Home & Garden Columns
First of all, let’s get our terminology right. Pergo is one brand of laminate flooring and not, by any stretch, the onsly one. There are many brands of laminate flooring, Pergo was just the first. Actually, even that isn’t wholly accurate and why not be accurate? Pergo, a Swedish company, first applied laminate technology to flooring in 1994 and has, in an amazingly short while, completely changed the face of the flooring business. This stuff is everywhere.
So what is a laminate? Well, for ease of cognition, it’s Formica. That’s also a fair use of the eponym since Formica was the first form of laminate and also it’s greatest proponent. Formica was invented in 1912 by a couple of guys working at Westinghouse and was originally intended as an electrical insulator (that’s what Westinghouse did, they built electric stuff and were led by that strangest of scientists, Nicola Tesla).
Mica had been the gold standard in insulators up to that point which explains the name. For-Mica found great popularity as a countertop material for decades and is still popular today for a range of functions. There are designers who go nuts with the stuff and put it on everything; cabinets, walls, doors, partitions. It IS admittedly, a very practical material, if somewhat stilted in its appearance.
I did find it both amusing and smart when the boomerang pattern, so popular in the 1960s started making a comeback about 10 years ago. That’s the fun thing about Formica, the application of it as sense-memory. All those milk-shakes slurped at lunch counters, the whole of our youths spent doing dishes and wiping down those smooth glassy surfaces.
Now it’s on floors everywhere you go and it’s not surprising given the low cost and ease of installation. Whether it’s Pergo, Wilsonart, Mannington, Alloc or Wiltex, this flooring is very easy to adopt. Now, I have to confess that my response to it, when I first encountered it was a sort of high-handed dislike.
I’m very old fashioned. I like scratched old wooden floors. I like stained concrete and brick. I’m not a fan of plastic houses or plastic people. I like what feels real. Gritty, broken, smelly and old, but hey, that’s just one point of view. I also like renting cars. I like the clean carpet, the fact that all the parts work, that there are 12 airbags and no scratches at all. It’s a very political debate, I end up having with myself. Old and real, vs. new, fake and shiny. I’m simply undecided.
There could be a solution to my conundrum and that might be to take the new thing and turn it on it’s head. The thing that bothers me about laminate flooring is that it’s usually used as a fake version of something real. It’s a photograph (literally) of wood instead of wood. Well, how about letting it be what it really is; plastic.
I’d be much more likely to use this material if it employed some of the weirdly amusing patterns that Formica adopted over the last 60 years. How about a bright red plastic floor or one that looks like a field of stones or perhaps the surface of water. (Care to take a short walk on water?). I’m waiting to see someone use a mixture of wood patterns in a Pergo floor just to make the point that it ISN’T real. There are so many possibilities with this material and there are really good reasons to use it if and when you can get the oeuvre over-easy.
One is that it’s durable as heck. If you’ve installed it properly, its can end up lasting an awfully long time with almost zero maintenance.
Most of these floors are finished with a coating of aluminum oxide. That’s the same thing that rubies and sapphires are made of. Incredibly tough and scratch resistant. The weak link is the core, which is made from wood particle, but they seem to have impregnated most brands with enough resin or wax to help them hold up, even under damp conditions. Given the low cost, the lack of any need for finish and the fact that most are installed over a plastic closed-cell foam that you roll out in advance of placing the floor, I think it’s ideal for finishing a basement.
If your concrete gets even a little damp, it’s probably best to seal the concrete and then add a plastic layer before installing the floor. Some of these floors come with their own felt backing and I’d avoid those ones in the basement. They’re fine over wood on the main floor but they may tend to decay and act as a growth medium. Some have a polypropylene backing and that’s probably safer.
Another cool thing about laminate flooring is that nearly all install with a click-lock tongue and groove system. They just snap together. If you’re concerned about dampness, such as in the case in a kitchen, there are sealants that can be added along the tongue prior to snapping them together (and I think it’s a good idea).
If you’re thinking about a damp area, go for a higher quality product. Many manufacturers have a lower and higher end line but this isn’t a major issue.
One cool thing about a cheap, fast flooring job like this is that you can think about places you’ve avoided finishing. Put a floor in the basement, put one in the attic where you have that office the city doesn’t know about. Put one in the playhouse. If you have a space with air infiltration between the floorboards (as some wooden basement floors do), it’s a way to cover the gaps.
Prices seem to be about 7-10 bucks per square foot installed but I think that price represents a highly finished job. This stuff can be bought for as little as a dollar a square foot and if you do the job yourself, a small room can be done for 100 bucks. That’s nothing in the world of construction.
All the excitement aside, I would strongly encourage owners of older homes to avoid the plastic look and consider refinishing their wooden floors instead. Even a modular bamboo floor seems more appropriate in an old craftsman bungalow and there are a huge number of real wood and veneered modular floor (the veneer is a thin layer of real wood) in the marketplace and there’s no need to settle for plastic when something more natural or authentic is called for.
I hope that designers and manufacturers will rise to the task and provide us with the sorts of wild or interesting choices that this new and promising material is capable of. Of course there will certainly be an ugly side to this resource and I doubt it’ll be long before we see a floor covered with those damned little Gucci symbols. Harrumph.
Illustration: Pergo’s Pro-loc tongue and groove joint makes installation a snap.
Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at email@example.com.