Flooring in High-Traffic Zones

Schools today have to respond to a wide variety of uses and activities that stretch the average day from early morning to late in the evening, and pull the typical weeknight through the weekend. With Saturday and Sunday activities that include athletic events, concerts and performances, college placement tests and even temporary church services, there’s little time to regroup for a“normal” Monday morning… whatever that is.

The modern school has to function as a“community center.” And, like a community activity center, the modern school has to withstand the abuse of students and the general public, and be able to continue to bounce back with exuberant resilience. And, the first and last point of contact in any school, other than the door hardware, is the floor!

No matter what part of the country the facility is located in, people stamp out their joy, their frustration, their anxieties and their muddy, sandy, dusty shoes on the floors of their local schools. This is especially true in what we could identify as “high-traffic zones.”

High-traffic Zones

“High-traffic zones” include primary entryways, main circulation corridors, student common areas or cafeterias. These high-traffic zones usually connect activity areas, such as the gymnasium, media center, classroom areas, office areas, etc. Many times, the high-traffic zones become activity areas themselves.

Think of the zone outside of a main gymnasium before, during and after a major athletic event. The smell of popcorn, the sticky sensation of spilled soft drink under foot and the occasional splat of mustard or ketchup from a hot dog all contribute to a normal set of conditions that floors in a “high-traffic zone” must endure and survive.

The analogies for these “high-traffic zones” are more appropriately linked to food courts in a major shopping mall.

When looking at flooring surfaces for the “high-traffic zones” in an educational facility, we believe that there are three issues to consider:

1. location and activities,

2. cost and lifespan, and

3. maintenance and serviceability.

Location and Activities

Where is the floor in consideration? Is it at a major entry point where it will have to withstand weather conditions, such as rain, snow, heat and cold? Is it primarily a connector, serving as a hallway or pathway, or does it double function, accommodating multi-use activities such as cafeteria/commons? Is it a holding zone to contain groups of students in between academic and/or athletic/performance activities? Is noise a problem?

If the “high-traffic zone” were subject to damage from use, would the floor need to be repaired or replaced from time to time? What effect would that have on the usability of the area? How easy is it to install, repair and replace?

Cost and Life Span

The age-old question in any building project is, “how much does it cost?” But, the initial cost of a flooring product may not tell the whole story. Terrazzo is one of the oldest and most expensive flooring choices in “high-traffic zones” in schools, but it is also the most durable and least likely to have to replace because of product failure. It also offers the least flexibility in terms of changing configuration or color in time.

Sometimes, the pragmatic use of such basic materials as vinyl composition tile (VCT) offers a moderately priced solution that has an impressive life span that offers some flexibility for modification and/or replacement through time.

Maintenance and Serviceability

The most important factor in selecting a flooring solution for “high-traffic zones” is the ease of maintaining the floor and the way in which the floor performs. Maintenance and serviceability are closely tied to overall cost. If the cost of maintaining the floor is high because of the need for continual cleaning, waxing, etc., then the long-term expenditure will be high and the usability will be limited because of down time for maintenance and cleaning.

Case Studies and Examples

We have selected four examples of flooring solutions for “high-traffic zones” in educational facilities that represent a range of initial costs, from low to high, that we can evaluate for appropriateness of location and activity as well as maintenance and serviceability.Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) could be installed for approximately two dollars per sq. ft. In the example shown, Whiteland Elementary is just south of Indianapolis in the Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation. The school was a combination of remodel and addition, involving the reconfiguration of existing space. The use of bright colors on the floor was easily accomplished, as was the ease of transition from commons to cafeteria. Cost and budget were critical factors in the development of the project. Since the students spend most of the day in their individual classrooms, the cleaning of areas like the cafeteria after lunch is not hindered by other activities that need to take place in the activity zone. The life span should be 10 to 15 years, but if areas of the floor were damaged, they could easily be replaced without having to replace the entire surface. Noise is not a factor since the students all tend to move to activities at the same time. Excessive water can be very destructive to a VCT floor. The new, more environmentally friendly, adhesives will dissolve and release if the floor is flooded, so VCT floors should be used where excessive moisture is NOT a factor.

Sheet Good Flooring which, for the purpose of this discussion, would encompass a closed or “welded-seam” product similar to the linoleum products that are re-emerging as “natural” products and associated synthetic, and even rubber systems, that are flexible, durable and adapt to varying conditions. One of the advantages of this type of product is the resilient component that softens some of the sound in the areas where it is installed. Installing at a cost in the range of five to seven dollars per sq. ft., depending on the extent of floor preparation required or extent of pattern and color, the closed-seam sheet good products respond well to conditions where water might be introduced intermittently. This might be weather related, such as tracked in rain or snow. The example of Whiteland Community High School shows an entry commons area with a synthetic sheet good, “Mipolam by Gerflor,” that has been used in commercial laboratory facilities to withstand abuse and sustain aggressive cleaning, as well as long-term use. This product should provide a 15-year performance with excellent results. Transitions to other surfaces are easily accomplished.

Porcelain Pavers can be an excellent choice in areas like this student commons at Ben Davis High School. This product, installed or existing, cementitious flooring, in a full mortar bed, conceal previous conditions and create new images and circulation patterns. Much like a commercial shopping mall, this student commons has to accommodate large numbers of students, visitors, parents and staff, with minimal “down time.” Much like a shopping mall, the maintenance is a combination of dry-mop clean-ups between activities and commercial scrubbers after hours. This activity area is not quiet, and the adjoining spaces feed on the energy of the main commons, including the sound. The media center, although quieted by carpet and acoustical ceilings, is more like a bookstore at a mall. The pavers have an installed cost of seven to eight dollars per sq. ft. and, because of the floor preparation and treatment of base and corner conditions, lack a high degree of flexibility. In other words, the space has to be designed to accommodate the tiles. Life span is probably 30 to 40 years or longer, and broken tiles can easily be replaced. Moisture or water are not factors, and maintenance is easily accomplished, since there is no need for floor wax or sealer.

Terrazzo is perhaps the most durable, longest lasting, most difficult to install and most expensive floor surface in “high-traffic zones” of educational facilities. The improvements in the installation and finishing of epoxy terrazzo have allowed us to reintroduce terrazzo as an option and alternative to educational facilities. Because of the thinness of the epoxy terrazzo system, it can be installed without the traditional two-in. slab depression, allowing simpler and cleaner transitions to other floor surfaces. The use of anti-fracture membranes and anti-crack systems under an epoxy terrazzo make the installation as timeless as the sand-bed systems without the cumbersome slab preparation of depression and preplanning. At $13 to $15 per sq. ft. for installation, the initial cost is high, but the 50- to 75-year life span, with little to no maintenance, makes that initial cost seem like a prudent investment. The example of the Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School student commons is clean, bright, durable epoxy terrazzo floor that was considered as one of several alternates for “high-traffic zone” flooring. Since the floor prep does not require a recessed slab, any of the floor systems discussed in this piece could have been considered or used in this space. Favorable bid results afforded the selection of epoxy terrazzo.

This discussion has introduced the concept of the special consideration needed in the flooring systems used in “high-traffic zones” of educational facilities. The four systems discussed represent general categories with varying degrees of initial and long-term success at a broad range of initial and long-term costs.