Feature Article - April 2022
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Choose Wisely

Considerations for Indoor Sports & Recreation Surfaces

By Joe Bush


Sports and fitness facilities are amazing places. The most complete have something for every type of need, even as those types of sports and exercises keep growing in number and evolving from the traditional.

The organizations that operate health clubs, whether commercial or municipal, have a daunting task: to provide not just the space for all the activities, but also the equipment required. And while not every user uses all the equipment in a weight room, or ever swims in the pool, or sets foot in the Pilates room or the aerobics studio, every user uses the building's floors. No matter the indoor activity, the surface on which equipment rests and on which people walk, run, dance, jump, skip rope, stretch, squat and push up from is used by all who enter.

Other than the roof, the flooring can arguably be considered the most important furnishing in a fitness facility. It cushions human joints and dropped weights, provides traction, displays pleasing colors and logos, and lines for sports' rules and boundaries, mutes loud sounds, and delivers the proper bounce for balls. There is a best surface for every activity, and operators and managers work with the many options manufacturers provide to balance activity needs with their budgets.

No matter the surface, it needs cleaning, repairing and replacing, and the first two need to be done correctly to avoid early and frequent occasions of the third. In short, operators need to tread lightly when making indoor surface decisions.

And it's not just health clubs. Fieldhouses once were seen as college facilities, but have caught on at the high school level and below, said Courtney Spicer, director of regional sales for a synthetic surface company based in Lindenhurst, Ill. "In the last five to 10 years we're seeing a lot of the K-12 market that is building these fieldhouses to accommodate all the multipurpose sports like indoor soccer and baseball, basketball, volleyball, pickleball, tennis," Spicer said. "These facilities are more common than people would see 15 to 20 years ago.

"It's tailored to however they set their hierarchy of needs and wants for the facility," he added. "You could essentially say every one of these facilities is a custom-built facility. We might offer up a different surface if someone says tennis is a priority in this facility and volleyball is fourth or fifth versus someone who says volleyball is No. 1 and we're not going to play tennis at all."

Sadat Khan is the senior associate director of facility planning and operations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Recreation and Wellbeing Department. Among other buildings, Khan oversees a rec center with 30,000 square feet of fitness space, including eight courts, five studios and an Olympic-size pool.

Khan said he approaches all flooring decisions with lessons from past experience and research on suppliers.

"Just knowing industry standards and knowing where different contractors had installed products and their references, and having some experience with certain products, we know where we want to go from the beginning," Khan said.

Regardless of what the surface will be used for, the unseen bottom of the floor is as important as the visible top. How well balls bounce, impact is transferred and noise suppressed depends on what's going on below. Khan said his flooring is wood for courts and studios, tile for locker rooms and pool decks, rubber for strength areas, and a combination of carpet and rubber in cardio spaces.

He said it's most common in his business to use more padding—eight to 12 millimeters—in rooms with weight equipment. Cardio equipment gets six to eight millimeters. The thickness is crucial, but so is the material that everything touches, and slides over, and is dropped on, and cleaned repeatedly.

"That's working with architects and engineers as well as vendors," Khan said. "It needs to be something that's resilient, not something that's going to rip up in the first couple months. We see over 6,000 people a day, so we can't have the space go down every couple months because of wear and tear, so having a proven industry record is really important to us when it comes to rubber."

Or, as Jake Angrisano, a sales rep for a modular flooring manufacturer based in Utica, N.Y., put it: "Our customers are looking for a durable, affordable and low-maintenance option that is customizable to match their brand or preferred color."