Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring
By Margaret Ahrweiler
Training accessory. Aesthetic enhancement. Design statement. Masterpiece of biomechanical engineering. Marketing tool. Environmental impact. Major capital expenditure. Endless maze of decisions driven by all of the above.
And you thought it was just a floor.
The path to the right sport surface can be filled with more twists and turns than an advanced group-fitness class, but recreation professionals can find their way with a lot of leg work and a good dash of common sense. By learning what today's cutting-edge facilities are putting onto their floors, talking with pros who've been through the flooring process, and creating a good working relationship with your design and building team, the maze of the surfacing market can smooth into a straight line to the best choices.
At first glance, the possibilities seem limitless—sports surfaces took up 15 pages of the 2004 Recreation Management Buyers Guide & Source Book alone—but it's not as difficult as it looks.
"When it comes to sports surfaces right now, no one is reinventing the wheel; it's more perfecting a wheel that's already been invented," says Mike Mayo, associate professor of architecture at Kansas State University and a principal in TKE Design Group in Manhattan, Kan.
Despite the array of manufacturers and product lines, flooring often comes down to a balance between giving and getting: Surfaces can give in to pressure, yielding to the weight and force of an athlete's body, and getting back energy, getting a push back on a track surface or getting your ball to return and bounce properly on a tennis or basketball court.
Ultimately, choosing flooring means making a series of either/or choices:
- Wood or synthetic?
- Anchored or floating system?
- Synthetic wood or rubberized for your field house?
- Rubber or vinyl?
- Poured-in-place or sheet goods?
- To carpet or not to carpet?
And before answering those questions, your facility team needs to answer the most important question: for what purposes will you use this floor?
Facilities must strike a delicate balance between the variety of uses, says Mike Matthys, an architect with Ankeny Kell Architects in St. Paul, Minn.
"Evaluate each flooring option with the potential uses in mind—volleyball, basketball, tennis, trade shows, pancake breakfasts, dances, craft shows," he says. "Ultimately, there's always some sacrifice. A floor oriented toward multipurpose may not be as desirable for competitive activities, and a floor oriented towards competitive basketball will not be as adaptable."
And before you get your heart set on a specific system—say, that high-performance wood floor—you need to make sure it represents the best choice for your facility. Long-term costs, maintenance and secondary uses matter as much as the desire for the perfect play on your basketball court.
"I'll tell clients, let's do some estimates of what it's going to cost to maintain a wood vs. a synthetic floor," Mayo says. "Over 10 years, if you put in 100,000 square feet of wood, that's going to cost $1 million more to maintain than synthetic, and maintenance issues are just one part of it."
After assessing your needs, it's time to do your homework. The most important work of flooring research? Play. That's right, don't just stand on floors that are meant for movement—get out there and play, advises Mary Chappel, who should know. As director of recreation services at the University of Kansas, she oversaw the flooring selections for every inch of the 100,000-square-foot Student Recreation Fitness Center, a new student-funded facility that opened in the fall. Play on as many different types of floors as you can, she suggests. Better yet, bring a group of people to play along. As part of three years of planning, Chappel assembled a research team that included facility managers, design and building team, and most importantly, groups of fearless students willing to travel and sweat for their future rec center.
Chappel dispatched her team of testers to hundreds of facilities across the country. They played volleyball, shot hoops, worked out in fitness areas, climbed walls, jumped through aerobics classes and lifted weights. With every visit, they charted their experiences and narrowed their choices.
And at every stop, they asked questions: Who is the manufacturer? What type of system? What thickness? What did you want out of your floor? How has maintenance worked? Are you happy with your choice?
Don't just look at new facilities, either, advises Karen Bean, ASID, a designer with TMP Associates in Bloomfield, Mich. She suggests looking at older facilities to see how their surfaces have aged. Have they become worn? How have they handled the high-traffic areas? Can you find any dead spots?
The KU team ultimately decided the types of floors they wanted: wood resilient system for the gym, sheet goods for the running track, 3/8-inch vulcanized rubber tiles for weight areas and cushioned wood floors with mats for group fitness. Next, they narrowed their choices to a few different types of floors in each category and made their final selections.
