Everyone has their own choices of materials when it comes to their own house or office. Different factors are considered while selecting the flooring materials. Today, one of the most important factors that are taken into consideration is the impact of building materials on the environment and human health. Every person an architect, an interior designer or homeowner all have variety of choices that can have great impacts on the quality of life and environment.
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Flooring is one of the most important parts and the most used part of the building. Hence the materials used in flooring need to be long lasting with minimum impact on the environment and health and need to be economical. Several options of flooring materials include ceramic tile, marble tiles, vinyl composite tiles, linoleum, bamboo, hardwood, carpet made of natural or a variety of synthetic fibers, etc. With the variation of these materials there is also a great variation in their environmental impacts. For those interested in minimizing the environmental impacts associated with their choice of flooring material the Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) can be of great help. It is easy to compare hardwood flooring against carpeting, natural materials versus synthetic, or substituting older appliances with energy competent ones. Good choices have long-term effects on sustainability. This paper compares various green construction flooring materials in terms of economy, sustainability eco-friendliness, and impact on human health.
Sustainable and environment-friendly construction is gaining popularity and for this purpose, material selection is a fundamental component. For instance, it is important to select based on material properties, production, cost and effects on indoor air quality, etc. Grading materials based on their environmental impact is a widespread practice, to decrease harmful environmental impacts. Nevertheless, evaluating environmental impact for a variety of construction materials is somewhat difficult, because intricate factors and interactions have to be taken into account (Jonsson, 2000).
Life Cycle Assessment
This is the assessment that is used to determine the eco-friendly nature of any material. A life cycle assessment abbreviated as LCA presents a system for scientifically assessing the ecological impacts associated with a product or methodology. As a result of LCA the final outcome can be used to guide methodology or product development efforts. Additionally, it is also possible to give adequate insights into the environmental impacts of raw material and product choices, and safeguarding and end-of-product-life strategies. The systematic nature and its incomparability as an assessment tool make this option very popular in the building industry. Besides it also helps in comparing alternative processes and materials.
At this point in time, it is important to know the methodology for LCA. It is initiated with a vigilant accounting of all the quantifiable raw material inputs together with the energy involved, manufactured goods and co-product outputs, and pollution involved particularly the emissions to air, water, and land. More specifically, the evaluation is called Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). Often times LCI just provides the details of product manufacture or it may also be extended to include all stages in manufacture, utilization and disposal, together with raw material mining, shipping, processing, refined products, maintenance and repair, and clearance. The systematic nature of LCI and standardized guidelines from ISO help the analyzer from any part of the world to get results that are uniform if the set of assumptions is kept constant.
Environmental Aspects of Flooring Products
The software developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) called the Building for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (BEES) is a one-stop source of life cycle assessment of various flooring options. In this system, they have analyzed about 25-floor covering products that can be readily used based on the need of the individual or organization.
Each and every material has there distinct set of impacts on the environment. For instance, the impact of flooring materials such as linoleum, VCT, bamboo, natural wood, nylon carpet tile, composite marble tile, ceramic tile, terrazzo, cork and rubber flooring are all diverse. As a result these products and the raw materials have across all stages of the product life-cycle various environmental impact (Aksamija, 2010). LCA is carried out for these materials, in order to study in detail the environmental and economic factors.
In the case of complete buildings, the energy consumption of the use phase, in general, has a significantly higher environmental impact when compared to the other parts of the life cycle. Even though not all impacts of the use phase may possibly be directly linked to the building products used, those that take account of material-related emissions and the impacts of finish products and methods associated with the use and maintenance need to be considered. It should be noted that in majority of the cases the emissions arise from surface materials such as floor coverings. For instance, when emissions from the flooring materials are considered the most important group of emission is the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) or the total VOCs (TVOCs) that are a commonly studied group of emissions (Jönsson, 1999).
As mentioned earlier, the homeowners and the building designers have a wide variety of flooring materials to select ranging from resilient sheet and ceramic tile, linoleum, and rubber, to natural materials such as wood, bamboo, and cork to stone and tile options, such as ceramics, granite, and marble slab etc. Studies suggest that resilient and hard flooring products are among the top in providing good life-cycle performance. The reason for this is that resilient and hard flooring products tend to be long-lasting and involve less replacement than other soft flooring materials such as carpeting (Sullivan, 2008).
