Focus on Rigid LVT: Transforming the resilient flooring market - Feb 2017

By Darius Helm

It’s an innovative flooring solution growing so fast that it can’t be pinned down with a name. It started off as WPC, which stands for wood polymer composite (and not waterproof core), but as producers have started to experiment with the construction and materials, they’ve turned to calling it rigid-core and solid-core LVT to distinguish it from the original Coretec product developed by US Floors. But by whatever name you call it, rigid, multi-layered, waterproof resilient flooring has been the hottest product in the industry for the last couple of years.

It has only been four years since US Floors (now owned by Shaw Industries) introduced Coretec, with its LVT cap, wood polymer waterproof core and cork backing. Its original patent, specifying a WPC core, has since been supplemented with broader language to accommodate developments in the category. And last year, US Floors turned to partnerships with Välinge and Unilin to run the licensing, which was a smart maneuver, since the other distinguishing characteristic of this new flooring category is that it almost always features click systems.

However, not all producers are falling in line. A handful of companies, including a couple of major players, have developed rigid LVT products that they feel don’t fall under the Coretec patent because of differences in construction and material. But according to Piet Dossche, the founder of US Floors, the bulk of the Chinese manufacturers (about 35) are licensed. 

The rapid development of new rigid LVT constructions indicates that the category is a long way from settling down. And it looks as if it will not only continue to grow, but will also serve as a platform for a steady stream of innovation as it continues to evolve, probably crossing into other hard surface categories.

CONSTRUCTION DEVELOPMENTS
At its most fundamental, rigid LVT combines the rigidity more common to laminates with the waterproof quality of LVT to create a product that transcends both categories. And it’s been taking share from other hard surface categories because of its ease of installation and how it effectively hides uneven or substandard subfloors.

Traditional LVT is a layered product, with a base of plasticized PVC with high limestone content fused to a more flexible PVC layer made of a PVC print film, a clear wearlayer and a protective top coat. LVT often has a backing to balance the construction and can contain other internal layers for added performance, like fiberglass scrims for more dimensional stability.

At Surfaces 2013, US Floors launched the WPC/rigid LVT category with Coretec Plus, modifying the LVT cap into a thinner 1.5mm profile and using a 1.5mm cork back to sandwich a 5mm extruded core of PVC, bamboo and wood dust, and limestone-with a click system for glueless installation. The original patent was based on this construction. However, the patent was later expanded to include cores not using wood dust or other bio-based materials. And the patent, as it stands now, does not limit the top cap to PVC-based materials, so the use of other polymers will not necessarily subvert the patent.

Within a year, other rigid LVT products started hitting the market. And now just about every major resilient producer has some form of rigid LVT. But almost immediately, the experimentation began, largely focused on innovations in the core.

Most of the newer iterations have done away with wood dust. In many cases, the focus has been on modifying traditional LVT cores. One successful strategy has been to achieve rigidity in the core by eliminating the plasticizer and increasing the ratio of calcium carbonate (limestone). 

Blown PVC cores, often using a foaming agent to froth up the material, have been a popular solution for attaining that rigidity and dimensional stability without adding a lot of weight. The more heavily foamed products, or those with thicker foamed cores, offer more cushioning and also act as barriers to acoustical transmission. However, they can offer less indentation resistance, and the lack of plasticizers inhibits the rebounding of the material, leaving it vulnerable to permanent indentations under heavy static loads.

On the other hand, solid cores or those that are less foamed, while offering enhanced indentation properties, don’t deliver as much comfort underfoot. Cushion, attached or sold as an add-on, can play a critical role in these ultra-rigid products.

It’s also worth noting that these various rigid LVT constructions are manufactured in different ways. For instance, the WPC products like the original Coretec are the result of a laminating process that adheres the LVT cap to the core and backing, while some floorcoverings with blown or solid PVC core are pressed and fused together on the production line in a high heat process. 

It’s also worth noting that, as of this writing, all rigid LVT products are made in China. There is currently no U.S. production, though both Shaw and Mohawk plan on producing their product in their U.S. facilities, probably later this year. 

It goes without saying that Chinese producers are flooding the market with their rigid LVTs, some manufactured according to the specifications of their U.S. partners and others developed internally. This has led to a slew of rigid LVT products in a wide range of qualities and price points, and it has also led to some concern over potential price erosion in the category.

