Keith Brannon Photographed by Cheryl GerberFor most undergoing Katrina flood renovations, the biggest, most basic repairs like hanging sheetrock, fixing plumbing or rewiring the house spark little debate. If the floodwaters seeped into the walls and doused all the outlets, you have to replace the wiring. There’s no getting around it.
It’s the repair jobs that could go either way—fixed and salvaged or replaced entirely—that cause the most anxiety. Wood floors are a vexing example.
One of the most charming aspects of so many old homes in New Orleans is the amazing wood floors. Who could imagine a classic Creole cottage without richly stained, wide-plank flooring?
Sadly, some homeowners now must do just that as they decide whether to repair or replace Katrina flood-damaged wood floors. Mark Steele, owner of Ron-Del Floor Service in Harahan, says that the flood damage from Katrina was so severe that less than 20 percent of his clients are able to salvage and repair flooring.
“It’s judged on an individual case by case evaluation. Just because your neighbors saved and salvaged their floors doesn’t mean you can save yours,” he says.
Telltale Signs of Damage
There are a few things you can look for to tell whether the floor can be saved. If it has dried out and there are still peaks, valleys and broken boards, obviously it needs to be replaced. However, in some cases, floor boards will lay flat as they dry out, leaving only a few buckled. There is hope for those.
“You can replace those individual boards as long as the rest of the floor is in good shape, “ Steele says. “Then come back and sand and finish all of it.”
Other things to look for are brown rust stains caused by flooring nails. These typically cannot be sanded out and will show through most natural wood stains. Also, certain wood species take water better than others and are less likely to deteriorate from the damage.
“The old pine flooring has a little bit better chance of survival than the oak floors. Most of the oaks floors had to be pulled and replaced,” he says.
Subfloors May Trap Mold
Many of the older raised homes in the area don’t have a subfloor so the bottoms of the planks are exposed to the elements under the house. This was a saving grace for some floors, which were able to quickly dry out once the water receded. Steele advises those with subfloors to think twice about salvaging because there may be mold trapped between the floor and subfloor that could pose a problem later.
Rusty Hayden, president of Riverside Lumber Co. in eastern New Orleans, agrees. His business and home flooded in the storm and he is replacing flooring in both places. “I know people who have just refinished their floors, but me, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “Why would you want to have a wood floor that has been soaking in that stuff for two weeks?
I recommend that you replace the floor because you’ll always have problems with it, but some people don’t want to do that.”
The good news for those who have to replace wood flooring is that there are more choices than ever in a variety of price ranges. The most expensive option is to replace with antique wood salvaged from old structures slated for demolition. Reclaimed long-leaf pine flooring can cost as much as $12 per square foot, Hayden says.
A cheaper alternative is Caribbean heart pine, which looks similar and is available in wide planks.
“The Caribbean heart pine will be very close to the old long-leaf heart pine and at least half the price,” Hayden says. “But it’s not going to be as dark and tight-ringed as that 150-year-old pine flooring.”
Typical 3/4-inch thick pine or oak flooring costs around $3 per square foot, however, installation fees bring overall costs to around $10 per square foot.
Unfinished vs. Finished Floors
Steele says most clients are replacing with the same type of wood and stain as they had before. The only difference is that many are opting for prefinished flooring, which can be installed quicker and cheaper. It’s the same solid wood planks; the only difference is that they are stained and finished at the factory instead of at the installation site. A homeowner can save three to four weeks time by opting for prefinished flooring, Steele says.
Unfinished floors have to sit inside a house at least a week to acclimate to the humidity before they are stained. Sanding and finishing adds another two to three weeks. Those steps inflate installation costs to about $6.50 per square foot for an unfinished floor compared to around $2.50 per square foot for finished.
How do the two compare in looks? You can tell a difference, but it’s minor. Karen Lambert, who replaced stained wood floors at her home in Kenner with prefinished, says the finish is more muted in the new floor.
“It looks good except when the light hits it a certain way, it almost looks like it has a haze or some kind of a film on it,” she says. “It looks acrylic to me.”
She is happy with her floor but admits she went with prefinished because she didn’t want to deal with the mess involved with sanding and staining new floors. Dealers say it’s a trade-off and each has benefits and drawbacks. Unfinished flooring is messy to install, takes longer and costs more, but there are more wood species, sizes and stain colors to choose from. Regular stained floors also have a smoother look because all the surfaces are sanded and the finish covers in all cracks. Prefinished flooring comes in limited colors and species, but it’s easier to install, costs less and comes with a stronger, more resilient finish.
“You’re basically comparing two very good-looking products that look slightly different from each other,” Ron-Del’s Steele says.
Those who want to keep the same look of wood floors without paying top dollar can opt for new types of engineered wood flooring. These can be installed by do-it-yourselfers because the planks have interlocking grooves that snap in tight as you lay them down. The wood planks are 5/8-inch thick with a 1/8-inch prefinished wood face that can be sanded three times. It costs around $4 per square foot. “It’s very quick, and it’s not messy so that’s what I have been selling a lot of,” Hayden says.
* Wood samples photographed at Riverside Lumber.
Making it Concrete
Some flood victims are trading their wood floors for something much more water resistant: concrete.
That’s right. The ubiquitous construction material isn’t just for sidewalks and driveways. Skilled artisans are coming up with new techniques and color stains to give lowly concrete the look of marble, travertine or tile.
“It’s getting popular in general. And it’s not just people who flooded [who are buying it]—it’s everybody,” says Marc Grimaldi, co-owner of concrete flooring company Illusions By Design in Gentilly. “You can stain it and cut any kind of pattern into it and it gives it the look of natural stone.”
It’s a construction trend that’s catching on nationally. But locally, the need to flood-proof homes has sparked increased interest. Grimaldi says his company has installed more than 50 concrete floors since Hurricane Katrina.
For new construction it costs around $3.75 per square foot, including installation, and workers pour the floor right over the slab.
Laying a concrete floor over an existing floor is more expensive, costing around $7 per square foot, Grimaldi says. Crews place concrete board over a vapor barrier on the floor and skim a 1/8-inch or 1/4-inch layer of stained concrete over it. Installers can cut patterns and shapes into the concrete to make it look like stone or tile. “Patterns are unlimited,” Grimaldi says.
The concrete is treated with an acrylic substance to prevent cracking. The floor can be finished to a glossy sheen or matte, depending on the homeowner’s preference.
For more information about concrete flooring, check out www.concretenetwork.com, an online consumer site established by the industry. •