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

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Summarizing synthetics

While wood tops the must-have list for many facilities, synthetic floors comprise an increasingly viable option. To Matthys, the biggest flooring trend in the last five years has been the emergence of synthetic floors to challenge traditional wood areas. Tellingly, many of the most up-and-coming synthetics are those that look and play like wood.

Synthetics simply mean the material is man-made, which covers a broad spectrum of products that typically fall into three categories: urethane, rubber and PVC (polyvinyl chlorate). Synthetics are created and installed three different ways: poured on as a liquid that hardens, rolled out in long sheets or put together like a puzzle with interlocking tiles. To mirror the area-elastic feel of a wood performance system, which "gives" over a wide surface, resilient synthetics use a harder surface, such as a PVC vinyl with a fiberglass backing, bonded atop a softer material.

For gymnasiums, these synthetics, often called resilient systems, may represent the best choice for facilities where nonstop action limits the time needed to maintain wood floors, where maintenance and humidity issues would vex a wood system, or where budget constraints prohibit natural wood.

Of course, synthetics often get installed simply for their performance and versatility as well. USA Volleyball lists a synthetic surface as its official floor, and the last 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association volleyball championships have been played on synthetics, according to one manufacturer.

Beyond wood-look resilient systems, poured-in-place and sheet-good systems made of urethane or rubber continue their popularity in field houses, for suspended running tracks and for track-and-field surfaces. The systems come in a variety of thicknesses, measured in millimeters. At this point, industry pros hold a wide range of opinions on how thick a synthetic floor must be before it "bottoms out," making a heavy impact on athletes' joints. Recommendations vary from as little as 6mm to as much as 15mm. Generally, the thicker the surface, the more expensive, so smaller budgets often result in thinner floors.

Synthetics also dominate for indoor skating activities like inline hockey. Interlocking polypropylene tiles have become the standard in that sport for their friction coefficient, which allows for proper puck glide and wheel grip.

In synthetics, another option for existing facilities is to lay a new synthetic floor over an existing one, Mayo says. By putting down a 2mm layer of a poured-in-place floor, for example, facilities can end up with the benefits of expensive "dual durometer" systems, which feature two different hardnesses bonded together for greater performance.

Poured-in-place, sheet goods and interlocking tiles all offer benefits and drawbacks to consider in your decision. Poured-in-place systems offer a smooth, seamless surface but require more quality control during installation and make spot repairs more difficult. While more easily installed and repaired, sheet goods result in seals or seams between rolls, which can create weak spots, water traps or tripping hazards. Interlocking systems offer the simplest installation and easiest repairs but also feature joints between tiles that can offer the same hazards as sheet goods.


When planning the new Parkville Athletic Club in Parkville, Mo., managers David and Sally Barth enjoyed the luxury of building a 42,000-square-foot private sport and fitness facility to their own standards. In the 25,000 square feet of court space, with high-impact usage for four basketball, two volleyball and two soccer courts and football and baseball as well, their floor had to be many things to many sports—with many, many different line systems. David says he selected a synthetic resilient system for its slide performance and its coloring versatility.

"We were able to put eight different colors down, and it's cut into the floors," he says. In addition to the sport striping, the floor includes graphics of a volleyball, soccer ball and basketball.