Some of the products are only a few millimeters thick, with minimal LVT caps offering basic, flat wood visuals, thin cores of blown PVC and no attached pad. At the other end are robust and luxurious products as thick as a centimeter, with hefty LVT layers offering textured surfaces, 5mm cores and substantial attached pads for sound abatement. 

ADVANTAGES OVER EXISTING FLOORING
Rigid LVT is distinguished not so much by unique properties as it is by a combination of properties. It’s waterproof, for instance, as is all LVT. It’s dimensionally stable, like all laminate flooring. It clicks together, a feature available in just about all laminate flooring and a lot of LVT. But put it all together, and you’ve got a product unlike any other. 

From the beginning, rigid LVT has been attractive to flooring dealers because it’s a higher priced LVT that offers easier installation. It can go over imperfect subfloors without telegraphing the flaws, which makes it an easy sell to homeowners who would otherwise be facing the prospect of making an additional investment in subfloor repair. On top of that, the actual click installation is generally straightforward and highly effective, and that’s a real advantage, considering the current shortage of experienced installers. It’s a lot easier to teach someone to install a click floor than it is to find an installer capable of glue-down installations.

The rigidity and dimensional stability of rigid LVT not only means no expansion and contraction-and the ability to do large installations without expansion joints-but it also means no damage or deformation from temperature extremes. Mind you, such attributes are heavily dependent on quality manufacturing.

Retailers couldn’t ask for a better product for homeowner upgrades. If the homeowner is considering laminate flooring, a dozen different cases can be made for upgrading to a waterproof product. And if the homeowner comes in for LVT, that dimensional stability becomes the selling point. On top of that, the actual heft and rigidity of the board make it seem more substantial and hence valuable than, for instance, a length of flexible LVT. This can also be a differentiator within the category, because, while some of the rigid LVTs out there are in fact very rigid and substantial, others can be fairly thin and some can seem flimsy. And some of those thinner products can meet high performance specifications, so they’re good products, but may have lower perceived value to the homeowner.

As the category develops and price points open up toward the lower end, rigid LVT may well find a strong market in multi-family, where, in fact, it’s already making substantial inroads. Property managers appreciate the installation advantages-and a well organized operation could probably cut down material costs by cycling undamaged tiles from unit renovations back into the units-and they’re also drawn to a product that can be installed just about anywhere. 

Rigid LVT also has particular appeal to the DIY customer. If a homeowner can avoid subfloor prep that could well be beyond his or her comfort zone, a rigid resilient click product, and one that’s waterproof to boot, could be the ideal solution. And with the right marketing, DIYers may be readily convinced of the value of the higher price points.

RIGID LVT LEADERS
The market leader, for now, is still US Floors’ Coretec. The brand is currently enjoying days of wine and roses, with its brand still inextricably linked to the category itself, much like the early days of Pergo, when it was synonymous with laminate flooring. It helps that the Coretec products are high quality and feature the strong design aesthetic for which the firm is known. Nevertheless, with such rapid category growth and so many flooring producers launching new programs, Coretec will have to fight hard to maintain its leading brand position.

It’s no surprise that, faced with such exponential growth and capacity demands, US Floors embraced its acquisition by Shaw Industries. The plan is to run it as a separate business unit, like Tuftex. And by the second quarter of this year, Shaw’s Ringgold, Georgia LVT facility should start producing rigid LVT (of the WPC variety) under both the Coretec and Floorté brands. Being the first to produce rigid LVT in the U.S. could help in the battle to maintain share leadership.

This year, US Floors has added to its already broad Coretec offering with Coretec Plus XL Enhanced, a line of extra large planks with embossed grain patterns and a four-sided enhanced bevel for an even more convincing hardwood visual. It comes in 18 hardwood designs. 

The firm’s commercial division, USF Contract, offers a line of high performance product called Stratum, which is 8mm thick and features a 20 mil wearlayer. It comes in a range of stone and wood designs in tile and plank formats.

Shaw Industries entered the rigid LVT market in 2014 with its Floorté introduction, a line of wood look planks in four qualities. Its entry-level Valore collection is 5.5mm thick with a 12 mil wearlayer, and last month it introduced Valore Plus with an attached pad, so pad is now an option on all Floorté products. The next level up is Classico Plank, 6.5mm with a 12 mil wearlayer. Premio is the same thickness but with a 20 mil wearlayer. And at the top are the longer, wider products, Alto Plank, Alto Mix and Alto HD, also 6.5mm and 20 mil, in formats up to 8”x72”. All of the Floorté products have 1.5mm LVT caps glued to PVC-based modified WPC cores.

