Our feet remind us we are alive.” ~Tadao Ando, architect

Flooring and the thinness of modern dwelling

What makes your feet happy?

One thing that makes my feet happy is the old hardwood floors in my house. Perhaps a little context is in order: imagine a suburban, late 1960’s bungalow; a simple house, functional, practical, not too big, not too small. The wood floors were installed in every room. Narrow 1.5″ oak strips. Site finished and stained a golden honey colour. Really, they’re nothing special. At the time they were a standard builder-grade product. So why do my feet like these floors so much?

Because the physical qualities of this floor help counter what I call the “thin-ness” of modern dwellings. Some further description may help explain.

Density + Scale

The wood strips in my home are half as narrow as today’s 3″ product, so the floor contains twice as many strips. It’s visual density is greater, so to me it feels stronger. Because the strips are narrower I tend to experience the entire floor as one object, not a series of discrete planks. Part of this effect is also because it is site-finished and not a pre-finished product. It’s a subtle thing, but the pre-finished wood floors planks are chamfered all around, which make each board appear as an individual object, and the floor becomes a collection of pieces instead of a complete whole. Scale is also an issue: the contents of the room somehow feel… larger, or perhaps more substantial, when seen in comparison to the narrow floor planks.

Talk to me, floor

Unlike new floors, this floor squeaks! Not everywhere, only in certain places, which I’ve come to know over the past decade. If I want to sneak into the kitchen late at night I need to take an extra long step before I get there or my secret mission will be betrayed. To me, the noise my floor makes as I pass is not an annoyance; just the opposite, it has become a comfort. It is almost alive, responding to my movements. There is a feedback element, a response, a relationship. Like a good conversation with a close friend. Sadly, this is something lacking in new construction where every surface is new and perfect.

Passage of Time

My floor also shows evidence of the passage of time. Like a human face, it has acquired a character of its own over the years. Every dent, scratch or gouge tells its own story. Of course, not always a pleasant story: there is evidence that wall-to-wall carpet covered the wood at one time. Marks remain from a sharp edged piece of furniture that was moved back and forth. A place where a sliver of wood has come out, forming a small gap. A couple of staples pounded into the surface left holes and a groove. Spilled water and coffee. But this is life. The house has been lived in; it has gained a depth of experience. This quality, if I think about it, helps me locate myself in the larger time span, beyond the immediate present. My floors help me remember I have a past and a future. As Juhani Pallasmaa says, the experience of architecture detaches me from the present and helps me experience the slow, firm flow of time. It helps counter the temporal fragmentation of modern life as Steven Holl says. You won’t find this quality in new laminate floors or pre-finished engineered hardwood.

An appeal for meaning and substance

I’m not advocating for oldness everywhere, or that we should stop building new things. But our buildings, our dwellings, have become surface oriented; modern buildings seem to be more about achieving a certain look or style, rather than presenting materials of substance. Our buildings can acquire depth of meaning by engaging all the senses, and by escaping the “thin-ness” of surfaces that appeal only to the eyes. Our feet, even our entire body, will be better off because of it.

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2 Responses to Flooring and the thin-ness of modern dwelling

  1. Karen J. says:

    Parker Architects, I enjoyed your article on narrow, thin oak strip flooring in Vancouver houses. Question for you: If I am re-installing one of these floors, using recycled oak strip flooring, should I be installing an underlyment, vapour barrier or any other product between the subfloor and the oak? Thanks in advance for sending me a personal response.

    • Thanks for your question Karen. If you’re installing recycled wood flooring on top of wood floor joists or a wood subfloor then no underlayment or vapour barrier is required. However if you’re installing wood flooring on a concrete floor you’ll need a sealed vapour barrier to protect the wood from moisture in the concrete. Feel free to call or email if you need more info.

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