Episode 50 – The Story of Cork: An Interview with Sally Reis of Expanko


Jessica McNaughton: Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge-base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces, and specify materials to benefit not only us as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable material distributor and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green Live Green.


Jessica McNaughton: Hi, this is Jessica McNaughton with CaraGreen. This is our podcast, build green live green, where we talk about the latest in sustainable building materials. And today we're pleased to have Sally Reis with us from Expanko. Hey Sally.


Sally Reis: Hi Jessica. How are you?


Jessica McNaughton: Good, good. So, Expanko is part of a larger company, Liquid Elements, so technically you work for Liquid Elements. But, CaraGreen has partnered with you recently on your Expanko line of products, which is primarily, you know, cork or cork-based products, correct?


Sally Reis: Correct. Yes, our Expanco brand is all a natural cork, and cork and rubber-based products.


Jessica McNaughton: So, can you tell us a little bit about cork as a building material, since CaraGreen was founded, you know, we kind of curate these building materials and cork has been around for a while, and there's this inherent sustainability about it. But, can you talk to our audience a little bit about what that sustainability story is and how it goes beyond just the material itself, but into Expanko as a company?


Sally Reis: Oh, sure. Well, I think it's a really neat story about how cork flooring becomes what it is, and it really starts from the bark of a cork oak tree. So the primary industry for cork oak bark is actually the wine stopper industry. Go ahead and cut down the bark from the tree and then go ahead and stop out all of their wine stoppers, which leave us with a lot of discarded bark with a lot of different holes in it. And it's at that point that we step in at Expanko and take that bark discarded product, and we grind it up and we turn it into a cork flooring material. So it's a process of it being heated and steamed, and we do very large blocks that create these solid natural 100% homogeneous cork. And then, we go ahead and we slice it based on whatever thickness our customers are interested in and based on what tile size they're in. So that's kind of where our natural core comes from and kind of an interesting story that it's just a tree bark.


Jessica McNaughton: And you do some reclamation of the cork itself at the factory, and then, can you talk a little bit about the energy use at the factory?


Sally Reis: Sure, we're pretty excited that we actually just have been classified as a carbon negative product. And what that means is, in our manufacturing facilities, which are based in Portugal, because most of your cork is grown over in the Western Mediterranean basin, is our manufacturing facility in Portugal. Obviously, as you can think about punching out wine stoppers or creates a lot of cork dust within our manufacturing facility. So we have special equipment that takes all that dust in, and we're able to turn that into a biomass fuel and it fuels about 60% of our energy needs for the plant. Sure we're able to be classified as a carbon negative product versus a carbon neutral product because we are using the cork dust as a biofuel to fuel our manufacturing facilities in Portugal.


Jessica McNaughton: So, there's this inherent sustainability, because the core has to be harvested from the tree. And then you've also taken that sustainability story, built it into your factory as well. So now you've got this multi-attribute product and then most recently within the past, you know, five years or so, so much attention has been put around biophilic design and the incorporation of acoustics for comfort within a workspace and cork offers that to acoustically. It's a performing product acoustically as well, correct?


Sally Reis: Correct, yes, and based on the thickness of the cork that is specified in use within the space that will give you different acoustical ratings. So, I really encourage your customers to work with you and your design team out on the road. Jessica, when they're specifying court for specific applications, find out what your IFC and STC requirements are. And we have many different thicknesses of cork all the way up to a half inch. In fact, we're the only company who still does that nice traditional half inch cork. And we can really offer some very high rated acoustical products, based on what your building code or your applications are for that specific space.


Jessica McNaughton: That's a great point because as you know, we work with Kirei EchoPanel and we recently did a podcast with John Stein and their acoustical products tend to focus on that STC. And they're very colorful and they're good for room dividers and stuff like that. Where a lot of attention typically has been, you know, on the ceiling and they address the ceilings, they address the walls, but the floor is such a great opportunity because so many people don't realize that a lot of noise is structure for noise, which is that IFC that you referred to; it's that impact noise. And cork, however it's incorporated into a product can really help mitigate that.


Sally Reis: Correct. We do a lot in the hospitality and multifamily housing industry specifically for those reasons to really help and control sound. College dormitories are another area we've had a nice success in, again. All areas that are concerned about containing noise with your neighbor or somebody's room who might be above you; we don't want you to disturb while you're studying or why you're sleeping.