Last month, Shaw introduced Floorté Pro, targeting the multi-family and commercial sectors. It’s a thinner product with a higher rated PSI and greater indent resistance. The firm describes the core as a “hard LVT.” Also new is Floorté Plus, with an attached EVA foam pad that is 1.5mm with a 71 IIC sound rating, which should make it attractive to the property management market.

Mohawk Industries introduced a rigid core LVT at the end of last year. Called SolidTech, the product is composed of a thick LVT top, a dense blown PVC core with high indentation resistance and a Uniclic MultiFit click system. The line comes in three wood look collections, including a 6”x49” plank that is 5.5mm thick with no pad; and two 7”x49” plank collections, 6.5mm thick with attached pad. All of the SolidTech products offer 12 mil wearlayers. 

Mohawk is currently sourcing SolidTech from an Asian partner manufacturer, but it will be making the product on U.S. soil once the firm’s Dalton, Georgia LVT facility is up and running. The facility is currently under construction.

One firm that went straight to the high end of the rigid LVT market is Metroflor. Last year, it came out with its Aspecta 10 product, targeting the commercial market, which requires a higher level of performance. Unlike many of the products out there, Aspecta 10 is both dense and robust, with a 3mm thick LVT cap that includes a 28 mil wearlayer. Its core, called Isocore, is itself 5mm thick, and it is a foamed, extruded PVC, plasticizer free, with calcium carbonate content. And on the bottom is a 2mm attached pad made of crosslinked polyethylene, featuring mold and mildew treatments.

Aspecta 10 is a patent pending product, and it features a 

DropLock 100 click system licensed through Innovations4Flooring. And at 10mm, it’s the thickest product on the market.

Metroflor also produces a line of rigid LVT that’s not part of its Aspecta portfolio, called Engage Genesis. It offers a 2mm LVT cap, the same 5mm core and a 1.5mm attached pad. And it comes in wearlayers ranging from 6 mil to 20 mil. Engage Genesis goes through distribution to a range of markets, including mainstreet, multi-family and residential remodel.

Mannington got into the category about a year ago with Adura Max, with a 1.7mm LVT top fused to its HydroLoc core made of blown PVC and limestone with an attached pad of cross-linked polyethylene foam, for a total thickness of 8mm. The residential line features planks and tiles, and uses Välinge’s 4G click system.

On the commercial side, the focus at Mannington was to come up with a product that offered superior static load performance and also met building codes for smoke density-according to the firm, the blowing agent frequently used in these new cores does not do well in smoke density testing. The result is City Park, the firm’s first commercial rigid LVT, launching this month.

City Park features an extruded PVC “solid core” capped with traditional LVT layers and the same 20 mil wearlayer as Adura Max. The backing is a polyethylene foam pad. Like Adura Max, City Park uses a click system by Välinge, which also licenses the Coretec technology to Mannington. Also, Mannington is launching a product targeting the builder and multi-family markets called Adura Max Prime with a thinner version of the City Park extruded PVC core for a total thickness of just 4.5mm. 

Last year, Novalis introduced its NovaCore rigid LVT in large plank formats up to 9”x60”. NovaCore features a dense blown PVC core with calcium carbonate but no plasticizers. It is designed for residential and light commercial use and features a 12 mil wearlayer. The collection uses a click system from Unilin, through which it pays the license for the Coretec technology. 

NovaCore is made at the same Chinese facility where Novalis produces its flexible LVT. The NovaCore line comes without an underlayment, giving its retailers the opportunity to upsell.

At last month’s Surfaces convention, Karndean introduced Korlok, its rigid LVT. The product has an LVT cap with a 20 mil wearlayer attached to a rigid core that is 100% PVC, according to the firm. And it’s backed with an attached foam pad. The firm’s K-Core construction is patent pending. The 9”x56” planks use Välinge’s 5G locking system and come in 12 visuals. Also, the designs include in-register embossing.

Congoleum entered the rigid LVT market a year ago with its Triversa collection, which uses Unilin’s click system. The 8mm product includes a 1.5mm LVT cap with a 20 mil wearlayer, a 5mm extruded PVC core and a 1.5mm attached underlayment made of cork for a total thickness of 8mm.
New this year is Triversa ID, which stands for innovative design and refers to features like enhanced edges and in-register embossing. 

