Feature Article - May/June 2003
Find a printable version here

Tread Lightly

A complete guide to selecting the right sports surface

By Margaret Ahrweiler

It takes a village

Next, owners must consider the sometimes conflicting needs of everyone involved with a sport surface. This includes the owner, the facility manager, the architect, the contractor, the maintenance staff, the athletic director, the coaches, a community representative for a publicly funded space and even athletes, who may have strong opinions about comfort levels. Everyone involved needs to decide what's most important for the surface. While this step may seem equally obvious, it's frequently overlooked as planners try to move the process along quickly.

To help resolve these issues, Cottingham uses a ranking system, giving clients a sheet of flooring attributes and asking that the group number them in order of importance.

Combe Indoor Tennis Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

These include:

Sound deadening
Resiliency/shock absorbency
Ball bounce/roll/performance
Coefficient to friction (slip vs. slide vs. nonslip)
Installation time
Smell during/after installation
Spike resistance

With all these needs and opinions layered on top of an already complex issue, an expert and mediator may come in handy. That's where flooring consultants can enter the picture, Cottingham says, since they can offer a greater level of expertise by, like the chicken people, doing just one thing right.

"Architects are at a disadvantage because they have to know a little bit about everything, and it doesn't always allow them to focus on flooring," Cottingham says. A flooring consultant serves as the "point person," bringing the various groups of decision-makers together and helping streamline the process.

Typically, flooring consultants charge between 0.5 and 2 percent of the total cost of a project and can often save the client at least the price of his or her fees by finding a more cost-efficient product or installation method. Hence, consulting fees for a $1. 5 million project might run anywhere from $7,500 to $30,000.

York Community High School in suburban Elmhurst, Ill. , for example, decided to hire a surface consultant to ensure that the school's new 60,000-square-foot field house would best serve its standout cross-country and track-and-field program.

Northwood University in Midland, Mich.

"We felt we needed an independent voice, rather than picking a surface based on who had the best marketing materials," says Patricia Sumrow, assistant superintendent for York's Community School District 205. After hiring Duffy Mahoney of Carmel, Ind. -based Duff Athletic Design, the York team realized that they had been focusing on competition, but that was actually the fifth most important issue, after the field house floor's use for practice, physical education, community use and gatherings such as graduations.

According to Mahoney, his first task is to analyze the overall usage plan and design of the facility, looking at safety, spectator issues and configuration. Next, he educates clients on the range of products.

"[With York] I started with about 30 samples with a range of manufacturers, pricing and performance characteristics and tried to cut through the Tower of Babel on some of the product information," Mahoney says.

Next, he pinpointed about a half-dozen field houses for the York team to tour for comparison. That helped the team better eye up the situation.

Facility planners who have neither the budget nor the inclination to work with a sports-surface consultant can explore the alternative of a ready-made package plan. An increasing number of firms offer design-build services for sports facilities, where they offer a prepackaged program of set flooring options. A prepackaged program of good, better and best spaces can be offered, with all the design and materials choices already made.

A Comparison of the
Four Major Types of Sports Flooring

1. Area-elastic sports floor

Resilient, deflection-resistant floor with large deformation control area.

2. Combined sports floor

Area-elastic floor with point-elastic top layer. At the load-distribution layer, the deformation control layer is large, at the top layer it is tightly adapted to the load-bearing area.

3. Mixed sports floor

Resilient, supple floor with area-reinforcing component. The deformation control area is small but clearly exceeding the load-bearing area.

4. Point-elastic sports floor

Resilient, supple floor with a deformation control area tightly adapted to the load-bearing area.

Note: Independent of the manufacturer-specific properties, there are basically two types of sports floors: area-elastic and point-elastic. In between, you find various hybrid forms of combined and mixed constructions. The difference shows in their deformation properties and the resulting consequences on their suitability to the project at hand.

Diagrams Courtesy Of HARO sports

The physics of floors
Fairfax High School in Fairfax County, Va.

Before determining what's best for your facility's surface needs, it helps to understand what sports surfaces do. While most sports-surface literature seems to require an advanced degree in physics to comprehend, it all comes down to a few principles, according to Robert Johnston of Cannon/Johnston Architecture in Victoria, B.C.

For most sports surfaces, he says, the goal is to reduce the amount of energy lost to the surface. An extreme example would be the way a runner's energy is lost when running in sand.

Next, sports surfaces can be either point elastic or area elastic. Point-elastic surfaces, which comprise most synthetic surfaces, give with pressure and provide cushioning but absorb energy. Area-elastic surfaces, primarily wood, don't give with immediate pressure but bend slightly over a wide area and provide energy return.

Johnston, a nationally recognized expert on flooring biomechanics and issues, advises that ideally, regardless of the level of competition, the athlete's comfort, the physical factors (construction and maintenance issues), then cost, and logistics all must be considered. The weight given these criteria will vary according to the project, he adds.