Another way to test flooring choices is by visiting manufacturers' testing facilities, Matthys says. Most flooring companies, especially the largest, offer testing sites where prospective buyers can—literally—jump from one type of surface to the next. This makes it easier to understand what comes with the cost premiums, he notes: Your feet, knees and basketball may tell you why one system costs a dollar per square foot more. The downside of these showrooms? You're limited to only one brand, and you can only look at the difference between product lines, not two similar systems by competing manufacturers.
For large-scale projects, such as at the KU Student Fitness Recreation Center, manufacturers who stand to earn huge contracts—KU put down 32,000 square feet of wood competition gym floors alone—may offer to pay your expenses to test their products. While that can ease constantly strained budgets, Chappel advises against taking such perks.
"We paid our way to everything," she says. "We didn't want to feel obligated or beholden to anybody."
Before you floor, you must realize your surfaces must perform one job above all others—protect the bodies of the people who play on them and, if possible, give their performance a boost.
Better floors help athletes of all levels play better and feel better, as those who have upgraded their floors often attest. But deciphering the jargon of biomechanics—how floors accomplish that—can intimidate floor neophytes.
For example: "Vulcanized rubber sheet good consisting of a dual durometer, polymeric bound recycled rubber underlayment mat with a colored EDPM granule top wearing course…two-stage pad design, responsive to light and aggressive loads, quick response contact point and unmatched resilient load performance…" Huh? Understanding a few key terms can take you far. (See the sidebar on page 10.)
Associating the definitions with how you play a game or use a surface can help as well.
"By having floors with resilience, you can increase the health of the athlete," Mayo says. "The most common injury on hard wood surfaces is shin splints. If you have resiliency, that virtually disappears."
At Junction City High School in Junction City, Kan., for example, the school facility directors and athletes "were in awe of the floor" after they installed a resilient floor system, replacing an old sheet goods synthetic system.
"They were just amazed at how much better things were, how it gave, and how people felt, especially the adults," Mayo says. Complaints about injuries and soreness reduced dramatically.
Flooring systems that pay special attention to athlete comfort shouldn't be limited to Division I college facilities and their high-flying athletes, says TMP's Bean. Many community centers host as lengthy and intense a level of play as busy college facilities, she adds, and the older, less conditioned people who play there may need a high-performance floor more than younger athletes with healthier joints.
Biomechanicals can be broken down to a few key areas that all require some give-and-take, Mayo says, whose expertise on floors comes from the many hats he wears: architecture professor, architectural firm principal and member of the architects' advisory commission of the Maple Floor Manufacturers' Association.
According to Mayo, facility planners can get confused if they try to cram in too much information. He recommends they can simplify the process by focusing on a few key issues, then making it their mission to follow along and understand them. He recommends paying the most attention to these Big Three for gym floors: shock absorption (also known as force reduction), ball rebound and area of deflection. This tells how well a floor can absorb the impact of an athlete at play and how much of that force the athlete is exposed to in return as well as how much a ball will bounce back and how much a floor will indent, or "give," under weight and how far that indentation will spread.
Other areas, such as coefficient of friction, which measures sliding performance, are secondary, Mayo says.
"With the friction, you want enough to slow an athlete down, but not too much, so they come to a dead stop," he says. "It's important, but it's not the overriding issue. Plus, that coefficient of friction—that sliding ability—is going to change over time after you put it down."
Facility pros should rely on manufacturer suggestions for coating systems, he suggests, to get the sliding performance they want.
And while a little skepticism of marketing materials may be healthy, don't shy from manufacturers' educational and research programs, pros advise.
TMP's Bean and architect Dave Larson both say they have benefited from manufacturers' seminars. Much of the latest research being conducted on sports surface is coming from the manufacturers, Mayo adds, and those in the market should take advantage of that body of knowledge.
Major sports facility conferences occasionally touch on the subject as well, with seminars on sports surfaces taught by national sport facility gurus.
In the meantime, though, both surfacing industry and design professionals need to focus on improving communication and marketing to help clients better understand the science and construction of sport surfaces.
