[The following was written in two parts in response to some local discussion about low-VOC options for flooring for a single-family home. The initial question asked about wanting to replace some flooring and having concerns about getting something that “has few or no VOC’s, but doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”]
I wrote something a while back about VOCs and furniture, and some of the content would be pertinent for your flooring question, as well; you can probably find it in the archives for this group. I also posted a copy of it on my site: Indoor Air Quality of Furniture
There are, indeed, low-VOC carpets. Even more than the carpet itself, the adhesive used to attach it (more common for commercial than residential, but not unknown for residential projects) can have a huge amount of VOCs. The pad should also be considered since materials in it, too, can offgas.
With wood flooring the finish that is used can be a major source of VOCs, particularly if you are using polyurethane sealer. There are a number of water-borne sealers that have far lower VOCs than the older oil-based ones, and still offer very good performance and durability, and I think the best products in this category are now the water-borne ones.
Some laminate floors use particleboard substrates. These are made from wood chips and have a lot of glue which can often offgas a lot of formaldehyde. Solid wood flooring will generally have far less formaldehyde offgassing, but may be more expensive to install.
Because this is something more and more people are concerned about, I think that you will be able to find a number of products to compare from. You probably won’t find them at the absolute cheapest levels, but I think that you will find a wide number of choices available at reasonable prices.
Look at the long-term cost, and not just what it will cost to have it installed today. You may pay a bit more for better quality materials, but if they last longer, the lifetime cost is lower, and you have less disruption in your life if you don’t have to replace something that seemed to be a bargain after only a few years.
As far as carpet goes, natural fiber carpets (typically wool, but also some plant fibers like jute and hemp) shouldn’t have chemical VOCs, unless there are plastic backings applied, but there might be other sensitivity issues that might rule those out if you have allergy concerns. I’m not familiar enough with particular allergies to know more about that.
A good resource to use is the Carpet and Rug Institute’s (CRI) Green Label/Green Label Plus. This is not just a greenwashing tag. The CRI certification is used in the LEED green building program to identify carpets ad related materials that can qualify for low-emitting indoor materials credits. (More about the CRI program) If your carpet and other materials are Green Label/Green Label Plus products, you should be doing very well in VOC avoidance.
I do know that Interface carpet has been really ahead of the curve in adopting sustainable practices in their manufacturing and material sourcing. They do a lot of commercial work, but they have a division that is more for residential and small commercial projects (FLOR.com). Flor also retails through Target (with a limited selection), and also sells online.
Flor is one of a number of companies that make carpet tile (or carpet squares). These allow you to create patterns and have even more variety with floor covering. They are also entirely recyclable in most cases. One advantage with carpet tile is that they also allow for just a small area that has gotten damaged or that has excess wear to be replaced without having to replace the entire carpet. Carpet tile can be thought of as more contemporary in appearance, but I think it can be used in more traditional looking settings, as well; you just have to be more selective and restrained with your choices. Because they don’t need pads or adhesives, there’s less extra material required and less chance for other VOC exposure as well.
For hardwood floor finishes, I think that even the big boxes have low VOC products now available. There’s also a green building products retailer in Ann Arbor (Bgreen Today, located on Packard south of Stadium) that has a lot of “green building” products including a very low VOC floor sealant. They also have waxes and oils that can be a good alternative to a polyurethane finish for a wood floor. (Bgreen Today also carries a couple of lines of carpets, as well.)
The VOC limit used in the LEED green building standard is 250 grams/liter (less water) for sealants. You can use that as a guideline to evaluate different wood floor finish materials. Anything that is below that limit will be fairly low VOC.
Lastly, if you can do it, open the house as much as possible after installation, to allow the VOCs that are present to evacuate from the space quickly. Using fans, as well, to boost the circulation and bring in more fresh air to displace the VOCs can help further hasten the process. Whole building flushing is another good green building practice that can be easily used in almost any case, and we’re at the time of year when it’s least likely to be uncomfortable doing something like that.