Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Something's Afoot

By Kara Spak

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Not every fitness facility is starting from scratch when putting its surfaces in place. Chuck Richards, owner of the Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Ore., uses a variety of sustainable products throughout his 75,000-square-foot facility.

Richards opened the club in 1977. Thirty years ago, the variety of flooring options was pretty basic, he says.

"We had hardwood, we had carpet," he recalls. "Once in a while, you'd see polyurethane."

But as Richards took to expanding his club over the years, he saw that the choices in flooring had expanded greatly as well. He added three new buildings to the complex in the expansion.

"Once we entered the new construction zone, we would see our possibilities within flooring are so much greater," he says. "The manufacturers have come up with some different products."

Many of these popular products are environmentally friendly, something he says is popular with patrons though may not be a draw on its own.

"I'm not sure it's getting us more customers, but the awareness [of his environmental efforts] is out there," he says.

Some of these products are unique re-uses for older materials. The more unique floors of the Sunset Athletic Club—and the history behind them—are on display at the club.

One such distinctive surface is the acid-etched floors that are found throughout the club, in the hallways and along the perimeter of the gyms. On average about 200 years old, these floors are made from materials once coated in rust.

"They use battleships or whatever else they can get, and mix [the material] with acid," he says. "This leaves the rust behind. Then they clean off the residue, seal it, and finish it."

Maintenance on acid-etched floors could not be easier, Richards says.

"You just dust them off, use a wet mop, and once a year coat the floors with a non-skid product, like an acrylic floor finish," he says.

The acid-etched floor comes in eight colors. Richards chose a color that spoke to the floors' unique history, "a rich rust color," he says.

For the hallways and corridors in and around the pool area, Richards chose a product from the Netherlands that is soft on bare feet and resistant to fungus and mildew. The carpet holds water, and when it reaches its saturation point, the carpet drains into the pool area.

"This is a neat product that comes from a long way away," he says.

Richards, like Lawry at The Centre of Elgin, also spoke highly of the carpet tiles he uses in the facility. Richards selected 20-inch squares to use in the weight-training facility.

"They are easy to lay, and if something goes bad, you just replace it," he says. "That's kind of nice. Before you just had rolled carpet."

In the corridors facing the athletic club's weight areas, on the floor of the Spinning room and in fairly high-traffic areas, Richards uses a recycled-rubber product. The rubber floor is 3/8-inch thick and is made from recycled tires. It comes in a roll, like carpet, and is durable and easy to clean.

The hardwood in the gym may look like a standard wood floor, but it's a floor with a story to tell. Richards uses sustainable wood flooring, made from trees harvested in a renewable forest. It's a natural product, and based on the responses from a display area he has explaining the product, it's a popular one.

"People love it," he says. "I liked the look and wearability. And I liked that it was a green product."

The other carpet he spoke of as special is what he calls "pop bottle carpet"—a product made from recycled soda bottles.

"It's a little more expensive," he says. "But it works just fine."

It looks like rolled carpet, but knowing what it's made of makes the extra price worth it for Richards and his many eco-conscious customers in Portland.

"We're thrilled to know we're using stuff that could have gone to the dump," he says.

The environmentally friendly floor products are mixed in with some more traditional flooring surfaces like tile, concrete and regular carpet.

"It's been a combination," he says. "If we can use these [environmentally friendly products], let's do it. But we also have to see about durability and cost."

Richards says as more and more eco-friendly or sustainable products debut on the market, there is more demand for them.

"It's hard to keep up with it," he says.

Richards isn't the only one factoring the environment into decisions about flooring.

One footwear and apparel company converts used athletic shoes into a material for artificial athletic surfaces. The manufacturer asks groups to collect 5,000 pairs of used athletic shoes of any brand. The used shoes are then mixed with the company's own shoes that were returned due to a material flaw. The shoes are sliced up and divided into different products—outsole rubber, midsole foam and upper fabric. The sliced and cut-up shoes are used to create fields for playing football and soccer, tennis courts and basketball courts, playground surfaces, and running tracks.

Since the program started in 1993, the company estimates it has helped recycle more than 15 million pairs of used shoes that otherwise likely would be clogging up the nation's landfills. It has shipped nearly 6.5 million pounds of the recycled rubber (about 3,000 tons) for use on fields since 1999, its Web site reports.

The company provides its recycled material to a number of select licensees. One synthetic turf company mimics real grass turf by using a coated fiber and an open-weave system holding a mixture of this recycled-shoe material, other rubber material and sand infill. Base surfaces are varied and include asphalt, crushed rock and concrete. The turf can be used inside and out and reportedly requires less maintenance than a grass field, though the look and feel of the turf is grass-like.

This recycled-shoe material also is used in a polymer-resin binder system for an all-weather track surface, as part of wood or synthetic gymnasium floors, and on tennis and basketball courts.

The Solid Waste Agency of Lake County in Illinois, for example, announced in July 2004 it was looking to collect 5,000 shoes. By May 2005, more than 6,500 pairs of shoes were collected from 45 schools and youth groups and four or five central drop-off points.

The City of Milwaukee's Department of Public Work also has successfully used the Reuse-A-Shoe program. Since Milwaukee started the program in August 2004 through December 2005, the city collected nearly 21,000 pairs of used athletic shoes—or more than 15.5 tons of shoes that would've taken up 135 cubic yards of landfill space, according to the city.