Don't Underestimate What's Underfoot

Student center floors are arguably the most trafficked surface in the most trafficked building on campuses. Thousands of daily visitors, if not tens of thousands, are not uncommon, and whatever area of the building they frequent, each and every visitor uses those floors.

How can they stand up to the resulting wear and tear, and with flooring that’s environmentally sustainable, affordable, and easy on the eye? What goes into the process of choosing flooring systems in such crucial places?

In one instance, administrators and staff at Arkansas State University took several steps last year to give their campus student union a shot in the arm. On the checklist: reupholstered furniture, changes to the dining area, and bottled water stations, among other improvements.

Another change, in fact, “has helped to give our facility a fresh look,” reports Shane Copeland, assistant director of student development facilities. That change was new carpeting. It was a routine, but telling, project, in that Arkansas State dealt with challenges and choices facing campuses from coast to coast.

Take that aforementioned issue of traffic, for example. Arkansas State’s student union is a bustling place, with an average of 11,000 to 13,000 people in the building every day. Given the wear and tear that comes with such numbers, the University went with carpet squares. The squares — the supplier was J+J/Invision and the cost was around $20 per square yard — replaced rolled 
carpeting as well as carpet squares, all installed when the building was constructed about eight years ago.

Copeland says that back then, “We quickly found that we really like the carpet squares due to the ease of switching out tiles as needed. Regardless of how well you maintain your carpets, you will eventually end up with a stain that cannot be removed. With the carpet squares this is a simple fix.” Wood laminate flooring has also replaced carpeting in some areas, he explains, and the campus is pleased with this solution as well.

One Component 
of a Welcoming Space
At another student union with thousands of visitors daily, Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center, carpeting was a key component of multi-pronged construction and renovation work recently. Decision makers went with carpeting — in some areas, over an exposed aggregate floor — in the union’s large Prairie Room, in two student lounges, and in the building’s first-floor concourse, its main thoroughfare. University Architect Rick Kentzler reports that there hasn’t been any major stains or tile replacement yet, in spite of the traffic.

The flooring solutions are part of a broad goal to make Bone “an even greater place to hang out,” according to Illinois State’s website, which also refers to the building as “the hub of student life.”

As such, student center floors must meet various needs. Lauri Watnee, director of healthcare and education for supplier Mohawk Group, explains that student union flooring needs to be durable, but also on budget and “exceed safety expectations, providing the proper level of slip resistance.” Watnee explains that student center flooring also needs to meet specific needs for every given space — such as carpeting in offices and study areas where attention to acoustics is important.

And that’s not all: The flooring also needs to  “maintain its comfort and overall beauty,” Watnee says, ensuring it makes a “positive visual impression”— across a union’s concourses, dining halls, offices, stores, meeting rooms, and lounges, among other spaces. Thus, “it is necessary to select coordinated colors, patterns, and textures that offer an easy transition from one space to the next,” Watnee says. This calls for “a calculated approach to ensure that all stakeholders’ needs are considered” in the flooring solution, she points out.

Reducing the 
(Environmental) Footprint
Sustainability is a major consideration today, and Watnee describes efforts by her company to reduce the flooring industry’s environmental footprint and manufacture flooring products out of recycled materials, such at PET soda bottles, tires, and glass.

Along that line, the University of Maryland in recent years has made a comprehensive series of “green choices” for its Adele H. Stamp Student Union, from recycling to water conservation to composting to a green roof to sustainable carpets. As for the last feature, how did staff make the choice?

Stephen Gnadt, associate director of Stamp, points out that he and colleagues were unhappy with the student union’s five- to six-year-old continuous loop carpeting, which had unsightly runs. Having already “made a commitment toward sustainability,” Gnadt’s team talked with manufacturers at trade shows and travelled to sites with the kinds of carpeting they were considering.

Decisions were made, and the University has been systematically replacing old carpeting at Stamp with rolled carpeting, squares, and terrazzo flooring. Gnadt points out the carpeting solution, supplied by Mohawk Group’s Lees Carpets, is environmentally friendly — its backing and fibers are Environmentally Preferable Product certified — that needs only hot water for cleaning, not detergents. It can be easily recycled, and is installed with low-volatile organic compound adhesive, which improves indoor air quality, according to the University. The terrazzo flooring, by the way, is also easy to maintain, Gnadt explains, with no stripping or waxing required.

Gnadt adds, “Everyone has to figure out what’s best for them. But go look at installations, go take a look.”

Fulfilling Student Requirements

Back at Arkansas State, Copeland places student union flooring projects in broader perspective: “Historically, student unions have been seen as the living room of campus. This still applies today. It has been very important for us to keep our facility up to date with what our student body and our campus community want.”

Furthermore, Watnee points out, “Student union facilities are being used every day to attract and retain students, playing a critical role in the university’s revenue stream. As such, creating a space that offers visitors a feeling of pride and visually enhances the university’s prestige is ideal.”

Lastly, Watnee adds, “The use of the right flooring solution is vital in driving home the visual aesthetic of this meeting space — and maintaining a positive college/university experience.” After all, it could be the most trafficked spot in the most trafficked building on campus. 

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

About the Author

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