Feature Article - July 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Sports & Recreation Surfaces

By Dana Carman


Gymnasium floors, as with turf, have proponents on both sides of the natural-versus-synthetic coin. The natural surface of choice is maple hardwood flooring, which, like natural grass, is generally considered the preferred playing surface for basketball and volleyball. On the other side of the coin is the synthetic gym floor, made to look and feel similar to a wood floor but without some of the drawbacks of wood.

According to Dan Heney, technical director of the Maple Floor Manufacturers Association, the drawbacks of wood are more perceived than proven.

Some experts, such as Robert Cohen of the American Sports Builders Association, don't feel wood makes as good of a multipurpose surface as the synthetic floors because the wood floors tend to be sensitive to heavy traffic and spills. Many gyms today aren't used only for basketball and volleyball games, but serve as auditoriums and cafeterias as well as host events and other sports such as floor hockey. Additionally, maintenance on a synthetic floor versus a wood floor is different. Wood floors should not be mopped and do need to be refinished annually.

Heney pointed out, however, that wood floors withstand the test of time. A good maple hardwood floor can last 30 to 40 years, whereas a synthetic floor will last about 15 to 20 years, he said.

"It's a common misperception that wood floors won't stand up to abuse," Heney added. "If you're going to put chairs on the floor and the chairs don't have rubber floor protectors, they're going to mark up the floor, but that's true no matter what. As long as you maintain the equipment and the floor is properly protected, you won't have issues."

Moisture tends to come up in conversation when discussing the pros and cons of hardwood floors as moisture can wreak havoc on wood floors. DiNatale suggested considering a synthetic floor if you're aware of humidity and moisture problems in your facility. That's also why spills can be an issue and why mopping is not the proper method of cleaning hardwood floors. To protect your hardwood floors, consult your manufacturer to make sure you're using appropriate products and methods.

Another way to protect your wood or synthetic floors when they're being used for a function other than athletics is to purchase a gym floor cover. Floor covers are a quick and easy way to convert your gym floor quickly if necessary, are low-maintenance and come in a variety of colors and a range of thicknesses depending on your needs.

Often, the deciding factor in choosing synthetic or a wood floor is cost. Wood is the more expensive option, but most agree it's also the more attractive of the two surfaces. DiNatale has worked on projects where a mix system, or composite surface, was used in which a synthetic floor is placed on top of a wood subfloor, which is typically what you'll find under a natural wood floor. Generally, the base under a synthetic floor is concrete so the floor is harder on the bodies of the athletes, so a composite surface gives you the shock-absorbing qualities of the natural wood surface with a synthetic top that is multipurpose and less expensive to implement.

Standard Issue

The most widely used performance standard for sports surfaces is known as the DIN Standard 18032 Part 2, which specifies performance characteristics such as shock absorption, vertical deflection and area of deflection, ball bounce, surface friction and rolling load.

  • Shock absorption is the force absorbed by the floor and the force returned to the athlete. Floors are rated by the percentage of force reduction they provide. For example, a floor with a force reduction value of 60 percent will absorb 60 percent of the impact force and return 40 percent of that force to the athlete.
  • Ball bounce is the measurement of a basketball's response rebounding off the surface as compared to its response off a hard surface such as concrete.
  • Surface friction is a function on the finish in ensuring the surface has a good grip.
  • Rolling load refers to the amount of point loads and rolling loads caused by rolling equipment and furniture that a floor can withstand.

Source: Maple Floor Manufacturers Association (www.maplefloor.org)