The dents and scratches in the floors of old New Orleans houses speak to years of celebrations and lives fully lived. These imperfections add character and charm, and when an old floor has to be redone, it often loses its lived-in patina.
At Floor de Lis (3840 Canal St., Suite A, 488-4880; www.floordelis.biz), owner Mark Hughes addresses this conundrum with a product called reclaimed flooring. Since opening in 2006, the company has offered this engineered wood floor product, which is made from repurposed heart pine. This type of flooring keeps its cracks and nail holes, creating a look similar to the original floors found in many early 20th-century homes.
"People in New Orleans love their traditional look. They don't like the change," Hughes says. "These old houses, these floors that have been there for 80 years, they're all marked up. That's what you expect."
Ua Floors, the manufacturer of Floor de Lis' reclaimed flooring, takes wood found in Northeastern mills, breaks it down, then processes it into a real wood veneer laid on a bed of cross-grain plywood. They refinish it with fresh coats of urethane and aluminum oxide, which helps the wood last longer and stay scratch-resistant, preserving the aesthetic of classic wood floors while adhering to modern standards of durability and maintenance.
Reclaimed pine flooring also maintains historical accuracy, as most original wood floors in New Orleans were pine or cypress. (Most contemporary wood flooring in the area is oak, as it's the most abundant wood in the region.) Because of pine's relative scarcity, reclaimed flooring is considered both a high-end option and a green product, according to Hughes.
"[Reclaimed pine is] not as abundant as a lot of these oak trees, coming from these mills that have limited quantities ... [but] anytime you're reusing a product, you're not taking something out of the earth, so that's one way of being green," he says.
Hughes says it's a common misconception that engineered wood floors are a "cheap knockoff" of solid wood. The manufacturing process, coupled with the cross-grain plywood base, makes engineered woods more stable. They don't expand and contract as much in heat and humidity, easing the installation process. However, the same care should be taken when installing reclaimed flooring as any other wood floor.
"Down here in New Orleans, (installation) is more of an issue because of the change of climate," he says. "Wood needs to acclimate to the conditions it's going to be in ... if it's not done properly, it can be a mess. Pulling up a wood floor that's already been installed is not fun, and it's not cheap."
These flooring materials require no special care beyond the usual steps to maintain a wood floor. Hughes says wood flooring should never be mopped, which can cause buckling or peaking. Instead, sweep and vacuum, then use a wood-floor-specific cleaner with a Swiffer-type cleaning tool.
Pine floors aren't the only option for homeowners looking to use repurposed or alternative materials. Hughes mentions Floor de Lis' new flooring made from bamboo or soft, feet-friendly cork as potential sustainable choices. The company also sells carpets by Shaw, the only manufacturer of a carpet fiber that can be recycled at the end of its life.
In Jennings, a company called Heritage Cabinets and Millwork has expanded the idea of salvaged flooring from the ground up. In addition to offering reclaimed floorboards from oak and heart pine, the company crafts furniture made from reclaimed materials.
According to office manager Kayla Gary, the company got started with reclaimed materials with pine and cypress salvaged from a condemned house on a historic street in Jennings. The wood eventually became one-of-a-kind bookcases, vanities and other pieces rich in texture and history.
"Instead of all that beautiful wood going to the landfill, it's sitting in our warehouse," Gary says. "It's got the finish on it that people work hard to get."
Gary says processing reclaimed wood is a labor-intensive process that creates a fashionably rustic look. The wood must be replaned and cleared of nails, and if it has a white finish, it's resealed to prevent harmful lead paint from flaking off. Still, Gary notes that the quality of the materials speaks for itself — the company often incorporates whole pieces (such as legs or doors) into the furniture they design.
"[Our salvaged wood] was sitting in a non-climate controlled building in the heat and the cold ... that tells you a lot about the quality of it," she says.
Gary says these pieces look best when paired with white porcelain fixtures in the antique style, and mentions the website Pinterest as a source of inspiration used by many clients. Reclaimed furniture and flooring also carry the benefits of ethical American-made products, as opposed to imports from countries with less stringent environmental and labor restrictions.
Despite all these benefits, for many clients, the emotional connection to the not-so-distant past may be the strongest appeal of all.
"People like buying things they know the history of," Gary says.