Another leading LVT producer, Earthwerks, also unveiled its first rigid LVT at last year’s Surfaces with a PVC core. Earthwerks WPC, which uses a Välinge 2G click system and licenses US Floors’ WPC patent, comes in two collections. Parkhill, with its 20 mil wearlayer, has a lifetime residential and 30-year commercial warranty, while Sherbrooke has a 30-year residential and 20-year light commercial warranty-and a 12 mil wearlayer. Also, Parkhill is slightly thicker than Sherbrooke, 6mm compared to 5.5mm.

Two years ago, Home Legend introduced its SyncoreX rigid core product using a traditional wood polymer core construction with a 20 mil wearlayer. SynecoreX is a licensed product. And at last month’s Surfaces, the firm, under the Eagle Creek brand for independent flooring retailers, came out with another rigid LVT, an even sturdier product that is patent pending. It uses a Välinge click system, but instead of a WPC core, it features a core made of “crushed stone” adhered together. And it has an attached back made of neoprene. 

LAMINATE IN THE CROSS HAIRS
In recent years, the fastest growing flooring category has been LVT, and it has been taking share from just about every flooring category. However, the category it seems to have impacted the most is laminate flooring. It’s generally a bit pricier than laminates, but its waterproof construction gives it an edge over laminates, which can be damaged by spills and standing water. 

Both categories have developed visuals and surface texture technologies that enable the creation of convincing faux looks-mostly hardwood in plank form-so LVT’s performance in high moisture conditions can often be the difference maker. But laminates still come out ahead in terms of rigidity as well as scratch and dent resistance.

With rigid LVT, the stakes have been raised. Now another laminate attribute, rigidity, has been annexed and added to LVT’s arsenal. This will mean a further shift in share from laminates to LVT, though the degree of that shift rests in part on how the laminate producers respond.
So far, the laminate category has reacted with more moisture resistant cores as well as bevels designed to seal the joints and in some cases actually repel water. Classen Group’s Inhaus has gone one step further, introducing a new waterproof core made of ceramic mineral powders bound with polypropylene using the firm’s Ceramin technology. However, it doesn’t entirely solve the problem, because there’s no melamine layer-and it’s the melamine that’s responsible for laminate’s exceptional scratch resistance. 

However, the firm that seems to have come closest to creating the perfect marriage of laminate and LVT is Armstrong, the nation’s leading manufacturer of vinyl flooring. The firm actually entered the rigid LVT market a year ago with Luxe Plank LVT featuring its Rigid Core Technology made of blown PVC and limestone. But this year it added two new products, Rigid Core Elements and Pryzm.

Both of the new products use a similar core, made of dense PVC and limestone, but not blown like the foam cores. And both have Välinge click systems. 

Rigid Core Elements comes with an attached polyethylene foam underlayment while Pryzm uses a cork pad. But the more important distinction has to do with the top layers. While Rigid Core Elements uses an LVT construction for its cap, Pryzm uses melamine. So, on paper at least, Pryzm is the first flooring to combine the best properties of laminate flooring with the best of LVT. 

NEW ASSOCIATION FORMS
In August of last year, the formation of a new association for rigid LVT was announced by seven North American flooring firms: US Floors, Metroflor, Mannington, Armstrong, Novalis, Torlys and CFL. The Multilayer Flooring Association (MFA) is tasked with driving the creation of safety and product performance standards for the rigid LVT category. 

Currently, the board is comprised of Harlan Stone of Halstead/Metroflor as president; CFL’s Barron Frith as vice president; Novalis’ Mark Hansen as treasurer; Jamey Block of Armstrong as secretary; US Floors’ Philippe Erramuzpe as membership chair; and Peter Barretto of Torlys as marketing chair; with Jimmy Tuley of Mannington as member at large.

Last month, the MFA has its first official meeting, gathering in Las Vegas during Surfaces. The group is now focused on developing standards, and intends to have material to submit in time for the next ASTM International board reviews this spring. ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) is an international standards development organization.

Europe already has a group that represents rigid LVT. The Multilayer Modular Flooring Association (MMFA) was established four years ago, in late October 2012, in Munich, Germany, also starting off with seven members. Its current membership of 40 producers, suppliers and institutes includes Metroflor, Classen, Forbo, Gerflor, Karndean, Novalis, Unilin (Quick-Step), Välinge and Amorim.

The European group has already succeeded in creating standards for rigid LVT, and the North American group is studying the MMFA process to gain insights as it goes about establishing North American standards. 

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