LCA of Linoleum Flooring
Linseed oil is the basic raw material and the binder in the linoleum paste. The linseed oil is chemically oxidized in the presence of a catalyst and later polymerized in presence of air in big tanks. A reddish-brown highly elastic substance known as linoxyn is formed which is then mixed with colophonium, a resin from coniferous trees to form cement. Once the cement is dried, it is further mixed with powdered cork, powdered wood, limestone and pigment. Once the mixing process is complete, a homogenous mass is obtained which is then converted to granules and fused to backing made from jute under high pressure and heat. Further processing and drying takes 3-4 weeks and later it is rolled and is ready for sale (Jönsson, Tillman and Svensson, 1997).
As it is clear from the procedure, all materials used for the formation are natural materials from renewable sources and are biodegradable in nature. Over the years the linoleum flooring does not grow fainter, because the titanium pigments are deeply rooted in the structure. Its anti-static nature avoids the accumulation of dirt, dust and other small particles and consequently makes it hypoallergenic and user-friendly in nature. This kind of flooring can be used in places where people with respiratory problems reside. Today, lot of precaution is taken in terms of protection from fire. A unique property of linoleum flooring is its fire-resistant nature. Therefore, additional fire-retardants finish is not required for this flooring. It is also found that Linoleum can be incinerated and in this process releases over 65% additional energy. This suggests that it can be a source of biofuel (Sustainability at work, 2007). The lifetime of linoleum is typically thirty to forty years and requires wet or dry cleaning as maintenance (Aksamija, 2010). While most of the waste produced during the manufacturing process can be reused in the manufacturing plant, only minimal waste material goes into the landfill. In general this flooring can be easily recycled. At the end of life (approx. 30years) the linoleum flooring may need replacement. It is generally incinerated and the energy obtained from incinerating linoleum is more or less the same as that which is used for its production. Alternatively, linoleum can also be disposed of in the landfills. Since it is a natural product, it undergoes biodegradation and does not release any harmful or toxic chemicals (GreenFloors, n.d.).
Life Cycle of Solid Wood Flooring
Wood is the only raw material used for flooring. Apart from being attractive and providing warmness to an interior’s aesthetic, wood gives a traditional look and a very warm atmosphere. The production cycle involves planting, growing, cutting or felling, and replanting. After cutting the trees, it has to be transported to sawmill and this requires the transportation energy. In sawmills, the wood is shaped and finally it is transported to the construction site. Since wood is renewable material, its usage supports the values of sustainability. Besides, all through the lifecycle of trees, it is a major sink for carbon. Prior to the harvesting of wood from its natural habitat, wood or trees absorb carbon all through their life. The trapped carbon remains in the wood even after harvesting for flooring purposes. At a later stage, the wood can either be reused or can be used as fuel (Hubbard and Bowe, 2008). Even if it is disposed of in the landfills it can decompose naturally.
According to a study of life cycle assessment of different flooring materials, wood flooring scored better with less energy use and CO2 emissions. Besides, wood also scored well in the environmental impact studies in terms of resource use, release of environmental toxins, air pollutants release and waste generation (Jönsson, Tillman and Svensson, 1997). Further studies also found that wood gives an aesthetic look and is easily maintained. Solid wood flooring is good as these are hypo-allergic in nature and occupants having problems of allergy, can opt for wood flooring. It is also easy the installation of wood flooring. Another study compared the solid strip hardwood flooring with other flooring alternatives, such as vinyl, linoleum and carpet, in terms of air emissions, energy use, water use, and product service life. It concluded that the solid hardwood flooring is advantageous from an environmental impact viewpoint (Hardwood Council, n.d.).
Bamboo flooring is an example of solid wood flooring. It is another highly renewable substitute to traditional wood flooring, commonly publicized as a durable, good-looking material that can mimic other wood types and also give a good finish as another wood flooring. Bamboos have faster growth when compared to other woods, even after harvesting since the root remains underground, bamboos grow quickly. Besides studies show that bamboo takes up to five tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per acre of its planting. It is also estimated that bamboos can produce about 35 % more oxygen when compared to clusters of trees (Sullivan, 2008).
