Feature Article - May/June 2002
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Watch Your Step

Take a steady pace and do your homework when choosing indoor sports flooring

By Elisa Kronish

Picture this: purple tennis courts with teal out-of-bounds borders. Sounds a lot like a child's color-happy crayon drawing, but it's the actual color scheme for five indoor tennis courts at the RiverWinds sports facility in West Deptford, N.J., which opened in January 2002. And it's scoring big points with players.

Penn State University Rec Center

The composition of the uniquely colorful floor at RiverWinds is typical of indoor tennis courts—a ground rubber and latex underlayment topped with acrylic with some sand added for texture to help regulate speed of play. It's really just the atypical top-coat colors that set it apart.

"It's a bolder approach," says Steve Wright, vice president of sales and construction at Indoor Courts of America, which offers design and build consultation for facilities.

Choosing purple for the floor instead of the conventional two-tone green wasn't a random decision, though. The men's professional players' association (the Association of Tennis Professionals) use purple courts for its outdoor tournaments.

"It draws attention and gives better visibility during play," Wright says. So far, the vibrant floor is creating excitement among players at RiverWinds. The club capitalizes on the marketing potential of its colorful courts by featuring photos of them in its brochures.

Of course, choosing a color—however creative—for your indoor sports floor is one of the last decisions you'll make. The more complex and important decisions come way before that. To help get to the fun details, Lex Kessler, president of Indoor Courts of America, suggests a four-step decision-making process: program stage, concept stage, schematic stage and product selection.

Performance Standards

DIN (Deutsches Institut Fur Normung) standards, developed by the University of Stuttgart in Stuttgart, Germany, measure performance characteristics for sports surfaces:

  • shock absorption
  • ball bounce
  • vertical and area deflection
  • surface friction
  • rolling load

Though stating that a product is DIN-rated is often a marketing tool, "it's a kind of quality insurance," says Matthew Wolfe, principal with Bond + Wolfe Architects in St. Louis. When a flooring system is said to meet DIN Standard 18032 Part 2, it means it has been tested according to specific procedures and has met the requirements included in the standard.

There are also ASTM standards that indicate successful product testing outlined in the standard. Various standards measure hardness; tensile, elongation and modulus; abrasion resistance; indentation; static load limit; coefficient of friction; and fire resistance.

"If they understand the process of getting to surface selection, then the facts they learn about the surfaces will fit in," says Kessler whose Somers, N.Y.-based company consulted on the RiverWinds project. "They should not try to pick a floor until product selection. If they try to do it earlier, they're going to hurt themselves."

Along with lighting, the flooring surfaces you choose are arguably the most important aspects of your facility, so make sure you spend enough time getting through each stage.

"You can make a lot of mistakes in the building, but don't overlook these two," Kessler says, emphasizing that decisions should not be made solely on budget stipulations.

"If you look at the bulk of the facilities built last year, they cost $75 to $125 per square foot," he says. Of this expense, only about 3 percent is flooring. "If you make a decision on cost, you made the wrong decision."

Follow along

The first step in the process is the program stage, when you outline how the space is going to be used.

"Every stakeholder in the facility needs to get in one room with the project architect," Kessler says, to discuss the needs and purposes for the area.

Questions to ask during this stage focus on prioritizing the activities that will take place in the area:

  • Who will be in there when and how often?
  • What ages will the sports participants be?
  • What will the volume of players be for each sport?

"If 50-pound kids are playing basketball, they don't need the same cushioning as a 250-pound Ivy-Leaguer," Kessler points out. "It's about what's right for that floor and how the floor relates to the body and the sport."

For example, you may enter the program stage thinking you'll need to get a multipurpose floor but realize through discussion that basketball is more important than roller hockey, so the floor should cater most to the basketball players.

Indoor tennis courts at the RiverWinds sports
facility in West Deptford, N.J.

"Or maybe it's a school that hasn't lost a state championship soccer game in the last 20 years," Kessler says. In that case, the needs of soccer and soccer players weigh most heavily in deciding which flooring will work best. Also, don't overlook nonsports-related events such as convocations, trade shows or banquets.

At the concept stage, you start narrowing down to a list of general types of flooring that could work with your plan.

"In this stage, architects and engineers take the program you've figured out and create a design of how the gym will function," Kessler says. This includes elements such as traffic patterns, the physical layout and how each area will coordinate. This is a time when your plans may still need some rethinking and revising. You might start out assuming you want one type of floor, but in the end decide a maple floor or a synthetic floor (poured urethane, rolled sheet goods in vinyl or rubber, or injection-molded polypropylene tiles) would suit your needs just as well or better.

After you fully outline your program and concept, the schematic stage is the point where more specifics come into play. Now's the time to consider things like what you want in terms of shock absorption, ball bounce and aesthetics. To get a better perspective and a peek into your facility's future, it's helpful to visit a nearby facility that has already done something similar to what you're planning.

"Do not be a guinea pig," Kessler advises. "Somebody somewhere has already done it."

Arrange to speak with facility managers, maintenance staff and athletic directors to find out what's working for them and what isn't, if there's anything they would have done differently, and if there have been any complaints from people who play and practice there.

You might also stop by a flooring showroom, where you're able to see a larger expanse of flooring than you'd get in a typical vendor sample. For example, Anderson Ladd's Athletic Floor Institute in Minneapolis allows visitors to view and test the resiliency of different synthetic and wood flooring materials. Experts are on hand to answer questions while you bounce balls, jump, run and otherwise audition the possibilities. This way, you can see what you're getting before you spend the money.

