Carpet Elevates Image of 21st Century Learning Environments

Today’s schools are evolving into 21st Century learning environments that reflect progressive images of knowledge and advancement. Yet, educators are continually challenged to create these sophisticated environments with limited funding for interior elements such as flooring. Occupying the largest interior area, the floor provides the greatest opportunity to shape and compose a powerful image on a limited budget. The right carpet revitalizes school interiors at a fraction of the cost of other architectural alternatives. It also elevates perceptions of the facility, positively impacts learning and enhances marketability.

Milliken Contract and Cannon Design formed a collaborative in 2003, to study the flooring needs of the education market. That collaborative conducted research with designers within the companies, with their K-12 and higher education clients, and with attendees at trade shows such as the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers (APPA) and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). They then identified the aesthetic and performance criteria that schools and universities were seeking and applied this to the development of a new carpet system specifically geared to educational interiors. The process took two years, involved 40 designers and 30 development engineers, product specialists, environmental specialists and marketing professionals. Here are the results.

Carpet Use Growing in Schools

Carpet is preferred over hard surface flooring in K-12 facilities. More than 92 percent of teachers believe classroom design has a strong impact on students’ learning, and 70 percent prefer carpet on their classroom floors. School administrators rank poor acoustics as a significant problem affecting the learning environment, and 97 percent of teachers believe carpet absorbs noise and makes classrooms quieter, according to The Carpet & Rug Institute. Carpet also improves indoor air quality by acting as a filter, trapping contaminants and keeping them out of the breathing zone until they can be removed by vacuuming, according the 2001 Human Ecology study by researcher Susan Lange.

Our studies indicate that the education sector will be one of the fastest growing markets for modular carpet over the next several years. A 2005 survey by Floor Focus magazine also documents this growth, with 60 percent of designers surveyed indicating they specify modular carpet for educational facilities. That was up from 54 percent in 2004. Why do schools and universities prefer modular carpet? Modular carpet out-performs broadloom, can be replaced easily if damaged, installs faster and is easier to maintain than broadloom. Also, prices for modular carpet have dropped, driven by technological advances that now make the cost of this higher-performing carpet comparable with broadloom. Technologies also have been developed to allow modular carpet to be installed without adhesives, which reduces installation costs and improves indoor air quality.

New Technologies Improve Carpet Performance

Despite the rising popularity of carpet in schools, we found that there was a“wish list” that, until recently, was not being addressed. We showed carpet performance features to attendees at APPA and SCUP conferences and asked if they received these from their carpet vendors. Of the three groups that were interviewed, 72 percent to 83 percent said“No.” We also asked interviewees to identify the most important carpet features. Stain and soil resistance were the top-ranked attributes, followed by appearance retention, color retention and durability.

In addition to stain-resistance technologies, schools should consider several other factors that affect durability and appearance: 1) Modular carpet provides the added flexibility of replacing damaged or badly stained carpet tiles to maintain an always-clean appearance. 2) Specifying cushion increases the life of modular carpet by up to 50 percent and provides the added benefits of increased comfort and better acoustics. 3) Pattern camouflages stains and wear, enhancing long-term appearance retention. 4) To ensure durability, all carpets should be certified for severe wear by The Carpet & Rug Institute’s Appearance Retention Rating test protocol.

Carpet Promotes a Progressive Image

The floor is not just a surface, but an added dimension that employs color, texture and pattern to communicate the school’s image, culture and values. In the past, we were limited by weaving techniques used to create carpet patterns. With new digital patterning technologies, manufacturers can craft in carpet whatever they can create on a computer screen. We can even project illusions of transparency, layers, depth and texture on what is essentially a flat surface.

Our companies brought 40 designers together in what may be a first-of-its kind, in-depth Design Forum for carpet. The mission was to explore and harness a new digital carpet technology in a collection specifically geared to schools and universities. Designers came from across the country, bringing vastly different inspirations, influences and regional preferences. We also asked designers throughout our organizations to send us things that inspired them. This diverse creativity helped us originate designs with a range of appeal and applications — from elementary schools to universities, small classrooms to spacious auditoriums, and the special uses from media centers to sports facilities.

Designers worked in teams to develop themes with varying approaches. Some created on the computer and others sketched. One team painted, while another composed using acetate layers. A few designers were literal, taking textural cues from the bricks of school buildings or design motifs from the books in the media center. Others were more conceptual, exploring words with vivid meanings — such as success, theory, knowledge and connections — that could be employed as design motivation.

Another area we addressed was the aesthetic importance of pattern scalability. We developed designs that could be modulated to accommodate shifts in spatial volume. For example, a large-scale area (auditoriums, multi-purpose spaces and breakout galleries) requires more substantial scale than smaller rooms or suites that call for smaller, more intimate patterns.

The collaboration generated hundreds of designs and found that there was a common thread to each. At the core was the concept of learning and the universal role of language.

Timeless Colors Evolve with the Facility

The rapidly changing atmosphere in today’s schools and colleges, as well as common fiscal constraints, prompt schools to seek building products that have timeless appeal. An overarching goal for our collaboration was to include colors that are timeless. Carpet in schools is replaced much less frequently than in corporate settings, and must maintain its appeal long-term and work with evolving interiors and facility expansions. We studied color, investigating factors such as the prevalence of blues and greens in school interiors and the geographic influences of raisin and brown in the North and tan and earth tones in the South. Dye specialists also experimented with colors evocative of school campuses such as “blue jean blue” and “campus green.”

We tested colors palettes with attendees at SCUP and APPA and determined preferences. From this feedback and research, the collaboration developed seven color families that range from light to dark and draw inspiration from school architecture, the classroom and the energy of student life. Classic midnight blues, sage greens, charcoal grays, camels, hunter greens and raisin browns are accented with vivid selections of indigo, ocean blue, ginger and crimson. We also added a signature palette of energetic and intense color to celebrate student life and specialty areas such as cafeterias, auditoriums and sports facilities.

This two-year exploration of carpet, its role and future possibilities in educational facilities has been enlightening. Those on the team who had never designed carpet learned that it is a difficult, complex and rewarding process. We discovered that if time is taken to understand the school environment and the needs of administrators, teachers, students and parents, the resulting carpet can serve as a design cornerstone to positively impact learning and convey the image of a progressive 21st Century learning environment.

MEHRDAD YAZDANI and RICK BITTNER Yazdani is a principal of Cannon Design and directs the Yazdani Studio from Cannon’s Los Angeles offices. Bittner is director of Educational Environments for Milliken Contract.