But Can You Eat Off of It?

All varieties of campus dining facilities are busy spaces. The floors of these spaces are heavily trafficked on a daily basis, must be able to withstand heavy-duty cleaning, and must be as sanitary as possible. Serving multiple meals each day means that the logistics of downtime due to maintenance, repair, or renovation can be complex and costly. These floors also must work with architectural and interior design requirements. Thus, finding dining facility flooring systems that are affordable, durable, relatively easy to maintain, aesthetically pleasing, and sustainable can be challenging.

But with that challenge come some opportunities. Daniel Collins, director of education markets for flooring supplier Shaw Contract Group, puts it this way: The busiest gathering places today, on campuses and off, tend to be in cyber-space, yet dining facilities, by their very nature, still have the potential to remain very busy and very relevant.

What about costs for the floors of these important spaces? Per-square-foot prices vary widely, depending on many factors. Michael Bonomo, an architect with Mancini Duffy in New York City who is experienced with dining hall projects, described flooring systems that range from $15 to $65 per sq. ft. installed, with materials, labor, and contractor equipment costs figuring into the equation. More about that later, but any way you slice it, dining hall flooring can be a significant investment.

Given that, and with the economic downturn, many educational institutions are asking about joint-purchasing contracts, which can create “significant savings,” Collins said, although he declined to estimate a typical percentage saving. Clearly, upfront costs weigh heavily, but so do other factors.

Officials at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, considered many factors when planning the flooring for their newly constructed East Campus Dining Hall, a LEED-certified, $18M facility that serves about 2,000 students per meal. In terms of the flooring, durability and the availability of replacement tiles were eventually identified as being two of the top priorities, explained Stephanie Hoshower, director of dining services, and JMU went with a vinyl tile flooring system.

The project’s designer, Brenda Amsberry of Ricca Newmark Design, described the vinyl portion as “extremely durable, easy to maintain, and (with) huge design flexibility.” One challenge was that a large pattern was needed to match the building’s expansive floor space. The supplier used the design firm’s drawings “to laser cut the entire design prior to shipping,” said Amsberry, enabling “the installers to assemble the pieces like a puzzle. This method also ensures tight seams, which keeps the flooring watertight and antimicrobial.”

In another instance, diners at Valdosta State University’s Palms Dining Hall have tended to lean back on their chairs over the years, inadvertently gouging tile floors, said Rob Kellner, Valdosta’s director of auxiliary services. Changing the chairs might be one approach, but how about a solution with fewer variables? So, in 2006, when Valdosta renovated the busy Palms, which serves about 1,000 people per meal, administrators went with a custom-cut, rolled sheet flooring system. It can withstand up to 1,500 lbs. per sq. in., and if gouged anyway, it can be melt-welded, Kellner said. Further, the floor’s patterns of varying colors disguise seams at the color changes, and the colors and patterns helped accomplish Valdosta’s goal to make a welcoming dining facility “without an institutional feel,” Kellner added.

How about spills? Particularly in dining areas, some colleges and universities prefer to go with soft-surface floor coverings as opposed to the traditional quarry tiles in kitchen areas. Collins said modular flooring systems of solution-dyed nylon fibers are easier than rolled products to partially replace if big, indelible stains happen. Further, those fibers can absorb five percent of their weight in water, a boon for spills, and are cleaned effectively with detergents and hot water extraction, Collins said. Soft-surface floors have another benefit, he said: they help improve acoustics in noisy dining halls, so diners can better hear each other over the din of plates and others’ conversations. 

Architectural Factors
In another sense, dining areas, even in stand-alone buildings, are not islands unto themselves. Nor are their floors. How does the architecture, both inside and outside the dining area, impact the condition of the floor? Vestibules, for example, with mats in recessed spaces, can keep much dirt and water away from dining hall floors. However, the student café space on the plaza level of San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Student Center has one uncovered entrance open directly to the building’s outdoor plaza. It rains in Northern California, of course, and diners’ shoes track in water and mud.

During a walk through the area with this writer, Guy Dalpe, managing director of Cesar Chavez, described the glossy-finished, dark quarry tile floor installed there several years ago. Runners catch a lot of the mud, pro-active maintenance staff members the rest, and any temporary traces are visually minimized by the finish and color of the material. Regular maintenance of the 1,500-sq.-ft. space is fairly easy, he explained, with mopping every day, and periodic stripping down, waxing, and sealing. Given those factors, Dalpe expects the floor to last for decades.

Such longevity is crucial, but just one of the important factors encountered during the renovations of two New York University dining facilities, Hayden and Third North dining halls. Bonomo said contractors replaced Hayden’s old flooring, vinyl and ceramic tiles from the 1980s and earlier, with a terrazzo floor poured to create a monolithic surface that helps unify the interior. The terrazzo, divided only by stainless steel inserts, also precludes grout lines that can create unsanitary conditions from food spills, and requires waxing just once or twice annually. The floor also comports well with Hayden’s architecture, which dates from 1955, with some portions from the 1920s.

The cost of a terrazzo flooring system of this kind, installed, with labor and equipment costs factored in, can range from $35 per sq. ft. for large installations up to $65 per sq. ft. for smaller areas, Bonomo said. That compares to a rough average of $10 per sq. ft., materials cost only, for “direct-glued materials like linoleum or vinyl products… but they do not offer the life span, ease of maintenance, and beauty of terrazzo,” according to Bonomo. NYU, for its new floor in the other dining hall, Third North, went with traditional quarry tile for the kitchen and, for the customer servery and dining areas, porcelain tile, for about $15-$20 per sq. ft. installed, Bonomo said. This system, installed in the summer of 2009, replaced carpet and ceramic tile in poor condition.

In terms of the environment, educational institutions are seeking flooring from sustainable sources that are green throughout their life cycle, from manufacture and installation to disposal, and are working with their architects and designers to insure the use of such flooring materials.

For example, Bonomo reported that he has been fielding more inquiries about linoleum and cork because they are natural products. Collins, on the other hand, said there is growing interest from educational clients in flooring products that have Cradle to Cradle Certification — products that have been assessed as being environmentally sustainable and recyclable by the Charlottesville, VA-based McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which set up the certification system in the 1990s.

Collins and Bonomo both added that pennywise, pound foolish applies. “It’s important to put in the investment up front in order to minimize costs, disruption, and maintenance later,” said Bonomo.

Finally, making the right flooring investment also frees up dining hall administrators and staff to focus on other things, like the menu.

Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.