Which came first, the budget or the floor?
Learning a little about the science of floors will help make choices clearer when it comes time to work out your flooring budget. No one will deny that money matters when choosing a flooring system—Moose Sports' Cottingham puts it in her top three factors in her ranking plan—but a tight budget shouldn't put the floor on the bottom of the quality list even in cost-conscious facilities such as schools.
"You can always make room in a budget somewhere so you don't have to put down vinyl composite tile," Bean says. "You can cut back in mechanical rooms, in secondary areas or on utilitarian access stairs for emergency use. Sealed concrete is fine. But you want to have as good a gym floor as you can possible afford."
For gymnasiums, which can eat up the largest proportion of flooring costs, the choice boils down to wood or synthetic.
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.
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.
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.
No matter what the thickness of your synthetic or the sophistication of your wood system, however, the success of your floor ultimately relies on two things: quality installation and good "bones" with the concrete subsurface.
"A little bump can make a real impact on a floor," Mayo says. A level floor is a must as well; many designers and installers specify no more than a 1/8-inch different in the level of the floor throughout the facility.
To ensure success in these two areas, facility managers need to choose their building team carefully and pay attention to how they write specifications. Architects advise you seek a contractor with a strong concrete background and skill in concrete finishing to create the most smooth, even surfaces possible. A prequalification process with a bidding short list can accomplish this.
Mayo also suggests investigating the technology the concrete team uses. As the KU Student Recreation Fitness Center, the contractor used a laser screed system, where the concrete is pumped in rapidly then leveled with a robotic screed, which flattens the top surface. Laser sights on top of the arm ensure that the floor is perfectly level. The result? KU's Mary Chappel now boasts the university has the "flattest floors in Kansas." This laser system works best pouring floors of 10,000 square feet or more, Mayo adds.
Next, the concrete needs time to cure properly—to harden and dry. At minimum, say concrete pros, give the concrete at least 60 days and test to ensure that its moisture content is no more than 5 percent. Rushing your contractor to install your floor before you hit these milestones is a very, very bad idea, says Ankeny Kell's Mathys. And if that concrete is sitting on grade, without an additional barrier, vapor barriers become necessary. These in turn require joints in the concrete since, with the vapor barrier, concrete dries at a different rate top to bottom.
Finally, the concrete contractor must pay precise attention to changes in the slab heights in facilities that put down several different systems in one space. A poured in synthetic running track that circles a resilient system may require a 1-5/8-inch depression—the slightest variation can cause gaps or create a tripping hazard.
Along with properly poured and cured concrete, a quality installation team will make or break your floor. Facilities looking to save money on installation costs may consider a residential flooring contractor. Again, Matthys says, a very bad idea: As earnest as a residential contractor may be, he or she usually won't have the experience or even the number of people needed for a quality gym floor installation. Matthys advises writing a certified installer into the specifications.
KU's Chappel also suggests that installers become part of the preconstruction process. At KU, the installers flew down to review plans and meet with the design team before building began.
Wood floors add an extra layer of installation caution. Wood must acclimatize to become accustomed to the humidity levels of its environment, sitting in stacks in the facility for a time before it's laid. The installing team must also stack the wood properly to avoid warping and to properly expose the wood during the acclimatizing process. And since wood expands when humid and contracts when dry, systems need expansion joints, planned gaps to allow for these variations. While some owners tend to want to limit these joints for aesthetic purposes, Mayo advises a generous use of them to best protect the floor. A good installer must be skilled at these as well.
Finding a qualified installer is not as hard as it sounds, however. This is another area where it pays to listen to the manufacturer. Many recommend a network of installers that have earned exclusive rights to install their products. Others actually hold training classes for installers, only then certifying them to install the product.
"This is not a guarantee of a good installation, but from our experience, it makes a difference," Matthys says.
While competition and multipurpose spaces take up the most space—and the most concern—for flooring, the rest of your facility needs to be covered as well. Other key flooring spots include fitness and weight areas, climbing walls, pools and locker rooms, and even lobbies.
