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Vinyl manufacturers have a message for builders and remodelers: This is not your mother's vinyl flooring.

Gone are the wimpy white floors that tore or dented at the slightest insult; floors that eventually turned yellow, were difficult to install, and failed miserably whenever they tried to imitate their higher-priced ceramic, wood, or slate cousins.

These days, vinyl floors are so durable that even the lowest price points come with at least 10-year warranties. They're also so realistic that consumers sometimes have to get down on their hands and knees to tell it's a vinyl floor.

“If vinyl were introduced today as a brand-new category, it would be the hottest thing ever because it's so good,” says Mark Brown, director of marketing for Tarkett Residential. “It has an economical price point and a high value.”

Nonetheless, Brown notes, “vinyl is still the polyester of its genre. It's not generally viewed as the hot aspirational product.” That poses a challenge for the industry, he and others contend.

To meet that challenge, manufacturers are scrambling to appeal to a broad spectrum of customers—from first-time home buyers looking for value, to hip urbanites in search of a unique look, to baby boomers who need something soft to cushion aging joints and backs.

For the most part, it seems, they're succeeding. “The vinyl market has come a long way,” says Kelly Frank, design center manager at production builder D.R. Horton in Dallas. “It really is more upscale now.”

Naturals Dominate
The hottest trend in vinyl mimics that in many other building product categories—the natural look. “It started in 1997 and it's still going strong,” says Joe Amato, vice president of styling for Mannington Resilient Floors. “The customer who buys vinyl today either for performance, ease of maintenance, or cost, wants a product that looks as natural as possible.”

These days, vinyl delivers just that, say manufacturers and designers.

“Whether you're looking at a slate, travertine, quartz, or stone pattern, we're trying to capture the detail you'd find in that natural material,” Amato says.

That's led to a major shift in vinyl surface texture and gloss. Forget the high-shine, plastic-looking floor of yesterday; today's vinyl is apt to have a subtle surface texture as well as a natural feel.

At Mannington, for instance, the company's NatureForm technology creates a surface texture on the wear layer, notes Amato, before a low-luster satin urethane topcoat is applied.

The focus on natural may have gone a bit too far, however. “Most of what we have today is all stone patterns,” says Henry Eckhart III, president of Design Floors, a retail outlet in Easton, Pa. “I think manufacturers need to go back to some other designs with more flavor.” The manufacturers are getting the message. For instance, Mannington's New Naturals line mimics softer, more casual materials like leather, sisal, and cork. Meanwhile, Mannington's Artisan collection combines the nostalgia and tradition of woven textiles, which represents a new trend that Amato calls “handcrafted.”

“Consumers are valuing objects that suggest an artist's hand,” he says.

At Armstrong Flooring, the trend is reflected in a move back to traditional florals and decoratives, only with a more modern interpretation, says vice president of resilient products Allen Cubell. “Today you may have a ceramic-looking floor with a very faint flower running through it,” he explains.

On the far end of the spectrum is a shift to a more avant-garde design. “There's an opportunity to be a bit more daring in design,” says Tarkett's Brown. “People are using the floor as a design element.”

To meet that need, Tarkett offers grout-free patterns that mimic concrete or linoleum, while Armstrong introduced Urban Settings, a fashion-forward line that offers everything from hip and chic to dreamy and whimsical designs.

There's also a movement toward brighter colors, a trend Brown attributes to the country's growing Hispanic population. “Deeper reds, vibrant yellows … you don't necessarily see those colors in stone in the real world, so it allows us to create a canvas effect on the floor,” he says.

Frank agrees. “While one type of buyer wants to emulate the look of ceramic tile at a lower price point, the other buyer is really looking for the ease of maintenance of vinyl and they want to have some fun.” That means deeper, darker colors pushing out traditional beige.

Quality is Key
In addition to enhanced design, resilient flooring manufacturers are improving the quality of their much-maligned product. “What I've seen from the industry over the past few years is a tremendous proliferation of performance attributes,” says Brown. “All the major vinyl manufacturers make a really, really durable, high-performing, relatively easy-to-maintain floor.”

Vinyl flooring can be coated with Teflon, imbued with antibacterial materials, covered in scratch- and stain-resistant urethanes, and backed with rubber matting that comes with a lifetime warranty against staining.

Most important, says Brown, is that even lower-priced floors offer quality unheard of just five years ago. That's critical so first-time home buyers aren't turned off by the product forever.

“We recognized that if we don't provide really good performance at every price point, we're going to get penalized,” he says.

