The Lowdown on Residence Hall Flooring

Carpet has always been the popular flooring choice for residence halls at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. But when Kevin Thompson moved from the North to take the job as assistant director of operations and technology in the institution’s Office of Residence Life, he asked the obvious Yankee question: Uh, doesn’t the humidity and moisture in the South lead to mold?

Of course the majority of carpet manufacturers today include mold inhibitors in the fibers, but Thompson’s curiosity helped open the door. While remodeling a 25-year-old residence dorm, administrators asked him to check into hard surfaces as an alternative.

The task wasn’t as simple as determining which material offered the lowest maintenance at the lowest price, although Thompson has studied that angle, too. “There is a ton of research and literature out there regarding moving to carpet, but a lot of state schools have PCV tile,” he reported. Both offer recycling options in the form of reclaiming the product and using it again in other materials. Both come with maintenance issues: hard surfaces can require an annual resurfacing, while carpeting requires janitors to sweep in students’ rooms, which brings up privacy issues.

“It’s been eye-opening in terms of digging into this,” said Thompson. “I’m trying to pull back and look at the big picture: Being part of a state-supported institution basically means we have one shot to lay something down that will be there for quite some time.”

In Support of Carpet
Administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Menomonie) use a high-quality, durable, cushioned carpet in its residence hall rooms and hallways. Scott Griesbach, director of university housing there, says they prefer this route for several reasons, starting with the fact it is homier for students. Carpet also does a better job of absorbing noise on that floor as well as the one above.

“Before we had carpet, the time our housekeeping staff spent stripping the floors and waxing them was much more labor- and chemical-intensive,” Griesbach added. “It’s much easier to clean the carpet each summer.”   

According to Paul Dominie, general manager of Coyle Carpet One in Madison, WI, the advancement of carpet tile and the yarn systems have improved durability on this option tenfold. Tiles also reduce the amount of waste from the job — sometimes as much as 10 percent — a green angle students and faculty alike applaud. And that’s in addition to the fact that more carpets have as much as 30 percent recycled content these days, with the percentage constantly improving.

When choosing carpeting, the team at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, has learned to ask a series of probing questions, beyond warranty coverage and cleaning recommendations:
  • How much of the carpet do they have in stock?
  • Will the company continue the product for the next five years?
  • What type of backing system is used?
  • What type of yarn is used?

Within these answers lie the reasons Keene State College in New Hampshire is replacing its carpeting with carpet tile. The rolls often develop wear patterns, says associate director for facilities and housing operations Jim Carley. “And the new pressure adhesive tiles don’t require an act of Congress to rip them up, so you can pull those pieces out and put new ones down to address that wear,” he explained. “Plus, with the carpet tile, you can get some interesting patterns by rotating them and making it lively.” The inconsistent pattern hides dirt and stains more readily as well.

A Hard Choice
Meanwhile, Nova Southeastern’s new halls, which contain nearly 900 student beds, feature vinyl composition tile (VCT) in the rooms. Director of Housing Anthony DeSantis has taken it a step further still by moving toward using a more expensive epoxy flooring system in laundry rooms, thanks to its ability to form a waterproof seal with borders along the wall. Count him, too, as a fan of the color assortment that “can really increase the look of a laundry room over time,” DeSantis added.

Texas State University – San Marcos has begun piloting the softer, improved sound attenuation Marmoleum tiles and vinyl plank flooring in some of its facilities, but these newer materials haven’t made it to the residence halls yet, said Kyle Estes, this University’s associate director for housing facilities services. “The staff at the student center loves it from a care standpoint,” he reported. “It has a nice, rich look thanks to the wood grain. They are very pleased to have it in a high-traffic dining area.

“But the issues with both of these products right now is price. It’s a balancing act between cost and how frequently we end up replacing the tiles. I think if you’re switching it for VCT where you definitely get a longer life, you need to be prepared for some investment.”

Instead, Texas State’s default choice is VCT in student rooms with carpet in the hallways. “We clean the hallways daily, and with student allergies being what they are, you never know what students are coming to campus with. The vinyl floor has less possibility of irritating those indoor air quality issues,” said Estes.

Thompson, who leaned toward carpet in the bedrooms and a VCT in the hallways at the beginning of his research, ended up selecting a luxury vinyl tile that requires simply basic wet mopping throughout the entire dorm floor space.

Students Weigh In
The hard floor choice certainly hasn’t caused any pushback at Texas State, according to Estes. “We present the rooms as a blank canvas. It’s not homey; that’s not our goal. Rather than trying to define that term for the student, we let them define it by handing them a space with potential,” he said. Not to mention, a majority of students arrive with an area rug or carpet remnants from their parents’ remodeling project last summer.

Thompson intends to capitalize on that trend. He’s working with a carpet vendor to sell students precut and measured carpet squares at the start of the semester. “The benefit for Coastal Carolina? “Any carpet extends the life of our flooring because it’s their covering that takes the hit if they spill on it,” he said. From a recycling standpoint, these carefully selected carpet squares offer more sustainability than a disposable-grade carpet from a home improvement megastore that ends up in a trash bin at the end of the year. Thompson assumes they will each see several years of use before being recycled.

“My takeaway from conversations with students is that they largely want what’s familiar to them,” he summed up. “If their best friend from high school has a nice looking tile at the University of North Carolina, they they’ll want what their peers have.”