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Bamboo flooring is in general considered to have natural anti-bacterial properties; water-resistant properties, as well as these, are extremely durable. Its setting up is easy as in the case of wood flooring. Bamboo flooring is presented with tongue-and-groove technology common in hardwood/laminate substitutes. This type of flooring is comparatively expensive to laminate flooring, however, it is relatively cheaper than hardwood flooring. There are also few studies that point out the unsustainability of bamboo flooring as these contain the toxic chemical formaldehyde (BuildingGreen, 2008).
When LCA of bamboo products was carried out it was found that bamboo flooring has the ability to mimic other wood types. It uses low amount of additives and produces no waste during the manufacturing stage. It is also found that treated bamboo can attain a beautiful color exclusive of chemical staining. If the bamboo products are transported and fabricated at the earliest, the fungicidal property is enhanced by borate solution and can be preserved easily. In the later stages of disposal, the bamboos can be incinerated as in the case of other solid wood floorings.
Life Cycle Assessment of Cork
Cork is a natural source of flooring that has been used for ages. This kind of flooring is common in old historic buildings even today. Cork is just the bark of the tree and does not require complete harvesting of the tree. As a result, there is no question of replanting or renewability. The cork tree’s lifespan is roughly two centuries, and manufacturers of cork flooring collect the cork oak about 16 times all through the life span. Therefore, it can be said that the cork industry does not demolish the ecological unit where the tree lives, rather it creates prosperity without destroying nature. Researchers also say that the cork oak forests take up about 5% of the carbon dioxide from the surrounding atmosphere. As a result there is reduction in the greenhouse gases.
During the processing of cork, due to the technological advancement, it is possible to alter and adjust the color, shape, size, texture. As a result the finished product can mimic other products such as different woods, stones, etc. Due to the property of cork it is possible to use it even in kitchens, bedrooms, offices, stores etc. Another benefit of cork is that, like some other flooring materials, they also do not pose health risks to the residents. Cork flooring is resilient and is like a cushion. As a result of this property, it prevents imprints due to heavy furniture. It has natural anti-microbial properties and provides excellent noise insulation (Sullivan, 2008). Cork is low in volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions, and is not suitable for bathrooms, as it soaks up moisture.
Recycling of cork flooring is been taken up by many construction industries. In fact cork flooring is probably the only flooring that can be made from recycled cork as well as those that are uninstalled from the floor. It can be used for flooring again and again. This is a unique property of cork flooring (Global Green Force, n.d.). Even if it is not used, it undergoes natural decomposition.
Rubber is a natural extract from latex from the rubber tree (Havea brasiliensis). Natural rubber is an entirely renewable raw material. Further the mature rubber trees are outstandingly competent at trapping the carbon and absorbing the greenhouse gas CO2 from the atmosphere. Rubber flooring is easy to clean and requires less maintenance. It is enough to mop the floor with damp cloth and a neutral cleaner. Since rubber does not absorb water as in the case of wood, it is useful in wet areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. Rubber is impermeable to liquid, gives a soft feeling underfoot and is anti-skid in nature. Additionally, rubber flooring also provides enormous range of color and texture choices, and ends up being more enduring and more environmentally friendly when compared to another flooring. The popularity of this flooring is greater than ever as today it is easy to install this unit and maintain. It is known for the effective sound insulation and also vibration reduction. Additionally, it also provides resistance to fading and burns. While natural rubber flooring is sustainable, the synthetic rubber flooring is not sustainable (Dalsouole Aurstralasia, n.d.).
Rubber flooring is sometimes made out of recycled rubber and it can be recycled further at the end of its life. Synthetic rubber flooring is not a good option and is known to release toxic chemicals during its manufacturing. This flooring is best suited for sports rooms, Gyms, and other fitness center flooring. Recycling of natural rubber floors saves energy and does not add to air or water pollution as the process of grinding and recycling rubber is done using most recent technologies (Rubber Flooring Direct, n.d.).