In weight rooms, rubberized flooring systems in a variety of forms have become the product of choice. Either synthetic or natural, in rolls or tile, designers often favor theses surfaces for their sound-deadening and shock-absorbing capabilities.
"I like it rubber because it's recyclable, forgiving and very durable," Bean says. The vast number of colors available also gives designers the opportunity to get a little playful with a room's look.
Rubberized surfaces in weight and fitness areas don't require the same biomechanical features as their gym counterparts—in fact, they require an opposite performance.
"On a court, you may be looking at how a ball rolls, but in a weight room, the one thing you do not want is something rolling down the hall," Chappel says.
Rubberized surfaces also get regular use in climbing wall areas. The climbing wall industry is still working on standards for surfaces around walls. In the meantime, however, many architects are specifying rubberized surfaces with extra cushioning underneath. Other facilities lay heavy mats over existing surfaces. In cardiovascular and circuit-training equipment areas, however, rubberized surfaces face off against carpeting in popularity. Carpeting provides a homey, comfortable feel, says Werner Braun, director of the Carpet and Rug Institute, and people in carpeted areas are reportedly seven times less likely to fall from slipping than on other surfaces. It also helps absorb sound in noisy fitness areas, he adds.
Many architects, including TMP and Ankeny Kell, frequently specify antimicrobial carpeting, which is treated with chemicals that inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microbes to combat germs and odors. But Braun says these products aren't necessary if a facility puts a good carpet maintenance program in place.
His take on antimicrobials: "Not long ago, a company that was promoting an antimicrobial gave me a pair of athletic socks and a shirt that had been treated with their product. They said if you wore them for three days, they wouldn't stink and sure enough, after three days they had no odor. I don't know about you, but I have no interest in wearing socks for three days."
Similarly, he adds, if your antimicrobial carpeting has been soaked with sweat and not cleaned properly, it might not smell, but it wouldn't be clean.
Braun suggests that proper maintenance can take the place of antimicrobial treatments: good mats outside the room to keep dirt away, regular vacuuming at least three to four times a week, daily spot cleaning for things like spilled Gatorade, and hot water or steam cleaning about once a week, with a good extractor and a well-trained crew.
A few trouble spots to guard against with carpeting, Matthys notes: Carpet can break down underneath the fitness equipment from the machines' motion, especially with treadmills elevating for different inclines. He suggests laying pads under the equipment. He also favors carpet tiles rather than rolls, since rolled goods can bubble if heavy equipment gets moved across it frequently.
With indoor running tracks becoming a must for even the most modest community centers, facility planners are paying more attention to what they put down there. Tracks can perform faster or slower, depending on how much energy they return to the runner. Fast tracks can help increase runner performance but provide less cushioning. Slower tracks give more comfort to users' joints but won't speed up times. In deciding, the facility team must figure out what kind of people will use the track and for what purposes. Community tracks that mostly cater to walkers can skimp on floors somewhat, since impact is less of an issue, says TMP's Larson. Tracks that host competitions or cater to more intense training require different systems. At KU, Chappel learned that many of the students at the recreation facility regularly trained for marathons, so she looked for a surface that would pamper their feet, knees and ankles for long distances.
And where there's water, there's a specialized surface. In locker rooms and pool areas, surfaces must provide friction to prevent slipping and inhibit mold and mildew. Ceramic tile dominates in this area, for its performance and its range of offerings to meet a variety of budgets, Bean says. Other options include sealed concrete, either tooled for slip resistance or finished with a textured resin, or slip-proof vinyl tiles with welded seams. Whatever the surface, owners must make sure the product stays sealed, since cracks can breed leaks that spur mold and mildew growth.
And while not technically a sport surface, the flooring in a facility's public spaces can make a strong first impression on users and serve as pickup or drop-off areas for the variety of gunk people can track onto a sport floor.
TMP's Bean recommends ceramic or vinyl tile to meet a variety of durability and aesthetics objectives, while handling heavy traffic. Other options include terrazzo or a quartz epoxy matrix. More importantly, every entry area needs mats, the unsung heroes in maintaining sport surfaces. Mats are a must to slough off the dirt, snow, slush, sand and everything else that users can track onto expensive floors.
