Choose Flooring Wisely

Specific facility conditions dictate proper commercial flooring selection.

By John T. McGrath, Jr.
From the February 2017 Issue

Over the past decade, the commercial floorcovering industry has undergone a dramatic shift. New and emerging trends have dictated changes in product design, while the need for commercial flooring that addresses specific acoustic, energy management and maintenance requirements has changed the way facility managers select flooring products. It has also transformed how architects specify flooring products and how contractors install them.

commercial flooring
A new flooring installation was part of a Vancouver International Airport renovation project. Maxwell Floors Ltd. of Surrey, British Columbia was the INSTALL Warranty Contractor for the project. (Photo: INSTALL)

The commercial construction and retrofit industry has also seen wild swings in growth and contraction, with 2017 bringing a host of questions about the health of the market. According to the AIA Consensus Construction Forecast, the general agreement is that industry expansion will be more tempered in 2017. While there will continue to be strong demand for hotels, office spaces, and recreational facilities, overall spending in the commercial/industrial market is forecasted to increase only 6.5%, nearly half of the growth experienced last year.

Against this backdrop, retrofit spending far outpaces new construction. With 5.5 million non-residential buildings in the United States, spanning more than 87 billion square feet, facility managers have the opportunity to learn from mistakes and missteps of the past and embrace the potential of the future. Specifying new and evolved products to address critical needs, embracing industry trends, and hiring highly trained, certified installers are solid steps toward successful flooring projects.

Facility Demands Dictate Flooring

Product innovations that blend flexibility and aesthetics are also evolving. From the explosive growth of luxury vinyl tile (LVT) to the proliferation of carpet tile and large-format porcelain tile, facility managers and designers have more choices than ever. However, this doesn’t mean that products and installation methods are interchangeable. On the contrary, it’s more important than ever that professionals make informed, long-term decisions about the mix of products used and the installation methods.

At the end of the day, specific facility demands are what must dictate flooring selections—not colors, patterns, textures, and other design-centric factors. This doesn’t mean that spaces have to be boring, but function takes precedence over form.

Following this important rule is the first step in creating high-performance buildings of the future.

Foot Traffic Considerations

In commercial facilities, product selection is often dictated by foot traffic and/or rolling loads. The best choices for high-traffic areas greatly depend on the current and future needs of the facility, with considerations like maintenance, static-resistance, and anti-microbial properties. These all need to be addressed early on in design phases.

“For healthcare facilities, the most popular product choice continues to be heat welded sheet vinyl, although LVT has steadily gained popularity due to its design flexibility and variety of shapes and sizes, including wood-look planks,” says Chuck Rajner, president of Commercial Floors Toledo, an INSTALL Warranty contractor. “Rubber flooring, which is softer underfoot, is also a smart choice, as it requires little maintenance,” he adds.

In office buildings, carpet tile has become an ideal product as it combines flexibility with acoustic performance and unrestrained design possibilities. “You can do all kinds of things in terms of designs, patterns, and on-site customization with carpet tile,” says Rajner. “That’s why we’re also seeing it in educational facilities. Facility managers and school districts want flexibility, durability, and quiet spaces. With broadloom out of the picture, carpet tile is taking its place.”

In addition to the increased use of carpet tile, educational facilities (both K-12 and higher education) have shifted away from old standards like vinyl composition tile (VCT) to a mix of sheet vinyl, LVT, and rubber floors. Some facilities use multiple products within spaces, like classrooms that feature hard surfaces in high traffic areas and carpet tiles in seating areas to help reduce noise.

Stand Strong Against Rolling Loads

While foot traffic is an issue for a variety of commercial spaces, heavy rolling loads are most commonly associated with healthcare. “Rolling loads are fundamentally different than foot traffic, which is widely distributed vertical pressure on the floor that often has little impact,” says Rajner. “Take a full hospital cart, x-ray machine, gurney, or bed, and you have a concentrated load that is exerting vertical and horizontal pressure at the same time. You better have a strong bond between the floor and subfloor to keep it in place.”

commercial flooring
Flooring products such as this pre-applied, solvent-free adhesive backing minimizes prep work and eliminates drying protocols. (Photo: nora systems, Inc.)

Rolling loads have both immediate and long-term effects. If flooring installation isn’t done properly, or if the wrong product is specified, seams will begin to let go and buckling occurs. This can happen immediately after returning to full occupancy, or can arise months or even years after installation. Regardless, such a flooring failure presents an immediate safety issue, and often leads to expensive and time consuming repairs.

“This is a challenge that goes beyond selecting the right flooring material,” says David Meberg, co-chair of INSTALL, a floorcovering installation training and certification program. “Heat welded sheet vinyl is the best option for heavy rolling loads, but if you don’t install it correctly it doesn’t matter how good your product is. Hiring trained and certified contractors with the right experience will pay off in spades,” he adds.