Jessica McNaughton: So you talk about cork in a dormitory environment, and that's not a typical environment where you would think of a traditional cork. Which leads me to my next question about Expanko's ability to incorporate cork into all these different profiles that we don't think of when we think of traditional cork; we picture that wine bottle cork. But, you've taken these three features, you know, this great sustainability story, this great manufacturing story and this acoustic story, and you build cork into these other types of flooring, whether it's an interlayer or whether it's just incorporated with rubber. Can you talk about those other product lines and how you've incorporated a cork into those to kind of give it a whole face-lift in the industry?


Sally Reis: I think there are kind of two other products or two other product categories that we've been able to take our natural cork and use them. First one is really the very popular LVT market. As we know, LVT has really been, I think the number one commercially specified flooring product. It's even surpassed carpet in the last couple of years. So, we've been able to take our acoustical rated cork products and combine that with an LVT wood visual on the front and it's offered in a floating floor, so  it really makes for a super easy installation. It's great for these college dormitory areas that we're talking about. LVT is a very, very easy product to clean and maintain, so they're easily moppable. If you are in a hospitality environment and somebody spills a cup of coffee; no worries that you're going to come in and have a big coffee stain on your carpet. You can easily just quickly wipe it up or easily come in and mop down the LVT product. So, that's been very popular both in hospitalities and in dormitory settings.


The other nice feature about it is it actually has a waterproof joint. So as we just mentioned, the example of something being spilled, if something gets knocked over a bottle of water and it sits there all night, no worries, no concerns that the water will seep down between those boards and start to buckle up. It creates a waterproof joint. Think about how that cork goes into your wine bottle and slightly expands and holds your wine or your champagne in that bottle. We're doing kind of the same thing reverse when we snap those floor planks together that cork likely expands, and that's really what creates that waterproof joint. So Cork Core LVT is a great product really for any of those types of applications.


Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, so that was one thing I just want to make sure that we mentioned was that we did mention the name of it being Cork Core LVT. If any of the listeners are interested in looking that up it's Cork Core LVT.


Sally Reis: Correct. And then it has an IAC of a 61 and an STC of a 62, so it really works very well in hospitality or multifamily housing, most typically we'll meet that building code for an acoustical rating.


Jessica McNaughton: That's very high for a flooring product. And one of the things that, you know, I don't like to beat on too much, but I think it's worth mentioning. You talk about hospitality and we're seeing a lot of inclination for some designers and hospitality, hotel owners and things like that, starting to remove carpet because of the concerns about health and harboring dust and bacteria and things like that. So, Cork Core LVT accomplishes both that cleanability and also that great acoustical performance that they were maybe seeing from the carpet, but now they're getting cleanability of the LVT as well.


Sally Reis: Agreed, Jessica. I'm really starting to see, and a lot of information coming out about the concerns of having carpet in spaces like that where you have guests coming and going from a space. I think our industry is going to be changing in the face of COVID-19. And I think we're going to be seeing different products specified, products that really lend themselves to being able to be easily mopped down after each guest stay or after each time a student is in a dorm room.


Jessica McNaughton: That's great. And then, can you talk a little bit about the rubber products as well, because you know, those two, you now, people have, you know, you're used to seeing rubber on a gym floor, but you've also again, taken that acoustical and sustainability property, and incorporated that into some of the rubber flooring as well.


Sally Reis: Correct. Yeah, we call that product line XCR4, and it is a cork rubber. We are using the same cork that we use for our natural cork flooring and we grind it up, so it's all pre-consumer cork, and then we take a rubber roll and we go ahead and put that in and add it. So it's just a unique visual, has a little bit of a higher end look to it than a typical, maybe recycled tire rubber than you see more in a traditional gym or fitness area. So really the XCR4 can lend itself to even some higher education areas, corridors, etc. We see it used a lot in K through 12; anywhere where you want some of the attributes of rubber, which again is a resilient floor, soft to stand on, has a nice acoustical rating, very good slip resistance, and then again, incredibly easy to clean a very easy wipe down moppable product. So we've done very well with our XCR4. It's been a great collection for us. It's the fourth edition and we're looking forward to the fifth edition, which we'll be launching this January.


