Feature Article - July/August 2004
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Special Supplement:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Environmentally friendly floors and surfaces

Sports surfaces and environmental consciousness once went together like, well, fish and bicycles, but with the rise of sustainable design, that's no longer true. Sustainable design refers to a three-pronged approach to building with environmental sensitivity and responsibility.

"It's a three-legged stool that's not just environmental responsibility," says TMP's Larson. "It's also social responsibility and economic responsibility."

Buildings are designed and constructed to minimize waste and environmental impact and conserve natural resources in both the short and long term. To meet sustainability requirements, buildings may feature high-efficiency materials and energy systems, natural materials for interior finishes, chemical products low in toxic volatile organic compounds, and materials selected for how far they had to travel to the job site.

The chemicals and processes used to create synthetic floors, finish wood systems and glue everything together once made the hit lists for environmental halls of shame. But market forces, increasing pubic awareness, tighter laws and a burgeoning sense of social responsibility from both designers and manufacturers is changing that.

Toxic fume emissions from the adhesives and finishes made with VOCs—volatile organic compounds—have been cut, in part following California's environmental mandates. Polyurethane coatings with lower VOC emissions may not hold up as well, however, requiring reapplications that mean a facility ultimately uses more of the chemicals. One internationally known synthetic track surface manufacturer now promotes a system that's installed without using any VOC-based glues.

Synthetic floors once commonly used small amounts of mercury and lead, but these substances have been eliminated since the 1980s. To reduce the environmental hazards of removing these systems with lead or mercury, Mayo says that many facilities can simply lay a new floor over the old one, harmlessly encasing it.

Floors or subsystems made of recycled products such as rubber or even gym shoes have become as popular for their performance and durability as for their healthier environmental "footprint."

Wood floors create less of an environmental impact than one might think, Mayo says, because maple is considered a renewable resource and is harvested from fast-growing, commercially planted trees. What's more, with the advances in resilient subsystems, floors can last longer using less maple—25/32nds of an inch rather than 33/32nds, previously the industry standard.

Carpeting, also a previous target of environmental activists, has cleaned up its eco-friendly image too. The carpeting industry now exceeds the standards of the Kyoto Protocol, the international guidelines to reduce greenhouse-effect emissions, says the Carpet and Rug Institute's Braun. It has increased the amount of recycled materials in its synthetic carpets and cut the waste water, solid waste and air emissions created, along with the energy used, during manufacturing drastically since 1990, Braun says—in some categories up to 75 percent.

Beyond the impact of how flooring materials are produced, planners committed to sustainability also look at how the materials arrive there. Locally produced materials take precedence because less energy is used to deliver them. The building team can also mandate that the manufacturer minimize packaging materials to reduce solid waste.

Curious about the impact of your floors? Most manufacturers have become well-versed in sustainability and can tell you how your product rates, and many architecture firms boast sustainable design divisions. More information can be found on a few key Web sites. The resources section of the U.S. Green Building Council Web site, www.usgbc.org/Resources, features a presentation with a good overview of sustainable design. BIPER USA, Building Industry Professionals for Environmental Responsibility, offers background, links and some strong opinions at www.biperusa.biz.