What's New Underfoot?

Does any other part of a school building wear out faster than floors? Probably not, say the experts, especially if the school fails to maintain the flooring properly. While everyone knows how important it is to maintain flooring, not everyone has heard about some of the new materials making their way into classrooms, auditoriums, cafeteria, and gyms.

Here’s a look at what is new and almost new, courtesy of Amy Sudhoff, an interior designer and interiors department coordinator with Fanning/Howey Associates, a Celina-OH-based architectural and engineering firm that specializes in educational facilities.

SPM: What general issues do you consider in the preliminary stages of selecting flooring in K-12 schools?

Ms. Sudhoff: First, we look at the requirements and the budget. Then we check out any state guidelines, health department rules, and needs related to longevity. We talk to the custodial staff. What kinds of flooring they are familiar with? What have they been cleaning for years? What kinds of cleaning tools do the have for what kinds of surfaces? How comfortable would they be with new surfaces that may be available? Of course, we also consider aesthetics.

SPM: What kinds of regulations control flooring?

Ms. Sudhoff: Ohio recently enacted Jarod’s Law in response to an accident that occurred in southern Ohio in 2003, when a cafeteria table crushed a young boy named Jarod Bennett. The state appointed a committee to develop safety guidelines for products used in schools. The committee’s work eventually became Jarod’s Law, which is enforced by the health department in each county. Under the law, the health department inspects public and private schools every year, looking for health and safety dangers. The law goes much further than cafeteria tables and covers all kinds of health and safety risks. Today, it is important in Ohio to make sure that you don’t use materials or finishes for floors and other surfaces that violate the new regulations.

SPM: What kinds of flooring materials are best for different areas?

Ms. Sudhoff: In the high-traffic public spaces such as corridors, cafeterias, and auditoriums, we look for upgrades that can provide more durability. In a lobby for instance, if the budget allows, we’ll move up to terrazzo. If that isn’t possible we’ll still try and get beyond the least expensive flooring and into something that is reasonably easy to maintain.

SPM: What about the cafeteria?

Ms. Sudhoff: We have a number of choices for cafeterias and auditoriums today. One flooring that we have found to be successful in these areas is called NeoFloor. It isn’t really a new product, but it is relatively new in school applications. NeoFloor is a no-pile carpet made of flocked fibers extruded into a backing. It is available in sheet rolls and tiles. It has the soft appearance and absorbency of carpet but wears like a hard surface. To clean it, you sweep it daily with a vacuum. For spills, you may have to spot clean. Once a year, you should use a carpet extractor with chemicals.

SPM: You say it isn’t new, but it doesn’t seem to be in common use.

Ms. Sudhoff: It’s been used for some time in Europe. Not long ago, Lees Carpets bought the rights to market it in the U.S.

SPM: It’s been quite a while since new flooring surfaces have been tried in the school market.

Ms. Sudhoff: We’ve also had good experience lately with vinyl-enhanced tile (VET), which is relatively new. This is a product with a greater percentage of vinyl than standard vinyl composition tile (VCT). The enhanced tile is stronger. It will handle pounds per square inch (psi) as much as four times heavier than regular tile.

SPM: It must cost more.

Ms. Sudhoff: Of course. It might cost two to three times as much as VCT. But that doesn’t mean enhanced tile is expensive. VCT is inexpensive to begin with. But VET lasts longer and pays for itself. The surface durability is similar to VCT. If you have wax build-up and furniture is dragged across it, you will have scuffs. But you won’t get the permanent indentation and scratches that you see with VCT. We’ve used VET in higher traffic areas where the budget didn’t allow a more expensive product. So far, we’ve had very good luck with it.

SPM: What about porcelain tile and sheet flooring?

Ms. Sudhoff: We’ve also had good luck with those old standbys. One big durability problem with any flooring material has to do with moisture content in the slab. If there is too much moisture, it can come up through the slab after the floor is down and ruin the floor. The contractor is responsible for testing the concrete before the flooring is installed and for providing written reports confirming that the water content of the concrete is at the correct level. Sometimes, though, the construction schedule gets crunched and the contractor puts down the floor without taking enough tests. But that’s a technical issue. What is important to a facility director is that moisture in concrete slabs is a big issue for any type of flooring, and without proper installation, any kind of floor will fail.

SPM: Other new materials?

Ms. Sudhoff: We have been using a lot of resilient vinyl sheet flooring in different applications lately. That might be considered a bit new. Traditionally we have used resilient sheeting in science labs, because you can heat weld it and eliminate open seams. Lately we have branched out. We recently used it in a new middle school to create a nice inlaid design in the hallways and lobbies. People touring the facility asked if it was terrazzo.

Resilient vinyl has a higher load limit than VCT and resists indentations, internal scrapes, and scratching. Again the surface wears the same as vinyl tile. You will still see scuffs — depending on the colors you select. I would suggest the lighter neutral colors, which tend not to show white marks or scuffing as much as darker and richer colors.

SPM: You haven’t mentioned locker rooms and gyms.

Ms. Sudhoff: There isn’t much new in locker rooms. In Ohio, we’re limited on state projects to rubber tile floor in locker rooms. In other states, we’ve done NeoFloor and sealed concrete in locker rooms for ease of cleaning. But generally, we use rubber tile there.

In gymnasiums we obviously do a lot of traditional wood floors, but we have also been doing some Pulastic floors.

SPM: What’s Pulastic?

Ms. Sudhoff: Pulastic is made by Robbins Sports Surfaces. Again, it is not a new surface, but we are using it more and more. It is a poured floor with no seams. It comes in various colors, and you can paint game lines on the surface just like wood. It has a special recycled rubber shock pad for resiliency and ball rebound and meets LEED certification requirements for use of recycled products. We’ll often use Pulastic as a running track around a wood main gym floor. One of the big benefits of Pulastic is that it can be repaired with relative ease. Suppose maintenance is working on a ceiling light in the gym and the light falls to the floor, gouging out a large crevice. All you do is sand it, buff it, and re-pour. There you go.

SPM: Of course, the big question is always what is new in classroom flooring?

Ms. Sudhoff: Classroom flooring always presents the biggest problem: what is the best floor to interact with furniture? We always address this issue with owners before we discuss classroom furniture. The number one problem is that furniture and flooring combine badly when you select the wrong flooring.

Here are the three basic options: First, vinyl tile is the least expensive flooring product. But at a load of 100 (psi), furniture will leave an indentation.

Second, resilient sheet flooring stands up better. It will not indent until the load reaches 400 psi. It costs two to three times as much as vinyl tile, but it lasts longer. It is possible to make a case for the more economical lifecycle costs of resilient sheet. While the initial cost looks a lot more expensive than vinyl tile, the longer durability of resilient sheet makes up for the cost increase. Since it is resilient, it can take more punishment.

The third option is carpet. When you use carpet in the classroom, you will have fewer problems with the furniture’s effect on the floor.

SPM: How long will carpet last?

Ms. Sudhoff: We expect the carpet we specify to last at least 10 years, given good maintenance. Maintenance is crucial. If you don’t take care of a carpet it won’t last. That’s true of any flooring product. If you want a floor to last, you have to have an effective maintenance routine.