Jessica McNaughton: I'm looking forward to that too. I love the kind of direction you've taken that and just kind of taking something that's sustainable and making it even more sustainable. We'll save that for another episode of the podcast. Can you talk about what you just introduced? Because, you know, we just talked about there's, you know, Cork Core LVT, XCR4, the traditional cork in the heirloom and the prestige, which is the thinner version, but you've also just come out with an aesthetic change to cork that I don't think people have really thought of and how they can use it yet. Can you talk about the stained cork collection and what you think that means for designers in terms of giving them another tool in their toolkit to really make some beautiful designs with cork?


Sally Reis: You bet. We're excited. We just launched our new Stained Cork collection last week. It's under our Prestige collection, so that's available in multiple tile sizes. And then we'll talk a little bit about all the different patterns we can do with it. But we came up with four very neutral, nice warm color palettes to introduce the stained cork collection. We are introducing a white that we're calling a Whitewash, a nice warm cream that they call Corn Silk, a gray; we know so much is being done in commercial interiors in a gray and our gray is called Fossil. And then, we've got a gray Brown called Sable. So what I really think the stain cork collection is going to do is it's really going to open the market for a little bit more contemporary and transitional interiors. Cork itself is a beautiful product, but as a natural product, it was either light, medium or dark.


And, you know, we always had a great audience who really appreciated the acoustical and sustainable story of it. But sometimes there were those design color palettes that just one of those three colors couldn't work. So I think by opening up the stained colors, we're really going to be able to fit into a lot of different types of environments and feels and color palettes. So, I think they'll be very well received. And then, what we did in combination with launching the stain core collection is we came out with a pattern guide. There are 10 kinds of cool fun patterns on it, available in all of our stain colors, our solid colors, or you can do a combination mix and they all come pre-cut. So, we've made this very easy for the design community and owner end user to go ahead and select any of these 10 patterns off of our cork pattern guide. Pick the color combination that they want to do, totally customizable for them. And then, everything comes out pre-cut, ready to be installed to ensure a really good successful installation.


Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, we're very excited about this and CaraGreen's happy to be promoting and launching the Stained Cork collection with you as well. One thing I wanted to touch on before we wrapped up here was sort of a misconception that I think we had when we started working with cork and exploring this market, and it's the price point. I find the price point so economical for the range of products that you offer. I just think people almost view cork as this semi-exclusive material that's very expensive and it's absolutely not. Can you talk about the different product lines, and where the price ranges fall in those product lines, and how cork is a very economical option?


Sally Reis: Would be happy to. And you're right, I think people maybe have a slight misconception, but pricing is really very friendly, so it does depend on what product you're looking at from a set of Expanko. But we really have a range of anywhere I'm on the lower end, starting around $3.50 cents a square foot, and really going no higher than about $6 a square foot for material. And that's really across all of our lines. If you're working with a thinner material, obviously it's a little bit of a smaller price point versus our natural half inch, which would be a little bit higher, but still nowhere over a $6 price point. The other thing that we really took into consideration when we were launching the stain cork collection in addition to the pattern guide is again, we wanted all of those patterns to be able to be purchased at a reasonable price. So, all 10 of our patterns cut coming to you, all fall within the range of eight to $10, a square foot. So, very, very attractive pricing for such a designer signature type of looking for.


Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, that's great. And you know, I think that it gives, like I said, it's a tool in the designer's toolkit, and I think they really appreciate that. And you know, even the natural cork product, we have it installed in our office and we have it installed in this biophilic setting where we've got carpet that kind of looks grassy, and then you've got the cork surrounding it. We've got Kirei acoustical baffles, the EchoPanel hanging from the ceiling like clouds. And it really just creates this very natural indoor environment. And I don't think there are a lot of traditional wood products that have that. Like you said, that comfort level, the cork is, you know, it's nice to stand on. It's warm, you know, and you also still maintain that wood element and then the acoustical properties, so it's just such a multifaceted material. I'm so glad you were able to come on to the podcast today and talk to us about Expanko.


Sally Reis: It was my pleasure and you are right. It really offers a lot from acoustics to thermal warmth, the thermal value on an overall wellbeing of your body when you're standing on it because of the resilient features. And again, as we're in the world that we are right now, it is a very cleanable product. And so, I think people will be looking at cork a little bit differently going into the future.


Jessica McNaughton: Well, we are certainly going to make sure that they do thanks Sally for joining us today.


Sally Reis: My pleasure. Thank you, Jessica.

Jessica McNaughton: Absolutely; anytime.