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

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Training accessory. Aesthetic enhancement. Design statement. Masterpiece of biomechanical engineering. Marketing tool. Environmental impact. Major capital expenditure. Endless maze of decisions driven by all of the above.

And you thought it was just a floor.

The path to the right sport surface can be filled with more twists and turns than an advanced group-fitness class, but recreation professionals can find their way with a lot of leg work and a good dash of common sense. By learning what today's cutting-edge facilities are putting onto their floors, talking with pros who've been through the flooring process, and creating a good working relationship with your design and building team, the maze of the surfacing market can smooth into a straight line to the best choices.

At first glance, the possibilities seem limitless—sports surfaces took up 15 pages of the 2004 Recreation Management Buyers Guide & Source Book alone—but it's not as difficult as it looks.

"When it comes to sports surfaces right now, no one is reinventing the wheel; it's more perfecting a wheel that's already been invented," says Mike Mayo, associate professor of architecture at Kansas State University and a principal in TKE Design Group in Manhattan, Kan.

Despite the array of manufacturers and product lines, flooring often comes down to a balance between giving and getting: Surfaces can give in to pressure, yielding to the weight and force of an athlete's body, and getting back energy, getting a push back on a track surface or getting your ball to return and bounce properly on a tennis or basketball court.

Ultimately, choosing flooring means making a series of either/or choices:

  • Wood or synthetic?
  • Anchored or floating system?
  • Synthetic wood or rubberized for your field house?
  • Rubber or vinyl?
  • Poured-in-place or sheet goods?
  • To carpet or not to carpet?

And before answering those questions, your facility team needs to answer the most important question: for what purposes will you use this floor?

Facilities must strike a delicate balance between the variety of uses, says Mike Matthys, an architect with Ankeny Kell Architects in St. Paul, Minn.

"Evaluate each flooring option with the potential uses in mind—volleyball, basketball, tennis, trade shows, pancake breakfasts, dances, craft shows," he says. "Ultimately, there's always some sacrifice. A floor oriented toward multipurpose may not be as desirable for competitive activities, and a floor oriented towards competitive basketball will not be as adaptable."

And before you get your heart set on a specific system—say, that high-performance wood floor—you need to make sure it represents the best choice for your facility. Long-term costs, maintenance and secondary uses matter as much as the desire for the perfect play on your basketball court.

"I'll tell clients, let's do some estimates of what it's going to cost to maintain a wood vs. a synthetic floor," Mayo says. "Over 10 years, if you put in 100,000 square feet of wood, that's going to cost $1 million more to maintain than synthetic, and maintenance issues are just one part of it."