Goodbye Carpets. Hello Hard Floors.

Here's a short history of flooring in schools. Fifty or so years ago, schools, as well as other public buildings such as libraries, museums and government buildings, were floored with terrazzo, which lasts forever. Then, in the 1960s, carpeting became the vogue. But carpeting does not last forever. In fact, it lasts considerably less than that, which is one of the reasons it is phasing out and why terrazzo and other hard surfaces are moving back in.

The factors which led to the influx of carpeting into schools, explains Tom Murphy, vice president/marketing for General Polymers in Cincinnati, Ohio, include the fact that in the '60s, when interest rates and inflation were on the rise, budgets for new schools were stressed, so administrators looked for more inexpensive floorings. Carpets were considerably cheaper, more comfortable, had a warmer feel and were good for noise abatement. Carpets still have these qualities. But it's been found that the cheaper up-front savings of carpets were accompanied by more long-term costs. Wear and tear required carpets be replaced more often. They required more maintenance. They tended to absorb debris and moisture, creating indoor air quality problems. When disposed of, carpets became an environmental issue in landfills. Hard surfaces avoid these problems. Moreover, schools have a bit easier time budgeting for capital investments, but it's hard to later go back for maintenance and repair funds.

Murphy, nevertheless, does acknowledge that carpets still have some place in schools. "I see a parallel with airports," he says. "You see carpets in the boarding areas, to create a warmer feel, but the walkways, which get the most wear and tear, have hard surfaces. In the lower grades, the floors get less abuse, and carpets can make for a more homey atmosphere. But in the hallways and other areas, you want something more durable."

Hard flooring can be broken into three broad categories: terrazzo, architectural finishes and resilient flooring. Here are some observations about the benefits and advances of these different types of hard surfaces by manufacturers offering these products. Not surprisingly, they tend to speak more highly of their own categories than those of their competitors.

General Polymers sells terrazzo, and Murphy maintains that this material is better than not only carpets but also resilient flooring, such as vinyl tile and sheet tile, which also moved in to take the place of carpets.

Terazzo, which is made of marble or other stone chips set in mortar and polished when dry, though the most durable flooring material, has still undergone some significant improvements at General Polymers. He explains that terrazzo finishes today have, in place of the standard cement finish, a resin or epoxy finish. Epoxies are any of usually thermosetting resins capable of forming tight cross-linked polymer structures characterized by toughness, strong adhesion and high corrosion and chemical resistance.

All school flooring goes on top of a concrete slab. An advantage of the resin terrazzo is that, previously, the cement finish required about a three-in. reset slab, whether for terrazzo or carpet. This is not needed now. "With expoxies, you get an unlimited selection of colors," Murphy says. "If you want a mascot or emblem, you can reproduce these pictures in the floor."

Epoxies are also more pliable, Murphy says. Previously a crack in the concrete slab could telegraph to the surface, but the epoxies absorb this movement. By the same token, Murphy says, moisture from the concrete slab could also, seep up through the terrazzo bond. "We've brought a knowledge about moisture content in concrete to keep this from happening," Murphy says.

Dorthi Partnoff, marketing representative of Dex-O-Tex, in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., makes the case for what she calls architectural concrete, or thin stains set directly onto the concrete.

But she is also critical of resilient flooring. "Everybody is concerned about what friction does to the laminated or vinyl tile based floors," she says. Through time they tend to become unstuck, she continues. What exacerbates this situation, she maintains, is that solvent-based finishes, so detrimental to the environment, are on their way out. They are being replaced by the more environmental friendly water-based finishes. The problem is that they don't allow the flooring to stick to the concrete substrate very well. Moreover, there is the problem of the moisture coming up from the concrete anyway. In addition, Partnoff says that the walk-behind scrubbing machines are powerful cleaning instruments. But the water pressure can often get under the tile seams and loosen them.

Architectural concrete shares with terrazzo the quality of being seamless, able to be troweled up to eliminate the joint where the floor and wall meet. The architectural concrete is also epoxy based, which allows the flooring the flexibility to "breathe," or to allow the moisture content from below to come out and evaporate, as opposed to thickening into water and causing problems.

Architectural concrete, though not as lasting as terrazzo, can still last 20 to 40 years, Partnoff says. It is also very flexible in terms of design, capable of logo inserts and there is a wide choice of beautiful colors. But this form of flooring, made with a more modified polymer formula, is considerably cheaper than terrazzo and never needs to be polished.

Also, a big problem with remodeling, especially for compliance requirements for the disabled, such as making restroom openings wider for wheel chairs, is the asbestos content in older floors. Tearing out these floors can create all sorts of problems. But with architectural concrete, you don't have to tear out whole flooring systems, but just cut and patch particular areas, while the basic flooring can simply overlay what's already there.

The proponents of resilient flooring, such as vinyl compositional tile (VCT), sheet vinyl, rubber and linoleum, naturally point out the benefits of their offerings. They argue that their products are much more cost effective and easier to maintain than other alternatives, especially carpets. And they also maintain that recent technological improvements have increased the durability factor.

For instance, Karen Rowe, product manager for Amtico International in Atlanta, says that one product uses a DuPont polymer, which makes the vinyl covering "extremely tough, durable and clear. It doesn't require any waxing."

Brian D. Saker, commercial marketing manager for Armstrong World Industries in Lancaster, Pa., agrees with Murphy that school officials are now not simply looking at initial budget costs, but are also putting bigger weight on life-cycle costs, which include durability and ease of maintenance.

Saker says that linoleum is the preferred choice in many schools, and the durability aspect is met by thicker gauges of linoleum, which is also amenable to the high-powered auto scrubbers which make cleaning this product easy. He adds that sheet linoleum is going into cafeterias and corridors, and can be chemically or heat welded for long-lasting adhesion.

All manufacturers are now touting life cycle savings, Saker continues, but explains that Armstrong is taking this a step further by analyzing usage in different areas and also the same areas in different schools. For instance, a multi-purpose room or cafeteria might have usage in the evenings in some schools and not in others. The intent is to match the appropriate product cost effectively to the actual need.

The Rockville, MD-based Resilient Floor Covering Institute, to which Amico and Armstrong belong, have put out a paper entitled“Relient Flooring: the right choice for school flooring.” Here is an illustrative set of figures from the paper, based on a 250,000-sq.-ft. floor surface, detailing the frequency of replacement and initial flooring cost.

So, what's the best flooring?
There are no automatic answers. But these are some considerations that could lead you to ask the right questions as you search for the best flooring for your school.

THOMAS G. DOLAN -- Dolan is a freelance writer from Washington with experience in the education field.