today there is no reason why anyone cannot get the benefits of wood floor living - even on a shoestring budget."
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Types of flooring
Solid wood flooring
The real McCoy. Comes pre-finished or unfinished and glued or nailed to the sub-floor. Very long lasting, it can add considerable value to a home. The downside is that it contracts and expands with seasonal changes in moisture levels, so it needs to be expertly installed with margins between planks to allow for movement.
Best for: homeowners looking for a long-lasting floor that adds value.
Engineered wood flooring
Made up of layers of hardwood on a soft wood base. More resistant to moisture and more stable. Can be glued down or installed on top of a suitable underlay as a floated floor. A large choice of styles and finishes.
Best for: those looking for a combination of quality and ease of use.
Does not contain any real wood but simply imitates it with a printed pattern set within a resin or plastic layer, mounted on MDF. Simply clicks into place over a layer of foam, making them very easy to lay. The main advantage of this is cost and you get what you pay for. Colder to the touch than hardwood floors, and never as natural looking, although they are becoming increasingly more authentic.
Best for: those on a budget.
Where to find it
Nordic Homeworx, 050 341 5010; www.nordichomeworx.com
Amtico Floors & Carpets LLC, 04 2945999
Nilroy Interiors, 04 391 1560
Link Flooring, 02 645 5090
Bost Trading, 02 644 4215