When is linoleum best for specification?

By Elizabeth C Butcher Segment Marketing Manager – Healthcare & Education Tarkett UK.

SOME materials speak to our rational selves, while others appeal to our senses and emotions, natural materials belong predominantly in the second category. They are woven into the fabric of history. Among them is linoleum. But in what modern-day situation is linoleum the best flooring choice for specification?

In the 1860s, English inventor Fredrick Walton noticed a tin of oil-based paint he’d left open developed a rubber-like skin. Applying a mixture of linseed oil, gum, resin and ground cork to cloth, he created the floorcovering that found its way into homes and offices worldwide. He named his invention ‘linoleum’, from the Latin ‘linum’ for linen and ‘oleum’ meaning oil.

Flexible, hardwearing and easy to clean, linoleum gradually became the flooring of choice in and around Europe and North America. New decorative techniques brought about a wide range of colours and designs, removing it from the old-fashioned green and brown patchwork synonymous with your grandmother’s kitchen.

A material woven into the fabric of history, continuous development has put this unique floorcovering at the forefront of specification. Made from natural ingredients and boasting some of the most outstanding sustainability credentials, linoleum continues to resonate with those looking for a ‘green’ approach to interior design.

Widely available but made by few, linoleum takes skill, care and patience to perfect. In this article we reveal the linoleum recipe, how it’s made and discover why linoleum resonates with today’s interest in sustainability. We then close by exploring the versatility of Linoleum as a material for modern-day specification.

The recipe
Plants, trees and minerals provide the naturally-occurring raw materials that combine to make linoleum. From the linseed oil and pine rosin that bind to the jute backing on which they lie, almost all are renewable. Flax is the starting point.

The crop’s seeds are dried and pressed to yield linseed oil which, when added to the pine rosin, produces the binding agent called linoleum cement. Pine rosin is a solidified form of the resin harvested from coniferous pine trees. Wood flour lends the mixture lightness and durability, while cork dust ensures the strength and flexibility.

Calcium carbonate, a compound found in rocks, acts as a natural filler to bring stability. Pigments are added to create a rich palette of colours and jute, the vegetable fibre spun into strong threads, forms the base of this most sustainable flooring material. The result is a floorcovering as natural as it is resilient and recyclable for the 21st century.

The expertise
The linseed oil and pine rosin are gradually heated and mixed with air for 24 hours. The resulting linoleum cement is then laid out on the ground to cool before it’s cut into pieces. This linoleum cement is then added to wood and cork flour, calcium carbonate and recycled linoleum to create a trial batch of linoleum granules, but not before colour pigments are carefully developed in a laboratory and added to the mixture.

The linoleum granules are then pressed flat in the laminator, creating a roll that’s tested for colour, quality and consistency before starting larger-scale production. This stage sees the linoleum cement mixed with the other ingredients in bigger quantities, yielding a greater output of granules. The colour is checked against the laboratory samples to ensure conformity.

The linoleum granules are then heated before passing through the laminator and then moved on to a process called calendering.

After calendering, the linoleum sheets are hung to dry and seasoned for 20 days or more in room-sized concrete ovens. This stage enhances their flexibility and resilience to indentation. Once completely dry and seasoned, the linoleum is rolled up and stored before being transferred to the finishing line.

Finally, a protective layer is applied to the surface before the linoleum undergoes visual examination for correct thickness and imperfections.

The sustainability credentials
Produced primarily from natural ingredients, linoleum already has less environmental impact than many other floor- and wall-coverings. Linoleum uses materials that contribute positively to people’s health and the environment.

Closed-loop design requires ‘good materials’ become future resources that can be reused or returned to nature as biodegradable ingredients. Linoleum can also be recycled and fully reused as raw materials for future products or packaging.

A well-respected closed-loop design standard is cradle-to-cradle which isn’t just a cleaner manufacturing philosophy, it also involves recycling and disposal at the end of the product’s life. Close-loop design ensures linoleum can be reused or returned to nature.

Ensuring as many as possible of the listed natural ingredients are sourced from abundant renewable resources, such as local linen producers, can help manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprint. You can ask for evidence that ingredients have been assessed against a framework for health and environment, referring to European REACH regulation requirements as necessary.

