Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Tread Lightly

A complete guide to selecting the right sports surface

By Margaret Ahrweiler


The idea of a floor, on the surface, seems pretty simple: something to stand on. Outside, it meant grass or dirt. Add sports and recreation into the mix, though, and it becomes something to stand on, run on, jump on, sit on, roll on, bounce on, fall on, race on, dance on, meet on.

More complicated yet, every year seems to bring a new sport or fitness with new flooring requirements: Did planners have to worry about Pilates or inline hockey needs 20 years ago? On top of that, dozens of different manufacturers, each with an array of products, compete for a slice of the sports surface pie.

How is a facility manager supposed to make a decision? As it turns out, education and thoughtful planning can reduce the headaches and clear the path to the right floor.

Actually, say the experts, choosing the floor is the last and sometimes easiest part of the process. The hard part lies in asking—and answering—the questions that lead to the right floor.

The sports hall of the university of sports of Innsbruck

The first question facility owners need to ask: How is the surface going to be used?

"It sounds obvious, but it's not," observes Sally Cottingham, whose Chicago-based firm, Moose Sports Surfaces Ltd. , brokers sport surfaces. "Rarely do you see a surface used for just one thing, and it's the secondary uses that often determine your choices."

The dozens of different materials are matched by dozens of different performance qualities best for different sports, with a quick lesson in physics and biomechanics necessary for each sport (see chart on page 9).

In basketball, for example, floors need to return energy to maximize the ball's bounce, enable athletes to jump well and allow for quick pivot turns. Meanwhile, tennis courts need to return energy for bounce as well, but to a lesser extent, and must enable horizontal movement by athletes—a controlled slide.

While a park district may consider artificial turf for a facility primarily used for soccer, Cottingham notes, volleyball may be a secondary use. Since artificial turf doesn't allow athletes the foot slides necessary in volleyball, this would be a poor choice that could lead to injury. There's a lot of factors to consider.

Likewise, a school may plan a field house and consider putting in a smooth surface in the center. But if the school follows through with plans to place six tennis courts there, textured surfaces more appropriate to tennis should be used. You get the picture.

The Foundations for Flooring

You'll find as many different opinions and options on flooring as there are systems and manufacturers—that is, dozens. But the experts all agree that sport surfacing choices must satisfy seven key factors:

Installation: How difficult is it to install the system? Who will be doing the installing? Does the manufacturer offer its own installation teams, or is your staff honestly up to the task? How soon can the surface be used after installation? Does it emit any toxic outgases or noxious smells?

Aesthetics: What kind of look are you trying to convey for your facility? Traditional? Contemporary? How does the flooring look under different lighting conditions? How does it hide or show soiling? Is glare an issue for users?

Maintenance: How much and what type of maintenance is required? Are some substances commonly found at your site harmful to the surface? Will your facility honestly be able to handle the maintenance schedule? Can your staff perform minor repairs or must the manufacturer be called?

Durability: How long does this surface last? How long do you want it to last? That is, do you really want to go 40 years before replacing the product? What types of wear does the product show and how can it be fixed? Does the type of usage you plan affect durability?

Performance: What is this type of floor designed to do best? Does that match your planned uses?

Cost: Don't just look at upfront costs, look at lifetime costs. How much does installation cost? What are the maintenance costs? How much are the products necessary for maintenance and how easy are they to obtain? What does maintenance cost in employee hours?

Safety: Does this floor meet the biomechanical needs of its intended uses? Is there proper cushioning for impact? Is it too slippery? Not slippery enough? Does it accommodate a range of users? Are there any protrusions that can cause a hazard?