LCA of Marble Tiles and Ceramic Tiles
Though the marble and ceramic tiles do not come under the green flooring materials, it is important to know the LCA of these materials as these are popular flooring materials. According to a comparative study by Nicoletti et al. (2002) it was found that the impacts of both marbles and ceramic tiles are mainly due to energy consumption. Further, this study illustrates that the ceramics tiles contribute to emission due to their composition of the raw materials that are used to produce glaze. The toxic chemicals such as arsenic and lead are released during high-temperature treatments and these can cause serious health problems in human beings. Arsenic compounds are enclosed in the raw materials utilized for preparing the frit mix.
The environmental significance of this noxious waste in the preparation of the ceramic tile is due to its toxicity and to its elevated concentration in the gaseous emissions into the atmosphere. The whole life cycle study points out that there is a need for improvement especially when it comes to the gaseous air pollutants and need treatments of the flue gases coming from the manufacturing units. Lead is yet another essential element in the ceramic glazes especially used in soldering flux function that contributes to the brightness. The technological advancement in recent years has reduced the lead emissions particularly due to the increasing diffusion of single-fired tiles. Fluorine is also another typical pollutant from the manufacturing units of ceramic tiles. The main reason for this compound to be present in the emission is the fact that the raw material especially clay contains fluorine. This toxic chemical is released during the firing process.
The results from this comparative study rated ceramic tiles to be two times as bad as marble tiles. The LCA found that both marbles as well as ceramic tiles contribute towards global warming, human toxicity and acidification. It is found that the most important stages that produce maximum burden to the environment are the pre-production phase in case of marble and the preparation phase of ceramic that involves the body preparation, the blending of the frit and the firing of the glazed body.
Both marble and ceramic tiles production results in air pollution with carbon dioxides, sulphur dioxides, oxides of nitrate and other toxic metals. The major source of these emissions in the case of marble is at the time of conversion of fossil fuels in electric energy. Whereas, in the case of ceramic system it is the thermal processes that put out volatile pollutants present in the raw materials mix. Healthier environmental performance in both the systems is possible with the improvement of technology in terms of energy saving and efficient thermal processing (Nicoletti, Notarnicola & Tassielli, 2002). Since these flooring materials have longer life when compared to other green flooring materials it is beneficial for individuals. But when it comes to recycling these flooring materials, it just goes to landfills.
LCA of Vinyl Flooring
Vinyl flooring is mainly composed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In simple terms it used sodium chloride, ethylene and electric power for the production of this flooring. In the first stage the sodium chloride is electrolyzed to form sodium hydroxide, chlorine, and hydrogen. Further this chlorine in the presence of ethylene is reacted to form ethylene dichloride or the vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). VCM undergoes polymerization under very high pressure to form PVC. Later this PVC undergoes processing where the PVC granules are mixed with additives such plasticizers, pigments, fillers, lubricants, forming agents, etc. under high temperature and pressure. Further, the mixture is pressed onto a fiberglass fabric in the final stage.
The plasticizer that is commonly used is called dioctyl phthalate (DOP) which gives its unique stretchable property in the vinyl flooring. One of the most common pigments used is titanium dioxide and the filler used is calcium carbonate. The LCA of vinyl flooring shows that emissions are high, waste production in the end-stage produces high amounts of ashes beside the sector-specific wastes. Toxic chemicals such as hexachlorobutadiene, chlorinated paraffin, carbon tetrachloride (as greenhouse gas) copper and its compounds, mercury and its compounds and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzofioxin and other chemicals are found in the life cycle of vinyl flooring making it the most environmentally hazardous flooring type (Jönsson, Tillman and Svensson, 1997). Since the recycling of vinyl flooring is not environmentally safe, this type of flooring is not favored by environmentalists and scientific community.
LCA of Terrazzo
There are different views regarding terrazzo flooring. It is made out of stone that is embedded in cement. This can also be made out of recycled glass. As recycling has a significantly positive impact on the environment, this is preferred by many who are pro-environment. If the local landfills are used to recycle glass for flooring, there is minimization of energy use as well as minimal emission as greenhouse gases. Additionally the hard and non-porous uniqueness of glass, along with the flawless nature of terrazzo avoids any kind of microbial growth. Since the lifespan of terrazzo flooring is 40 to 75 years, it is comparatively durable. Terrazzo’s flooring also requires less maintenance. Terrazzo’s Life Cycle Cost makes it widely popular as it enhances beauty, resilience and is eco-friendly in nature (EnviroGLAS, n.d.). As far as recycling is concerned, terrazzo flooring is an eco-friendly option. At the end of its life, it can again be recycled.
