Five Developments in Wallcovering that Help Schools Thrive

When you enter a room, what do you notice first? Chances are it’s the walls. Wallcoverings are one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to create design impact in a school. Long-lasting and highly durable, wallcovering protect the wall and camouflage a host of abuse. And over their lifetime, wallcoverings actually cost less than painted walls. The wallcovering industry has been hard at work on K-12-friendly innovations that help school designers and administrators establish environments where students thrive.

1) Creating Comfort

As schools move toward more common areas for collaboration and informal learning, designers are seeking to create a sense of comfort. Wooden desks are being replaced with soft seating, and painted surfaces are being transformed with softer, warmer wallcoverings. The goal is to provide a comfortable lounge-like environment, so students will linger and learn.  

Renovation budgets remain tight, yet design expectations for learning spaces have grown, creating a catch 22 for designers. Few interiors finishes upgrade the aesthetics of a space as quickly and cost-effectively as wallcovering. Increasingly, specifiers are turning to wallcoverings to bring a hospitality aesthetic to K-12 environments. The upscale look and feel also helps public schools compete more effectively with private and charter schools.

2) Serving Low Budgets, High Needs

Over their lifetime, wallcoverings provide a better return on investment than paint. A Chicago-based paint contractor recently addressed the Wallcoverings Association, pointing out that painting costs have increased dramatically due to coverage issues associated with low VOC formulations. His company recommends three or more coats for low VOC paint, increasing up-front painting costs.

Painting is usually performed every three or four years. By comparison, wallcoverings have a longer lifecyle, lasting an average of five to 10 years. Little or no maintenance is required each year, resulting in much lower costs over the lifetime of the product. In addition, wallcoverings have the added benefit of protecting the wall from scuffs, nicks and dings. And wallcovering patterns and textures camouflage damage when it does occur.

3) Improving Acoustics

Acoustics is an important consideration as studies show that students miss up to 33 percent of verbal communications in poorly designed classrooms. We are seeing a trend toward wrapping panels in wallcovering, an approach that reduces sound reverberation and creates a tackable surface to display learning aids and student work.

By virtue of their sound-dampening qualities, wallcoverings are a better acoustical selection than paint. In addition, they can be perforated to enhance their acoustical properties. New acoustical wallcoverings have an NRC rating of up to .15, making them ideal for gymnasiums, band rooms, auditoriums and other large assembly and meeting spaces.

4) Off the Wall Durability

Nothing dates a classroom or corridor more than scuffed and dirty walls. Wallcoverings last five to 10 years, as compared to three to four years for paint. But more importantly, wallcoverings protect the wall and preserve a clean, fresh appearance throughout their lifetime. Type II vinyl wallcoverings have long been valued for their durability, becoming the go-to selection for high-traffic hallways and other high-use spaces. There are also new affordable options in Type III flexible wall treatments that provide greater wall protection and cost less than rigid wall panels.

Many schools are going to “self healing” wallcoverings. These include heavy embossings and polyester woven blends that have the duel benefit of high resistance to damage and the ability to hide spots and perforations when they do occur. Some schools are becoming particularly creative in areas prone to vandalism, installing sisal wallcoverings that are extremely difficult to mark or damage.

5) Low VOC, Sustainable Materials

Studies show that poor IAQ detracts from a favorable learning environment, reduces productivity, is costly to resolve, and can cause adverse health conditions. Most commercial wallcoverings on the market today meet California 01350 for low VOC emissions. In addition, many wallcoverings have been certified to the relatively new NSF/ANSI 342 Sustainability Standard for Wallcovering. NSF/ANSI 342 is a multi-attribute, third-party standard that covers not only VOC emissions but also evaluates the sustainability impacts of the wallcovering’s lifecycle from sourcing of raw materials to end-of life management. The standard is unique in the building products industry in that it requires participation of both the manufacturer and distributor.

School specifiers can choose from a wealth of recycled wallcoverings with 20 percent or more recycled content. And many manufacturers will reclaim vinyl wallcoverings from renovation projects. Polyester wallcoverings can be made from 100 percent certified recycled plastic PET bottles. For every yard of wallcovering manufactured, 15 PET bottles are diverted from the landfill.

Aesthetics, affordability, acoustical properties, durability and sustainability make wallcovering an easy choice. Foregoing wallcoverings is much like neglecting to put insulation in your home. You save a little up front, but the extra money you spend over the years makes it a losing proposition. Add the fact that modern wallcoverings contain aesthetic appeal unmatched by painted surfaces, and the choice becomes easy!

Rick Hickman is president of the Wallcoverings Association (WA), a nonprofit trade association representing manufacturers, distributors and suppliers of residential wallpaper and commercial wallcoverings in North America. The WA has helped keep the wallcovering industry at the forefront of sustainability, helping to develop the NSF/ANSI 342 Sustainability Standard for Wallcovering, the first multi-attribute, third-party standard to require certification by both manufacturer and distributor. Visit the WA’s Resource Center at