Last modified: 2020-03-13 | Approximate reading time 6 mins
Floors are made up of several layers. Beyond the surface coating, the strength and durability of the floor will depend on the structure of the house, the joists, the base surface, and the sub-floor. When building or renovating a floor, you have to think about each of these layers, as they play a much more important role than one may know.
In this article, we’ll focus on the different materials used for the sub-floor layer. We'll start by presenting the main types of sub-floors available on the market, and then take a more in-depth look at which ones are best suited according to the type of flooring that will be installed over it.
To choose the type of sub-floor material you’d like to install, you should consider both the flooring material as well as the base surface on which you’re going to install it. There are four main surface categories:
Depending on the type of flooring you choose to install, you’ll need to pick a subfloor that allows you to adapt to the surface. Essentially, something to create a layer between it and the flooring installed over it. This is to ensure that the floor is effective and resistant. Of course, you're looking to avoid common problems such as a floor that is cold, crooked or too wet. Subflooring can solve and prevent most of these problems.
However, you will need to be sure you make the right choices, as certain types of material don’t work with others. In summary, the main objective of subflooring is to create a flat surface, to contribute to soundproofing, to protect the base surface and to perform other functions (depending on the environment and the type of floor).
When choosing your subfloor material, you’ll likely have already determined what type of surface is found between the joists and the floor covering. With this information in hand, you can explore the different models and products on the market. You’ll soon see that there are a wide variety of options.
We’ve separated the different materials according to the main types of flooring materials. However, it’s important to specify that you will have to take into account other criteria, especially in relation to the type of environment in which you install your floor.
For example, if it’s a basement or bathroom floor, you’ll need to make sure you install a subfloor that acts as a vapour barrier. It should also be noted that certain materials are suitable for several of the floorings mentioned. Finally, if you have concerns related to working with eco-friendly materials, keep this in mind when making your choice
Wood is a timeless material, known for its resistance and its versatile appearance. There are several types of wood flooring, including hardwood and engineered wood. These floors are made from a wide variety of species. If you would like to know more, here are some articles to consult:
Felt subfloor is sold in rolls or tiles. Easy to install, its density gives it sound-absorbing properties.
Rubber is a material that absorbs sound well and resists humidity. Even if it’s more expensive than other materials, it’s very easy to install.
If you’re looking for a more ecological material than the two previous options, know that foam subflooring can be recycled. On the other hand, foam is sometimes less resistant than other materials. To make up for the shortcomings and benefit from its qualities, products combining two materials (foam and rubber or foam with a vapour barrier) can now be found on the market.
If the wooden flooring is able to breathe well, it will stay in good condition for a longer period of time. Cork subflooring allows the floor to be protected while providing a solid surface for installation.
Vapour barrier underlay
Hardwood should not be used in very humid rooms and in basements. However, certain types of wood may be suitable for this environment, provided that moisture is not able to accumulate between the layers of the floor. This is where it becomes interesting to install a vapour barrier underlay. This material can be used in combination with other types of subfloors when these do not already come equipped with a protective layer.
All subfloors must be perfectly straight in order to accommodate the flooring material. With that in mind, this criterion is all the more important when it comes to a tiled floor. This is because an irregular surface could affect the stability of the tiles.
Fibre cement panels
Fibre cement panels are made from a mixture of wood fibres and cement. Unlike cement boards, they are flexible and less susceptible to cracking.
Here is a very good quality subfloor material, which can be reflected in its price. On the other hand, the separation layer has proven its worth and you will generally be entitled to an extended warranty. Some models are specially designed to accommodate cables for heated floors.
Self-levelling cement underlayment
This product will often be used when the base surface is uneven. Self-levelling cement is a product that can do small miracles. However, it’s not easy to apply. It is therefore highly recommended to use the services of an expert.
Vinyl and linoleum have long had a bad reputation, but recent technological advancements have made these materials more durable and resistant. On the other hand, the sub-floor layer becomes even more important to ensure the longevity of these floorings.
If you plan to use one of these materials, it’s recommended that you install a plywood underlayment to provide a stable surface. The plywood should be about 1/4 inch thick.
With regard to laminate flooring and floating floors, several materials presented in the previous paragraphs, including foam and rubber, would be perfectly suitable options.
Here is a material that has yet to be mentioned:
Laminate floors and floating floors may tend to move. The acoustic membrane can, therefore, help reduce impact noise and stabilize the floor. This membrane can be installed on plywood.
Carpet flooring is not as trendy as it used to be, but it’s still used in certain environments, including offices and bedrooms. If you plan to install a carpet, you can opt for a foam or rubber subfloor.
This guide is intended to be a general presentation of the subfloors options available on the market, but there are many other materials. In some cases, it is possible to omit the installation of a sub-floor and to lay the flooring directly on the base surface. However, in most cases, this is not recommended by experts, as this layer can play an important role.
Also note that some floorings, especially laminate floors, sometimes come already equipped with sub-floor layers. In this case, barring exceptions, you will not have to install another sub-floor.
Underfloor heating is a subject in itself and as we already have several interesting articles on this subject, we would rather put the links towards these:
We have presented a wide variety of subfloor materials and so we hope to have given you a good overview of the different possibilities. That said, nothing can replace the opinion of an expert. When the time comes to renovate a floor, especially if it is necessary to get to the subfloor layer, the specialist will be able to make judicious choices in relation to the materials and installation techniques.
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