And it's paying off. The 2004 Vinyl Flooring Market Study, conducted by the market research department of BNP Media and published by the trade magazine National Floor Trends, found customer complaints dropped for vinyl floors compared to other flooring types, with customer perceptions of quality and durability increasing since 2003.

Vinyl flooring manufacturers are optimistic about the future, particularly given the aging population. “A lot of older people are concerned about the temperature and hardness of ceramic tile,” says Frank. “As they get older, their legs can't stand on it. Vinyl is a good alternative for them.”

Busier, more hectic lifestyles also make vinyl more appealing, says Martell. “We need materials that are long lasting and easy to handle and maintain, so vinyl will remain important for years to come.”

Fiber Fortified
One of the hottest new flooring products is fiberglass-reinforced vinyl with PVC backing.

“It's fully glueless, no adhesives are needed whatsoever, and it can be installed on grade, below grade, in kitchens, basements, anywhere you would install any type of vinyl floor,” says Stephan Guindon, vice president of sales and marketing at Domco Floors.

Plus, Guindon notes, it can be installed on a less-than-perfect subfloor, an important consideration for builders.

It's particularly good for basements. “If the basement floods, you just roll up the part of the floor that got wet and let it dry, then lay it back down,” explains Mark Brown, director of marketing for Tarkett Residential.

Plus, Brown adds: “It's thicker, more cushioned than vinyl, so you're able to combine a lot of the underfoot qualities of carpeting.”

Still, Armstrong Flooring vice president Allen Cubell doesn't see fiberglass-reinforced flooring as a big seller with builders. It's not as durable as traditional vinyl, he says, making it difficult to continue construction of a room once the floor is laid. That's why Armstrong is positioning its fiberglass-backed line as a do-it-yourself floor, and sells it through home centers.

Armstrong. New for 2005, all Urban Setting products are ToughGuard floors, featuring a patented CleanSweep no-wax wear surface and a 15-year limited warranty. The floors are available in 12-foot-wide sheets only.

Nafco by Tarkett. The Parchment pattern is part of the PermaStone modular collection. Seven tiles comprise one modular unit: two 16-inch-by-16-inch tiles, three 8-inch-by-8-inch tiles, and two 8-inch-by-16-inch tiles, all of which are available as identical tile pieces packaged in a single carton. Parchment comes in three colors (glacier, Baltic, and earth).

Amtico. The Frosted Jewel finish is smooth to the touch, but textured below the surface to give a uniquely tactile 3-D effect, the firm says. The four-faceted design reflects light and shade in a way that changes with a room's light, the maker contends. The product is available in 12-inch-by-12-inch tiles in black pearl, white opal, light jade, pale sapphire, and aquamarine.

Metroflor. This heavy-duty solid vinyl tile has a tough scratch- and stain-resistant ceramic-type finish that is less likely to chip or crack than ceramic tile, the maker says. Backed by a lifetime warranty, Solidity is 1/6 inch thick and has the high-fashion look of large-format 16-inch-by-16-inch ceramic and stone tiles. It is available in four styles: granite, slate, travertine, and tumbled marble.

Liz Claiborne Flooring. The Serenity line, shown here in the Fresh Meadow pattern, is one of five color-coordinated lines offered by the firm and distributed exclusively through Carpet One showrooms. Fresh Meadow vinyl flooring is available in three colors: sesame, putty, and parfait. Other lines include Relaxed, Elegance, Cosmopolitan, and Confidence.

Mannington Mills. Saratoga, part of the Ceramica collection, reflects the rich and inviting look of leather set in a 9-inch tile composition. It comes with a Teflon surface protector, a durable stain and soil repellent that keeps floors looking new longer. Saratoga is available in rawhide (shown) or nude.

Congoleum. DuraStone vinyl flooring is a stylish, high-quality, yet affordable, product. It has extraordinary durability and is easy to maintain, the manufacturer says. DuraStone is featured in an upscale 16-inch-by-16-inch designer tile size with extra-thick .160-inch construction. The Palisade design is available in whitewash, roseberry, peach stone, raintree, silver pine, and sandstone.

Stainmaster. The S3080 series vinyl flooring offers a beautifully textured rustic slate look with multiple hues and colors blended to provide a warm, casual feel, the firm says. It's available in woodland green, mineral blue, summit's peak, and mountain plateau.

Domco. Merletto is part of the Elite line and, at 110 mils, is the thickest vinyl flooring available, claims the maker. Merletto features a 3-inch square that recreates the handmade look of Old World tiles. Shown here in autumn brown, the line also comes in several other colors.