The Solaris Sports Club fieldhouse in Yorktown
Heights, N.Y.

"You want to put [the floor] down, and you don't want to talk about it for 20 years," Kessler says.

At the product selection stage, you've settled on the type of product you want and now need to decide among the many vendors. Nearly every flooring company has an exclusive manufacturing process that distinguishes it in some way from generic alternatives. Even wood differs in its various proprietary subfloor design systems.

If you're working with a contractor or architect, your representatives there will help you narrow it down and explain the features and benefits of each manufacturer's system. They will likely have preferred vendors they already work with and can provide you with information about each one. But don't be afraid to talk to other facility managers and do some of your own research—a lot of information is available through company Web sites and catalogs. If you're installing a floor at a public facility, keep in mind that regulations generally require that more than one company is able to bid on your construction projects, which means you'll need to choose among generic options that vendors sell.

Wood wins

A more conservative but always appealing flooring option is wood. According to the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, maple shows up on about 70 percent of all sports floors installed in the United States each year. And according to the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. sports floor market is growing at a rate of between 10 percent and 20 percent annually, which means even more wood flooring.

It's not surprising that wood is so popular. It's durable, long-lasting, flexible, easy to maintain and attractive. It can also be used in a variety of applications by adapting the subfloor systems to meet the needs of the particular sport: While a hardwood floor works for a basketball court, a softer one is more appropriate for an aerobics room. Besides being favored by basketball players, wood is also traditionally used for volleyball, racquetball and handball courts, gymnasiums and dance floors.

Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau, Wis.

Maple is the most commonly used wood for sports flooring because of its natural beauty and durability. Three grades of maple flooring are available, which differ basically in appearance. First Grade is virtually defect-free and therefore the most expensive. College and professional basketball teams prefer First Grade because even the slightest blemishes tend to stand out to a television audience. Second and Better Grade flooring has slight imperfections. Third Grade is characterized by more pronounced variations in color as well as texture and is often used in primary and secondary school projects because of its lower cost.

Although the initial cost of a wood floor may be higher than the cost of a synthetic floor, studies have shown that in the long run—taking into account daily and major maintenance costs—wood flooring can actually be cheaper. Don't simply rule it out because you assume it will break your budget. The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association also says that the typical life expectancy of a maple floor is more than twice that of a vinyl floor.

"If well taken care of, wood will last 70 to 100 years," says Howard Brickman, owner of Brickman Consulting based in Norwell, Mass.

An important consideration when choosing wood flooring is moisture. Before delivering wood to the jobsite, cement slabs and all plastering and painting should be thoroughly dry or else you risk the wood picking up moisture from these areas. After delivery, factor in about 72 hours for humidity acclimation before installation can take place.

"You have to let the material reach equilibrium before installing," Brickman explains. After installation, prevent damage to your flooring by ensuring proper humidity levels in the room (they vary slightly depending on your geographic region). You also need to protect wood from water damage.

"Wood can be rescued from a lot of abuse," Brickman says. "About the only thing [wood] won't tolerate is a leaking room."

Synthetic scores

If you've decided your floor is more multipurpose, then a synthetic floor might be just the thing. There are three basic synthetic options: poured urethane, rubber or vinyl sheet goods, and injection-molded modular polypropylene tiles. Poured urethane meets particular resiliency needs through the amount of rubber granules included in the pour. Urethane can also be poured over a rubber sheet good that lies on the concrete substrate and comes in various thicknesses to satisfy resiliency requirements.

A poured urethane floor was chosen for the
Evangel basketball court at the Evangel College
Maybee Student Fitness Center in Springfield, Mo.

A poured urethane floor can last up to about 38 years if resurfaced every 10 years. Maintenance requires damp-mopping and sometimes industrial cleaning. Repairs are accomplished fairly easily by cutting out damaged areas and repouring. Urethane-based paints allow you to add graphics like your facility logo and sports boundary areas.

When choosing poured urethane, it's critical to have a level surface to begin with.

"If you don't have a perfect base slab and you do a poured urethane floor, you're going to end up with parts of the floor very thin and others very thick," says Matthew Wolfe, principal at Bond + Wolfe Architects in St. Louis. "If it's an old building, maybe a rolled good would be better because it would offer more consistent thicknesses."

Rolled and sheet goods are typically used in school applications and lower-end floors where noncompetitive sports are being played, Wolfe says. Although this type of flooring doesn't offer the complex subfloor systems of wood or urethane, it does offer simple mop-up maintenance as well as cool color options.

"The colors have gotten a lot better in synthetic floors," Wolfe says. Because the color is already manufactured into the floor, you don't need to paint and repaint. There's even a sheet that fools people into thinking it's maple. "A lot of churches use it for their recreation area," he says.

Rubber floors sometimes show cracks and holes, though, and damage may be tricky to fix. For example, if you're holding an event on a rubber floor, and a metal chair leg digs into the floor, patching it up could be a challenge.

On the other hand, fixing a damaged tile in a modular polypropylene tile system is extremely easy. Another distinct advantage with tiles—especially over wood flooring—is its resistance to moisture and water damage.

Each flooring option has its best uses and its pros and cons—not to mention a long list of manufacturers that come with salespeople who will try to convince you that their system is the best. Don't rush the flooring decision. Go through the steps, and you'll satisfy your budget considerations, your aesthetic sensibilities and your users.

Who knows? You might even get bold and be inspired to choose purple tennis courts.