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

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Wood you mind?

Wood remains the pinnacle of gymnasium flooring for a variety of reasons: its warm appearance, its ability to return energy and its durability (a well-maintained wood floor can last 70 years, although most industry pros peg its life span at around 40 years). What's more, wood leaves no question marks, having been used since the dawn of sports, its performance and durability has been well documented.

But that durability comes with a price: Wood costs more. It demands careful, constant maintenance. Water can mortally wound it, either through spills or through humidity. In most cases, it demands a space with year-round ventilation to keep humidity constant. It requires skilled installers. And without a sophisticated subsystem, its hard surface provides no cushioning.


Floors even offer built-in humidity sensors and automatic fans—such as the one installed at Monmouth University's Boylan Gymnasium in West Long Branch, N.J.—to solve several flooring quandaries. The 1960s-era building has no air conditioning, and its location only a mile from the Atlantic Ocean exacerbates moisture issues, but since it doubles as the competition gym for the school's basketball team, Boylan required wood. When it came time to replace the original floor, says Monmouth's Jeff Stapleton, the school went with a floating system that allows air to flow in channels underneath the floor through built-in air pumps and fans. Stapleton, the associate athletic director for internal operations, felt it was a unique system that provided a creative alternative to a fixed system that might not handle the expansions and contractions of the wood. As for performance, "we've noticed a lot less little nagging leg injuries—knees, ankles, shins," he says.

Typically, wood floors consist of a layer of finished wood, usually maple, around an inch thick, installed over a concrete base, with a subsystem between the concrete and the wood to provide resilience and protect the wood from moisture. Those subsystems—what goes beneath the wood strips—make the biggest difference in performance and price and can include wood "sleeper" support pieces, panels of plywood, foam or other padding underlayers, or channeled synthetic supports.

The choices boil down to three types of subsystems, although manufacturers have tweaked these with great variety, Mayo says. Sleeper systems feature the wood strips installed atop strips of wood or synthetic studs. Dead spots can be a concern with sleeper floors if not properly designed or installed. Free-floating floors, usually the least costly, are not mechanically attached to the concrete base—they rest freely atop it but are isolated from the concrete by resting on synthetic cushioning channels or other methods. Most expensive, but most desirable for withstanding moisture and humidity changes, are anchored systems, where the subsystem is bolted to the concrete.

What's the grade?

After settling on the type of wood flooring system, choosing the wood itself comes next. Maple comprises about 70 percent of the wood sport floors in the United States, but other choices exist. Several European firms offer oak flooring, and beech is sometimes used as well. Wood also comes graded One, Two or Three. Grade One maple strips, by far the most expensive, are almost perfectly blonde with no flaws—what you'd see in an NCAA Division I competition gym that gets regular television coverage. Grade Two and Three are successively darker and less expensive, Larson says, but the differences for the most part are mostly cosmetic.

Mixing floor systems in the same space can help you obtain a high-performance product within a tight budget, Larson says. That expensive Grade Two maple resilient anchored system can end right at the out-of-bounds lines in your gym, with the perimeter a less-costly Grade Three, floating system. Or in a gymnasium that features three courts, he suggests designating one as the competition court with the premium system and using lesser systems for the practice courts.

Prefinished wood systems, with tongue-in-groove installation, can also make a wood floor a more affordable option, with the added benefit of being environmentally friendly, Bean adds.

Wood remains a popular choice beyond gymnasiums, such as in group fitness areas. Here, ball bounce is not an issue, so manufacturers offer a variety of systems with greater shock absorption and force reduction and less ball return, to cushion the jumps, steps and assorted pounding of group-fitness classes.