Sport surface choices don't end at the door. Outside, planners face the same dizzying array of choices for tennis courts, skating surfaces, running tracks, playgrounds and athletic fields.
Indoors and out, tennis surfaces can be built to the type of play desired and the skill level of players. While clay and grass courts hold a devoted following, more than 70 percent of tennis facilities in the United States feature hard-court surfaces—concrete or asphalt overlaid with a textured, colored coating and sometimes featuring a resilient subsystem. The top coating usually consists of textured latex, rubber or other synthetic materials. Subsystems may consist of a 6mm to 13mm synthetic cushioning. Interlocking polypropylene tiles and sheet goods have made inroads in tennis as well. Many manufacturers feature multilayer systems, with up to five different layers of materials—playing surface, filler coat, reinforcing layer, sealer, resilient padding, then adhesive and the asphalt or concrete base.
The thickness of the surface, amount of sand or rubber added for texture, and the materials used often depend on whether a facility wants a "fast" surface to accommodate more athletic, competitive serve-and-volley play or a "slow" surface, for recreational players with an emphasis on long rallies and shot placement.
According to the U.S. Tennis Court and Track Builders Association, which offers a wealth of tennis court information, this "pace" of the surface, and the ability of the ball to spin, depends on the thickness of the surface, the materials used, and the size and quantity of sand or rubber particles mixed in with the color coating on hard courts.
What's more, geography matters when choosing a tennis surface. In the Northeast and Midwest, planners need to take into account freeze/thaw cycles, along with heat and humidity in the summer. In the West, sun and heat can dry clay courts and bleach the color from hard courts. In the Southeast, algae or mildew can be issues. Wet climates need to consider drainage.
When selecting a tennis surface system, facility planners need to find the right mix of player comfort, ball bounce, "grip" and horizontal sliding, all within their budget. Long-term costs and installations also vary, with some systems requiring a new top coat more frequently than others. Some top coats also can be laid by your own installation team.
And as with other surfaces, the work of finding the right court lies in play: Make sure you play on a variety of courts and talk with the facility team to see what works best for your players and your staff.
And in a case of industry responding to reality, tennis surface manufacturers have taken note of the number of skateheads and hockey players clogging tennis courts and have begun offering systems designed for inline skating and skate parks as well.
Track and field surface technology has come a long way from the days of cinder ash. Now, most competitions are held on tracks with surfaces made of granulated synthetic vulcanized rubber bound polyurethane or extruded vulcanized rubber. Both poured-in-place and sheet goods are available, with similar installation issues as those indoors. Sheet goods cost more but get installed and repaired more easily. They also run the risk of seam decay and water entrapment. Poured-in-place systems, on the other hand, protect against water seepage and provide a wider range of textures and looks but demand a precise, complex installation.
Again, repeated test runs with your facility team and your end users can take you far in determining what type of track will run circles around the competition. The best surfaces should provide energy return and friction to help runners' speed and grip, while offering cushioning and resilience at the same time. The U.S. Tennis Court and Track Builders Association also provides a wealth of guidelines on track surfaces.
For children's play areas, indoors or out, surfaces must meet some of the most rigorous requirements in the sport and recreation industry. Whatever goes underneath playground equipment must meet standards for impact attenuation, cushioning, fall protection and accessibility to prevent injuries and make play available to a wide range of children. To gauge what works best for your facilities, take into account your preference, performance needs, budget and cash flow: Material, installation, maintenance and upkeep costs vary dramatically.
A mix of different surfaces can work well, especially when balancing accessibility and budget. Among the choices:
- Sand and pea gravel
These cost the least and can be stored in bulk for easy refilling but do not meet accessibility standards and require regular refills.
Wood chips and their direct descendant, engineered wood fiber, constitute the vast bulk of outdoor safety surfaces. Wood chips do not meet ADA guidelines for accessibility and require regular refilling, but for facilities with a forestry program that generates its own wood chips, the price is right. Engineered wood fiber, which makes up about 70 percent of all play surfaces, meets ADA guidelines (although wheelchair users may require some extra effort to get through it) and works especially well for fall zones.
