Interior designer Ann Marie Jackson, IIDA, has tried concrete floors in two schools now. It worked in one and became the foundation for luxury vinyl tiles in the other.

In her first attempt, Jackson specified concrete for the Romeo Technology Center to the northeast of Detroit. The contractor laid it down and gave it a mottled look. The school custodian figured out that a good coat of wax would protect the surface.“We also learned during that project that you have to cover a concrete floor with plywood to protect it from the construction work,” says Jackson, an associate and interior design department coordinator with Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., in Novi, MI.

The second try, at another Michigan technology center, received a solid thumbs down from the owner.“We ended up putting luxury vinyl tile over the concrete,” Jackson says. “When you propose an unusual floor material like concrete, the owner really has to buy into it.”

Even so, creative floors like those made of concrete are finding their way into new, creative school designs, along with natural green flooring materials.

“A lot of what is driving flooring choices today is environmental green,” says Nancy Jernigan, an interior designer with HKW Associates, an architecture and design firm based in Birmingham, AL. Currently, Jernigan is designing a Montessori school that will use green carpet and natural, very green linoleum on the floors as part of an effort to gain a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Of course, each of the different flooring materials has its advantages. All-purpose VCT (vinyl composition tile) is cheap, between $1.00 and $1.50 installed. Rubber flooring reduces noise and allows spectacular patterns. Carpet reduces noise too and hides dirt extremely well. Porcelain tile and mosaic tile are highly durable. Terrazzo is beautiful to look at and wonderful to feel underfoot. Linoleum is natural and green.

Depending on the budget, it isn’t unusual for a designer to draw on a half dozen or more flooring surfaces for a contemporary school, says Jackson. “We might also use three or four varieties within a school — maybe a number of colors and patterns of carpet and VCT,” she adds.

Still, the stars are mostly natural materials that have come lately to schools: rubber, carpet and linoleum. Don’t dismiss the old workhorses just yet, though. VCT, porcelain tile and terrazzo still have a lot of energy left.

All Rubber

“Rubber is a great floor,” Jackson says. “It has the properties of a hard surface in that it is easy to clean and maintain. But you don’t have to put a finish on it like you do with a hard floor. That means rubber’s life-cycle costs are lower in the long run than VCT. Rubber is also softer underfoot and will reduce noise. The only place you should not use it would be the kitchen because natural oils will destroy rubber.”

Lenape Meadows School in Mahwah, NJ, covered 65,000 sq. ft. of its 88,000 total square footage with nora Rubber Flooring. Bubble insets in a variety of colors and patterns help the pre-kindergarten through third grade children find their way through unfamiliar halls.

Certified interior designer Jodi Latsha with The Thomas Group of Ithaca, NY, considered both rubber and linoleum. In the end, she chose rubber. “We liked the fact that we could install the flooring without seams,” she says. “And where we planned to introduce patterns, we did not have to worry about heat welding any of the seams associated with the patterns.”

Latsha also likes the idea that the rubber flooring comes in sheets as well as tiles, an option that helped her hold down costs by choosing the most economical configuration for each application.

Renewable natural rubber is durable, healthy and green. It has a long lifecycle and can be completely recycled when it finally does wear out. According to the literature, standard tests for VOC emissions on rubber flooring have proven very good. The products meet indoor air quality standards in California, Washington and for the LEED program.

Carpet Benefits

More and more carpet, both in rolls and tiles, has begun to appear in K-12 schools as the benefits of carpet as a flooring material become clearer.

According to Chris Drummond, vice president of customer quality assurance for Atlanta-based Bentley Prince Street, a carpet manufacturer, carpet offers several advantages to a school system.

• Noise abatement: the acoustical properties of carpet help to quiet a school.

• Slip and fall prevention: people are far less likely to slip and fall on carpet compared to hardwood, tile and other flooring materials.

• It hides dirt: unlike other flooring materials, carpet hides dirt until you clean it. It is a kind of repository in that it allows pieces of dirt to fall down under the surface of the pile, where it will stay until someone uses a vacuum to get it out.

Carpet maintenance may seem more demanding than maintenance for hard floors, but there are strategies that can equalize the work. “The philosophy behind carpet maintenance is to expend the most effort where it does the most good: barrier mats,” says Drummund. “Barrier mats are the first line of defense, and these should be vacuumed at least once a day.”

Barrier mats are tile-sized pieces of carpet that sit just outside and just inside entrances. They enable people to track dirt and moisture off of their shoes before they get too deeply into the building.

Studies show that it takes about 14 footfalls on barrier mats to take the dirt off of the bottoms of shoes, Drummond says. On the other hand, hard surfaces do little to clean shoes and allow dirt to be tracked throughout buildings.

When it comes time to clean the barrier mats and the carpets, Drummond suggests using an upright vacuum with a beater bar and brush system, as opposed to a hose and head suction device.

The Cost Picture

How do emerging flooring materials, such as concrete, carpet, linoleum and rubber, compare in price to conventional flooring materials of VCT, porcelain tile and terrazzo?

Generally, the newer materials tend to fall squarely in the middle of the pack, according to Fanning/Howey’s Jackson.

The cheapest flooring material on the market is VCT, which comes in around $1.50 per sq. ft. installed, Jackson says.

Next comes rubber and linoleum, which range in cost from $3 to $5 per sq. ft., depending upon the intricacy of the designs requested.

Jackson says that carpet is about the same as the low end of rubber and linoleum — $3 per sq. ft. — but it has a higher upper end around $12 — again depending upon the complexity of the design.

Porcelain and mosaic tiles sit a little higher on the cost chain, at $5 to $12 per sq. ft.

What about concrete? Jernigan of HKW Associates says a new concrete slab with a new stain will likely run to $8 per sq. ft., making it the second most expensive flooring material to choose from.

And finally, some things never change: The undisputed champ of expensive floors, the highest price school flooring material, is still terrazzo, which costs anywhere from $20 per sq. ft. and up — way up if you want an elaborate pattern.

By Michael Fickes