Laying the Groundwork

The budget has passed, superintendents have given their okays, and now it’s time to install some new floors in your school. Now comes the important decision — what type of floor do you choose? Carpet, tile, terrazzo, architectural concrete, rubber, vinyl, polymer, cork, bamboo? Of the seemingly endless number of options available, how do you know which one is right for your school?

Each option, of course, has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the location of the application, the floor you choose may need to meet specific safety, performance, or maintenance criteria. Here, we’ll examine some of the most widely used floors for educational settings, in order to guide you in the decision making process. But first, here are three major considerations to keep in mind as you evaluate the different flooring options for each area of the school, no matter which system you ultimately choose.

1. How safe are the products?
Even if your project is not pursuing LEED certification, it may be smart to work with companies who uphold their LEED status and their concerns about the safety of our environment. When dealing with environmentally responsible floors, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the big offenders. These harmful emissions may come as a result of the materials in the floors themselves, materials used to prepare the substrate before application, adhesives used to install the floor, sealers used to protect the floor, or products used to maintain it. The EPA links VOC emissions to short-term health effects such as eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea; and long-term effects like kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. It is even suspected that VOCs are linked to certain types of cancer. With these health considerations in mind, it is imperative that you do your research when it comes to the safety of the products being used in your facility. Professional organizations, like the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) and the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) have developed their own safety standards for flooring materials, which can help you with your own evaluation process.

2. How much shut-down time is necessary?
Will the installation take place over the summer? Over winter break? A long weekend? Will you need a complete shut down, or can some areas of the school remain occupied? Different types of systems require different installation times, and you must always leave some buffer time. Are the installers that will be working on your install willing and able to accommodate you and work within your shut-down schedule? A reputable company will ensure that they will.

3. What happens after the floor is installed?
Is there a warranty on the floor? What if it needs repairs in a few years? What is the best maintenance procedure for this type of flooring? A reliable flooring company will give you the service and resources to keep you happy with your floor many years after the original install. Don’t decide on one flooring provider without fully understanding its warranty or service policy before making the final decision. A floor is a big investment; make sure you’re getting the most out of your commitment with the company. Know who you are working with, and get references to back up their reputation.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Carpet can be an inexpensive option suitable for many areas within a school. Its excellent sound-absorbing properties can’t be beat, making it a top choice in sound-controlled settings like libraries, media centers, and performance halls. Carpet is also one of the most ergonomic options available, and has a fairly rapid install time. However, carpeting can pose some significant health concerns, especially for allergy and asthma sufferers.

Carpet’s dense, fibrous texture makes it a trap for dirt, irritants, and allergens, and each time traffic moves over the carpet’s surface, these particles are released into the air. If it becomes wet, carpet can also promote bacteria and mildew growth, launching yet another attack on the indoor air quality.

Additionally, most materials used to install carpet, including the carpet itself, cushioning and adhesives, contain potentially harmful levels of VOCs. In an effort to help consumers make conscious carpet choices, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) has developed the “CRI Green Label Program” to determine the VOC levels of common carpeting materials and recommend the products they believe are safest, according to their testing standards.
Although initially, carpet may be an inexpensive option, routine maintenance procedures can quickly become costly. Carpet may show staining, wear, and discoloration after only a short length of time. Significant staining, tearing, or pulls in the carpet fibers may call for premature replacement of the carpet. And because limited-area repairs may not be possible, it may be necessary to replace the carpet in the entire effected area.

Ceramic Tile
Once a staple in school restrooms because it is relatively inexpensive to install and lasts for many years, ceramic tile is being phased out of school settings. Why? Because porous tiles and grout lines absorb stains and odors. Removing the stains and odors requires the use of harsh cleansers, deodorizers, and lots and lots of elbow grease and time. Obviously, foul-smelling, discolored grout can spell disaster when trying to maintain a clean, aesthetic appearance within your facility.

Slips and falls are another major concern with tile. In wet environments, such as kitchens, food service areas, and restrooms, traditional ceramic tile should not even be considered. One option: textured tiles can add a degree of slip resistance, but grout between the tiles will still present a maintenance challenge.

Linoleum and vinyl are often chosen for schools because of their low cost and easy maintenance routine, but both options can pose a threat to air quality. Linoleum, though made from natural substances, emits linseed oil vapors, which may be irritating, but otherwise harmless, to some people. Vinyl may emit dangerous VOCs, as can the adhesives used to install it and the strippers and sealers used to prepare the substrate surface.

In wet environments, linoleum and vinyl can become extremely slippery, resulting in a potentially dangerous environment. If moisture seeps underneath these types of overlayments, adhesive breakdown can occur, causing bond loss to the underlying substrate, and the potential for bubbling or complete floor failure. Another, more serious concern with moisture seepage below linoleum or vinyl is the threat of mold and mildew growth, which can be released into the air.

On the plus side, new technology has made linoleum and vinyl installation much safer, as many companies are now offering low-VOC emitting products. These types of floor systems are budget-friendly and easy to care for, but will not offer the long-lasting durability of other options.

A top choice among school designers and planners, terrazzo offers a clean, upscale appearance and an easy to maintain surface. Developed in Venice hundreds of years ago as a way to recycle otherwise useless remains of marble, it became a “green” product many centuries ahead of its time. Today this product’s pioneering history remains in the forefront of designing minds, as terrazzo is a common choice for LEED certified projects.

Terrazzo is available in many formulations to meet many design palettes. Marble, quartz, granite, and glass aggregates in a myriad of colors, and the option for custom designs make the possibilities truly endless.

Although appealing to the eyes, a one-of-a-kind terrazzo floor is extremely expensive and can be a blow to the budget. Synthetic terrazzo systems are available, but you will sacrifice some of the distinct characteristics by taking that route. Another note of caution: terrazzo becomes extremely slippery when wet.

Epoxy/Urethane Systems
Perhaps one of the most cost-effective options, epoxy and urethane systems are popular choices for schools.

These types of systems are chemical-based and are mixed on-site. They are then applied to the substrate in multiple steps.

One of the most appealing characteristics about these systems is their ease of maintenance. These seamless systems form a monolithic surface, and without areas for dirt to become trapped, remain hygienic with just a simple, routine maintenance schedule. Typically, these systems last as long as the building does, making them appealing to eco-conscious planners.

Another draw to these types of systems is their versatility. Depending on the environment where the floor will be applied, the system can be customized, as needed. Various formulations and top sealants can protect the system from everything from extremes in temperatures, to abrasion, stains, and UV damage. Aggregates used in the system can project characteristics as well. For example, rubber aggregates can help with sound absorption. Additionally, varying levels of texture can be broadcast into the final layers of the system to increase slip resistance, where those properties are needed most, like kitchens, restrooms, and lab areas. A broad range of colors and the option for custom designs makes these systems extremely eye-catching and design-worthy.

The drawbacks? Because these types of mortar systems require multiple application steps, each step must be given the proper time to cure, thus resulting in a lengthy installation time. Depending on the system chosen, size of the install, and condition of the underlying substrate, installation may take many days to complete. Another consideration is the upfront cost of the system. This option can become quite costly, but because these systems are designed to maintain their integrity for decades, they may prove to be cost-effective, long-term investments.

Jena Parise is the marketing coordinator for Stonhard She can be reached at [email protected]