- Recycled-rubber nuggets
This eco-friendly choice sometimes can be subsidized by tire reclamation programs. They also can be used in a dual system where loose nuggets get poured over a grid to eliminate kick-out wear.
- Rubber tiles
Synthetic or natural rubber interlocking tiles come in varying thicknesses according to fall-height needs. They can add a blast of color to a facility and require little maintenance but cost more initially.
- Poured-in-place rubber
Similar to the systems used for running tracks, field houses and tennis courts, rubber or synthetic liquids are poured over a resilient base. This provides the greatest level of accessibility and the least maintenance but also costs the most.
Synthetic outdoor materials are making inroads. Rubberized sheet goods, poured-in-place products and synthetic rubber tiles can provide a cushioned surface, with rubber shavings, shredded rubber or foam underneath. These synthetic materials can also be laid underneath traditional materials like wood chips or sand to prevent erosion and provide extra cushioning in high-impact or heavy-traffic areas.
For outdoor sports fields, surfacing choices generally consisted of grass or mud. Today, more and more sports field managers with the budget to do so are considering synthetic turf. Born in the 1960s, the stuff once derided as destroying the knees of many a pro athlete has found new acceptance with new technologies and a new market. High-school and recreational facilities with busy sport field schedules and limited space are finding that synthetic turf can withstand nonstop pounding that would tear up natural grass. Instead of limiting usage to keep a field pristine for football, synthetic fields can withstand usage that starts with an 8 a.m. physical-education class and ends with Friday night varsity football. And in a society that is building environmental awareness, many users are glad to say goodbye to fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Synthetic turf first made inroads as a solution in harsh climates where it is hard to grow and maintain natural grass but is gaining popularity in a variety of weather zones. The most sophisticated turf systems are designed to duplicate how grass reacts to players and balls, in the way its cushioning, slip resistance, "give," and ball bounce, roll and return.
Manufacturers now offer a number of different systems, with varying grass fibers and shock-absorption subsurfaces, to try and mimic the feel of natural grass. The two most common systems are conventional, or sandless systems, applied on a concrete base, and infill systems, applied atop sand or dirt.
Grass fibers, which can be made of polypropylene, nylon or a blend of the two, can be assembled in several ways. Some systems knit fibers together, while others feature fiber "tufts," similar to what carpeting looks like. Some products even feature shock-absorbing infill materials between each fiber to mimic the play of grass.
In addition to the turf fibers, several options are available for the underlayers. These shock-absorbing systems include closed-cell foam pads, SBR rubber sheets or cast-in-place elastic materials, called an e-layer. A turf system can even incorporate all these. More basic methods depend simply on the underlying infill to provide shock absorption.
The next consideration is installation methods. When installing the turf mats, the seams can be glued or sewn together. Glue requires less expertise and costs less, while sewn seams are more expensive but can provide a superior finish. Finally, the striping can consist of painted lines, which are less expensive and easier to change, or inlaid lines, which are more permanent and durable but can create additional seams in the turf.
For its ability to withstand nonstop play, synthetic turf is gaining a solid fan base. Mark Uyl has seen his share of synthetic turf installations as assistant director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, and he likes what he sees. The MHSAA hosted about 30 percent of its football tournament games on synthetic turf fields, and he expects that figure to grow. For state championship play, he likes the way synthetic turf evens the playing field.
"We want to know that the teams determine who is going to win or lose, not the playing surface," he says.
Synthetic turf also evens the playing field between sports, he adds. Before joining the MHSAA, Uyl served as athletic director at Thornapple Kellogg High School in Michigan and sold his community on synthetic turf to ensure that the soccer team got an improved playing field, after playing second fiddle to football. With the new turf, both sports could use the same surface that was previously restricted to football.
Drawbacks to synthetic turf do exist. While it requires no mowing, watering or fertilizing, it hates what real grass loves: sun. Ultraviolet rays can weaken the grass fibers, making them brittle and discolored. The turf's underlaying system can become compacted, reducing its cushioning. Seams can wear through and fiber loss can create bare spots, like an aging carpet.