While this standard seems simple, not all designers and facility managers are making the right decisions. “The one kicker with healthcare facilities is that designers are pushing for the use of LVT in high traffic spaces that also see heavy rolling loads,” says Rajner. “There should be special consideration placed here as LVT is not as stable for rolling loads due to the number of seams. If designers need another option they should really be looking to sheet rubber.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Trends And Industry Changes

Beyond foot traffic and rolling loads, another major issue in commercial flooring design is addressing how appropriate an individual product is for the application, especially in retrofit situations. Oftentimes, it seems like swapping out sheet for LVT or carpet for porcelain is an easy switch that will help to transform the ambiance of a space, but the consequences are sometimes severe.

“If my team is involved with product specification, we examine every single individual space and make recommendations based on unique needs,” says Rajner. “For example, a high foot traffic hospital corridor project that requires low maintenance, stain-resistant, and sanitary flooring automatically excludes many products.”

There are limitations in office settings as well, where acoustic performance is key. We have moved to a new era of open concept office design, where fields of carpet tile can be installed quickly and easily. The color palette is virtually endless, and form often wins over function. However, facilities still need properly installed flooring that will withstand foot traffic without peeling and fraying—potential tripping hazards that diminish safety.

Education facilities have moved away from VCT in some cases, with some school boards removing the product completely due to maintenance costs. “VCT might look cheap up front, but over the lifespan of the product it can be one of the most expensive floors to maintain and repair,” remarks Rajner. “We’re seeing rubber and vinyl enhanced flooring mixed with carpet tile becoming more popular.”

College campuses, on the other hand, are creating dorms and student facilities that feel more like apartment complexes. LVT is emerging as an alternative to VCT, as it offers a variety of natural stone and wood looks. These same demands are leading retail designers to LVT and hard tile, with a number of high-end and mainstream retailers installing porcelain tile in showrooms. A major part of this comes down to aesthetics, but the other primary aspect is decreased maintenance.

“We’re seeing even more LVT growth in hospitality,” says Rajner. “It is transforming guestrooms, where LVT is now paired with area and accent rugs. This is something that we never saw a decade ago.”

The Right Installation

One of the biggest challenges with new construction is moisture mitigation. And moisture problems don’t reveal themselves for months after an installation. In response to the significant need to raise awareness and aptitude of proper substrate preparation and installation, organizations like INSTALL have created training curriculum and certification programs covering moisture mitigation and remediation. While trained professionals are key, problems still can and do arise. Whether confronted with seam issues, bubbling, cracking, or lippage issues between large format tiles, it is important to act quickly before it becomes a safety problem.

The same principle rings true for acoustics in hospitality, education, and healthcare facilities. Stained concrete floors and high ceilings might look great, but the acoustics can be so poor that it quickly becomes a problem. The same goes for tile and other hard surfaces that lead to reverberation and poor acoustic performance in lobbies, corridors, and gathering spaces like dining halls and cafeterias.

Selecting the best products and ensuring proper installation results in more than a good looking, high performing floor. It helps to create a high performing building. But what exactly does that mean? The right flooring provides design flexibility, boosts energy efficiency and indoor air quality, and aids in wayfinding. It increases acoustic performance, leading to more satisfied occupants, and provides facility managers cost savings through low or easy maintenance and long life cycle.

In the past decade, the industry has stepped up its game. There are more options than ever, and we’re designing faster, smarter and more efficiently. However, the same demands are still there. Specific facilities and spaces dictate flooring selections, and it’s up to facility managers to choose wisely.

commercial flooringMcGrath is the executive director of INSTALL—the International Standards and Training Alliance, a floor covering installation training and certification program. He was a significant contributor in creating the ANSI S600 Carpet Installation Standards.

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  1. I’m going to be changing my flooring here soon. I do like the different variables you listed here. For mine, I’ll have to worry about a good amount of foot traffic as I always have people over at my house.

  2. The concentration of traffic is more than the private buildings. That’s why flooring for commercial establishments requires particular consideration. I think it will be good to seek soft flooring. Because a soft floor can’t overwhelm an occupant during a busy period. Durability is another factor that you can’t overlook, especially when choosing a flooring product. You have to consider the air quality as well. Different flooring products are there. To choose the best flooring stuff for your commercial building, you need to consult a flooring professional- .

  3. Great article, very informative. I think our customers would really benefit from reading this.

  4. As an Install certified contractor, I appreciate well trained ISTALL certified technicians. As we continue to face moisture problems on a more regular basis, our INSTALL certified technicians save our customers time and money, by catching and dealing with the problem ahead of the installation.

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