Driven by the World Class Manufacturing programme for continuous improvement of processes, manufactures should look at ways to reduce their operational impact and preserve the environment. Resource Stewardship Standards include the new ISO14067 product carbon footprint certification, in addition to existing ISO9001 quality, ISO14001 environment, ISO50001 energy and the OHSAS 18001 safety management certification.

Now being more widely understood, ‘People-Friendly Spaces’ has become a phrase of interest to specifiers with better comfort, health and well-being for users becoming an increased priority for clients. Some of the ways you can approach this obstacle is to look out for the use of phthalate-free technology.

Good air quality ratings are important and for this you can find out the rate of VOC emissions produced – (<100µg/m³) would be 10 times lower than the most stringent industry standards. Ensuring the linoleum is hardwearing and resistant, by researching further into surface treatment types, can simplify cleaning and maintenance regimes, which can mean using significantly less water, electricity and detergent.

Enhancing the everyday sensorial experience, through colours, contrasts and patterns can enhance aesthetics and research into ergonomy can produce more stimulating, productive or restful environments.

If you want to play a part in ensuring a more sustainable future, recycling to avoid landfill is a positive step and you can demand this from your manufactures too. You can try asking questions such as, ‘How much of your linoleum is recyclable? What is your production waste percentage? To reduce the amount of raw materials you use, how many tons of linoleum do you recycle annually?

The modern-day versatility
Bringing functionality to style, linoleum can meet the challenges of today’s most demanding commercial indoor environments.

From classic to contemporary patterns and bright hues to natural tones, there’s a look to lend every interior a sense of style. Whether in education, healthcare, aged care, stores and shops, hospitality, the workplace or beyond, linoleum can give every space the transformation it deserves.

Below you’ll hear from others why linoleum was the obvious choice for their commercial building specifications:

‘We’re dedicated to designing sustainable environments that promote healthier behaviour in the workplace. The decision to relocate our London office was the perfect opportunity to practice what we preach. We focused on materials that not only were sustainable but had the right certifications to prove it. On arrival we wanted to immerse the visitor in our world. The choice of a dark floor finish that had a smooth colour transition from the carpet was critical. We found the linoleum with marble effect to be the perfect match. Overall linoleum offers a great palette of patterns which allows us to realise our architectural visions.’

‘We’ve favoured linoleum from the start. For a long time we’ve appreciated its attributes which have been essential to certain projects, especially in schools and care homes for the elderly. Its ability to withstand cigarette burns was helpful in resolving a problem posed by the elderly. The lack of joints, unlike tiles for instance, maximised hygiene and prevented the spread of bacteria. It helped break the fall of people at risk, more than hard flooring alternatives, and was effective at reducing noise impact. Whereas before, when linoleum was seen as relatively expensive, today’s linoleum can compete in public buildings as it’s affordable, easy to maintain and comes in a broad palette of colours. It’s an all-in-one solution as far as hygiene, durability and the environment are concerned.’

‘Linoleum is certainly one of the most suitable materials for a hospital environment owing to its intrinsic characteristics, including having ECO LABEL certification for environmental impact reduction from raw materials to processing, having natural antibacterial properties owing to its composition since linoxyn inhibits the proliferation of bacteria and because, in addition, it doesn’t build up static electricity and it allows for connection strips to be installed along the wall for improved hygiene, preventing the accumulation of dirt and bacteria with easy cleaning.’

Why does a floorcovering, invented over a century ago, still have a place in modern-day specification? Linoleum’s resurgence has its roots in what first made this flooring so popular – its practicality, value and the aesthetic appeal of a natural, modern material. More flexible than the woods and ceramics it originally replaced, linoleum has evolved to meet our changing trends and needs.

A broad palette of colours and patterns, helps linoleum add style to interior design, wherever people live or work. Innovation is creating new uses in specialist environments like operating theatres. And a commitment to sustainability ensure greener manufacturing plus a more recyclable product.

Linoleum is as relevant today as the day it first emerged. Fredrick Walton would doubtless approve.

For more information on linoleum, its sustainability credentials or how it can be used to transform your specification projects, contact Tarkett.

Tarkett UK
01622 854040