Comparative LCA of Flooring Materials
A study by Aksamija (2010) compared eight different flooring materials in terms of sustainability as well as economic performance. The flooring materials selected for this study were “Vinyl composition tile (VCT), Linoleum, Nylon carpet tile, Ceramic tile, Composite marble tile, Terrazzo, Cork and Rubber”. This study made use of the BEES software together with past research in this area to find out about these flooring materials. It was clear from the results obtained that different flooring materials exhibited unique properties and benefits. However, it becomes the priority of the end-user to select the best that he requires.
When a material is selected, it is important to look into the total life expectancy and durability of the material. The lifetime expectancy of the flooring material varies according to the type. For instance, the carpets last for about 10 -15 years. Vinyl composition tile the average life is about 30 years but depends on the location and wear. Linoleum lifetime is estimated to be around 30 to 40 years. The lifetime of ceramic tile is 50 years and terrazzo and composite marble tile stay in good conditions if maintained properly up to 75 years (Figure 1). When it comes to maintenance of these flooring materials, each one’s needs are different. For instance, VCT requires stripping and surface recoating. Linoleum flooring needs only frequent wet or dry cleaning. In the case of carpets, since dust can easily get settled, vacuuming is necessary. As a result of frequent vacuuming, the power consumption for cleaning is high. The cork flooring may also need vacuuming. Ceramic tile, terrazzo and composite marble tile require wet or dry cleaning and also require occasional sealing.
This study compared these flooring materials based on three scenarios. The first scenario gave equal priority to economic and environmental factors. The second scenario was mainly for those who were looking for economic benefit rather than the environmental consideration and the third scenario was for those who gave high priority to the environmental impacts than economic factors. The results of this study point out that even though VCT would be mainly economical choice of material, cork and linoleum flooring score high in environmental performance followed by rubber flooring and nylon carpet tile. Besides in the first scenario VCT, linoleum flooring, cork, and rubber flooring are similarly based on the general score (Figure 2). However, when it comes to environmental performance cork, linoleum, rubber flooring and terrazzo are similar (Aksamija, 2010).
The study also looked into the performance of flooring materials in terms of each environmental factor individually. For instance, global warming is a serious problem faced by the entire global community. The flooring materials have a direct and indirect impact on global warming. The comparative study concluded that cork, linoleum, and rubber flooring have less global warming impact when compared to VCT. Ceramic tile, nylon carpet tile, terrazzo, and composite marble tile have almost similar global warming impacts, where the bulk of CO2 discharge are linked with raw material achievement and the manufacturing method.
Indoor air quality is yet another issue that needs to be looked into when it comes to human health and well-being. Terrazzo and cork have inconsequential values with respect to indoor air quality whereas linoleum, rubber flooring and nylon carpet tile have a small quantity of total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs). Ceramic tile and composite marble tile have elevated content of TVOCs and VCT has the maximum content, which is mainly connected with the operation phase (Aksamija, 2010).
Acidification is a natural process and is linked to the atmospheric pollution. When it comes to the flooring materials and their acidification impact, cork and linoleum flooring are the most favorable. The comparative study by Aksamija (2010) established that composite marble tile, ceramic tile and terrazzo have moderate values with regard to environmental performance when compared to rubber flooring and nylon carpet tile which have significant environmental impacts. Impact values are peak for raw material acquisition and the manufacturing process and less for transportation. Therefore, the LCA procedure takes into account the entire life cycle of the flooring material and measures its impact on the environment (Aksamija, 2010).
Depletion of natural resources is a major concern. Different flooring materials deplete the fossil fuels at different stages of their life cycle, especially during the manufacturing process and transportation. The comparative study found that the fossil fuel depletion impact is having smaller values in cork, rubber flooring and linoleum when compared to VCT. The impact rates are high during the raw material acquirement, manufacturing and transportation of the flooring materials such as ceramic tile, nylon carpet tile, terrazzo, and composite marble tile (Aksamija, 2010).