While prices are dropping, a good synthetic football field can cost around $600,000. As with other systems, the best way to find the right surface is to break out the football or soccer ball and take a number of surfaces for a test play. Different manufacturers can suggest fields in your area; state athletic associations can also steer you toward synthetic fields. And these facilities' owners can also provide real-life advice on qualified installers—do it yourself or the local landscape crews are not and option with these sophisticated systems.
Those who cannot afford synthetic turf or prefer real grass can still reap its benefits: Ground crews frustrated with the thankless task of field striping can install line stripes and other markings made of synthetic turf, which can be embedded into fields.
Sports surfaces and environmental consciousness once went together like, well, fish and bicycles, but with the rise of sustainable design, that's no longer true. Sustainable design refers to a three-pronged approach to building with environmental sensitivity and responsibility.
"It's a three-legged stool that's not just environmental responsibility," says TMP's Larson. "It's also social responsibility and economic responsibility."
Buildings are designed and constructed to minimize waste and environmental impact and conserve natural resources in both the short and long term. To meet sustainability requirements, buildings may feature high-efficiency materials and energy systems, natural materials for interior finishes, chemical products low in toxic volatile organic compounds, and materials selected for how far they had to travel to the job site.
The chemicals and processes used to create synthetic floors, finish wood systems and glue everything together once made the hit lists for environmental halls of shame. But market forces, increasing pubic awareness, tighter laws and a burgeoning sense of social responsibility from both designers and manufacturers is changing that.
Toxic fume emissions from the adhesives and finishes made with VOCs—volatile organic compounds—have been cut, in part following California's environmental mandates. Polyurethane coatings with lower VOC emissions may not hold up as well, however, requiring reapplications that mean a facility ultimately uses more of the chemicals. One internationally known synthetic track surface manufacturer now promotes a system that's installed without using any VOC-based glues.
Synthetic floors once commonly used small amounts of mercury and lead, but these substances have been eliminated since the 1980s. To reduce the environmental hazards of removing these systems with lead or mercury, Mayo says that many facilities can simply lay a new floor over the old one, harmlessly encasing it.
Floors or subsystems made of recycled products such as rubber or even gym shoes have become as popular for their performance and durability as for their healthier environmental "footprint."
Wood floors create less of an environmental impact than one might think, Mayo says, because maple is considered a renewable resource and is harvested from fast-growing, commercially planted trees. What's more, with the advances in resilient subsystems, floors can last longer using less maple—25/32nds of an inch rather than 33/32nds, previously the industry standard.
Carpeting, also a previous target of environmental activists, has cleaned up its eco-friendly image too. The carpeting industry now exceeds the standards of the Kyoto Protocol, the international guidelines to reduce greenhouse-effect emissions, says the Carpet and Rug Institute's Braun. It has increased the amount of recycled materials in its synthetic carpets and cut the waste water, solid waste and air emissions created, along with the energy used, during manufacturing drastically since 1990, Braun says—in some categories up to 75 percent.
Beyond the impact of how flooring materials are produced, planners committed to sustainability also look at how the materials arrive there. Locally produced materials take precedence because less energy is used to deliver them. The building team can also mandate that the manufacturer minimize packaging materials to reduce solid waste.
Curious about the impact of your floors? Most manufacturers have become well-versed in sustainability and can tell you how your product rates, and many architecture firms boast sustainable design divisions. More information can be found on a few key Web sites. The resources section of the U.S. Green Building Council Web site, www.usgbc.org/Resources, features a presentation with a good overview of sustainable design. BIPER USA, Building Industry Professionals for Environmental Responsibility, offers background, links and some strong opinions at www.biperusa.biz.
Outside or in, your sports surfacing choices hinge on your budget, your image and your users. But whether your facility is nationally televised or just locally revered, you can find the right surfaces with a little work, a little play and a little understanding. Figure out your needs and how and what your users play. Hit the Web and hit the streets to look, ask and play at other facilities you admire. The bottom line will become clear and leave you with flooring decisions you can stand by—and on.
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