Sustainable development is the focus of the world today. Every developmental sector looks into the principles of sustainability. The construction industry is not an exception. Today various systems are known to measure the unquantifiable parameters of sustainability. For instance, the software Building for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (BEES) provides information about various flooring materials through their life cycle assessment of different building materials. Similarly, BASIX is system that rates the Building Sustainability Index. This is an initiative of the NSW Government to ensure that the new constructions especially for the residential need are designed and built to use less water and energy. In other words, the sustainable construction is the main focus of this system. Anyone who requires any new construction needs to get a BASIX certificate that certifies based on energy and water reduction. This certificate is a must for all building materials. When it comes to the flooring materials, the most important criterion is that which minimizes the emission of Volatile Organic Compounds during its life cycle. The finished flooring needs to be easy to clean with natural cleaning products. If wood flooring is used, it should have low formaldehyde emissions. Reduced or no usage of PVC for flooring as it is one of the most polluting types of flooring when compared to another flooring (Green Strata, 2011).
In the field of construction, green labeling of the flooring materials is popularized. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the construction sector utilizes additional primary energy when compared to the automotive sector, and almost equals the industrial sector. Further, the corresponding shares of total carbon output are comparable. Therefore, it is important to look into each and every aspect that links the building sector to the environment. However due to the complexity of the LCA procedures, there is also the risk of it becoming a mere slogan (Sullivan, 2008).
The advancement in technology has provided good recycling opportunities. This will not only help in waste reduction but also conservation of natural resources. For instance the flooring material such as wood can be removed from an old building and can be reused in others either as flooring or as any other handy design or can be recycled. It is important that the construction authorities need to include many aspects of the flooring product especially in the ending LCA stages. Several questions need to be answered such as how much will the energy cost represent by the elimination of the reusable/recyclable material? What kind of health challenges can be faced by the residents during the removal process? How the unwanted flooring materials can be utilized in recycling and reuse? Finally it can be said that the more number of such questions asked and answered by the authorities, the better outcomes of LCA can be obtained.
When sustainability is the top priority, material selection becomes a crucial component of sustainable design and sustainable selection, and the final decisions are based upon various factors. As mentioned earlier, material properties, fabrication, cost and effects on indoor air quality, environmental factors such as air pollutants, etc. needs to be on the priority list. Based on these factors as well as based on their environmental impacts and most importantly detailed comparative LCA flooring materials can become a part of sustainable construction. Measuring environmental impact for diverse building materials is comparatively exigent, given that multifaceted factors and associations need to be taken into account (Aksamija, 2010).
As it is clear from this report that there are both advantages and disadvantages in each material that is selected. Not a single flooring material can be regarded as the best environmental performance across the entire selection criteria. It is important to note that the final selection of flooring materials needs to be based on overall environmental impact, projected lifespan, maintenance and repair plus functional relevance. According to this study, the life cycle assessment indicates that cork, linoleum and rubber flooring make better materials when compared to VCT for the greater part of environmental impact categories. Consequently, in scenarios related to economics and the environment, these flooring materials are almost the same. If the price factor is considered, VCT is the least expensive choice. Though this report has not covered the nylon carpet tile, past studies have found to be that nylon carpet tiles are moderate environmental performance but are higher in costs over the life cycle as they require frequent replacements. The results also point out that terrazzo has comparatively good environmental performance, but life cycle costs are high.
Ceramic and composite marble tile have comparatively less environmental performance, which is largely linked with raw material acquirement and manufacturing process. If the builder is giving preference to the environmental performance, then the cork, linoleum, and rubber flooring materials can opt. The elevated life cycle cost of other material types such as nylon carpet tile, terrazzo, ceramic, and composite marble tile and their respective environmental performance should be taken into account when economic factors are appropriate flooring materials (Aksamija, 2010). This study also over and over again confirms that flooring materials that are made from bio-based materials such as wood, cork, linoleum, bamboo, rubber have lesser environmental impacts when compared to other options (Bowyer and Bratkovich, 2009).
The building sector is a huge business and contributes to the economy. When the flooring materials are considered by the end-users especially the homeowners, commercial building owners, architects, designers, and builders have a large number of options from which to choose. There are selecting tools that are widely available such as the BASIX, BEES software, etc. It becomes easy to select the materials based on this information. For those concerned in minimizing the environmental impacts linked with their choice of flooring material, these information sources can be useful.
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