Finding the Right Sports Flooring
By Richard Zowie
The squeak of shoes on gym floors is the sign of a popular American activity. Some love the quick up-down action of basketball, others love the jump, spike and dive of volleyball while others enjoy not-so-conventional indoor sports like soccer, kickball and even modified versions of softball. Others also enjoy visiting the gym to run on a treadmill, pump iron or get in a game of racquetball.
The choice of surfaces varies. Some places prefer the traditional approach and use hardwood floors. Others prefer something more modern and go with a synthetic or rubberized surface. The latter surfaces are also favored in situations where many patrons have knee or joint problems and require extra cushioning, or where a moisture-resistant surface is needed. Some take the rubberized look to a new level, recycling rubber from perhaps the most fitting, familiar source—shoes.
What kind of surface is preferred? Often the choice boils down to two P's: What people prefer and what's practical.
Naturally, telling a flooring company you want a hardwood floor for your athletic needs will result in this question: "What kind of hardwood floor?" Just as there are countless types of trees on the planet, the selection of what kind of wood to use for such a surface can result in many options.
Among these many choices are oak, maple (which often varies depending on where it's from or what grade is used), beech and ash (which, along with maple, is also a popular wood used in baseball bats). Maple is a widely popular wood that's been used in hardwood sports floors for more than 100 years.
In Raleigh, N.C., at the John M. Alexander Family YMCA, officials used maple flooring for the basketball court floors. Dan Corey, the senior associate branch executive director, said using hardwood floors in the main gymnasium is common for YMCAs in the area. They also have floating wood floors in all the aerobics rooms.
Basketball's abrupt action of running up court, stopping and jumping tends to be very hard on the knees, and the hardwood court's padding is something patrons of the gym have come to like.
"They like the give the floor has," Corey said. "It's not just floating wood atop concrete. Each section sets on a rubber pad every couple of feet. It's a shock-absorbing material between the concrete and the floor. It's much better on the knees. If someone jumps on it, you can see the give on the floor. They like it whether they realize it or not."
Maintenance for the YMCA wood floors consists of using a treated dust mop. Corey described the wood floors they use as "reliable, cost-effective and attractive."
Hardwood floors, no doubt, are also a very popular choice for basketball courts outside the YMCA, particularly at the competitive levels of high school and college basketball. In fact, some even refer to basketball as "action on the hardwood."
Every so often, hardwood floors will have to be replaced due to wear and tear. It's often a decision made when managers conclude a new surface is preferable to sanding down the old surface again. For the beginning of the 2008 college basketball season, the University of Northern Kentucky (located in Highland Heights, Ky., just outside of Cincinnati) sported a brand-new hardwood basketball court made from maple in its new arena, the Bank of Kentucky Center. The court was 60 feet by 120 feet and featured an NCAA-approved floor.
What's more, the NKU Norse also received 600 square feet of maple hardwood to use in its basketball hall of fame to give visitors a feel of walking on the same surface their hoops heroes had played on.
NKU's previous arena of more than 30 years, Regents Hall, also had a maple hardwood surface. Scott Eaton, NKU's associate athletic director, said they wanted another hardwood floor and gave no consideration to other types of surfaces, although sometimes the team practices on synthetic surfaces.
"Our past experiences and the quality of student athletes we have are the reasons we chose to remain on a hardwood surface," Eaton said.
While the Norse remain on hardwood, they have a different type of maple surface. The old surface came in 8-foot-by-4-foot pieces. This new surface, however, is portable and can be taken apart and reassembled. This is handy for the university since the new arena, unlike the prior one, now has the flexibility to be multipurpose.
"Portability is the biggest advantage since the arena's used for other things besides basketball," Eaton explained.
Maintenance is as simple as mopping, and this surface, Eaton estimated, could last 20 years.
So far, the basketball players like the results. "It has a good give to it, and they're very happy with the feel," Eaton said. "They say it doesn't have a hardwood feel. There's a good protective mat under it."
Besides being traditional, many like hardwood surfaces because they fit nicely into the ever-growing green trend in America. According to the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, America grows six times more hardwood than what it harvests annually. Each day, the forest industry plants more than 1.5 billion more trees. One of the appeals of using hardwood surfaces is the fact that it comes from a renewable, biodegradable resource.
While hardwood surfaces remain a favorite among those who like wood surfaces or need a wooden surface to meet the guidelines for a specific organized sport, for others, using non-hardwood surfaces (such as synthetic or rubber) for basketball, volleyball and other indoor sports is becoming an increasingly popular choice.
Like hardwood, selecting synthetic or rubber surfaces means choosing from a wide spectrum of options. There are many manufacturers and brands in the market. Proper research is critical. (Be sure to ask for references—maybe even tour an existing installation if you can.) When it comes to how the surface is laid out, there are interlocking tiles, straight edge, rolled surfaces and various types of adhesives.
The University of California - Irvine opened its recreation center in January 2000, with rubber tile flooring in the weight room that eventually presented some significant maintenance issues, according to Associate Programs Director Michael Puritz.
"We had to re-glue a number of tiles on a constant basis," he explained.
Specifically, the recreation center had high moisture issues with its concrete slab and resulted in the surface delaminating. The surface also took a beating from the free weights dropped onto the floor and would dent and scuff easily. Also, the water from perspiration and water spills posed safety hazards.
This changed when UCI changed surfaces. The new flooring consists of 2-foot-by-2-foot tiles laid onto the floor without glue. They're held together by nylon dowels. The flooring isn't adhered to the concrete surface below, meaning it won't delaminate due to excessive moisture on the slab.
Puritz said the result has been a non-slippery, non-scuffing floor that's easy to maintain and isn't damaged when free weights are dropped (accidentally, of course) onto it.
In addition to solving the problems with the previous surface, the new floors provide a pleasant aesthetic. "The flooring looks sharp," he added. "It adds a whole new feel to the room."
Synthetic and rubber flooring is valued by many because of its shock-absorbing qualities, energy return and its ability to last a long time—particularly when used in areas like weight rooms and running tracks that see a lot of wear and tear. This is the case at the John M. Alexander Family YMCA in Raleigh, N.C.
"[The floor] can be cleaned with a mild solution with a mop or scrubbing machine," Corey said. "Rubber tiling is easy to clean and lasts longer. Carpet gets dirty, needs replacing and the spills are hard to clean."
For some applications, especially where ease of maintenance and flexibility are required, vinyl flooring is ideal. This was the case at the new Washington City Community Center in Washington City, Utah. The new 110,000-square-foot facility includes three separate full-size gyms, a walking/jogging track, a spinning/aerobics room, childcare center, rock-climbing wall and the largest indoor aquatic complex in the state of Utah. The gyms, track, aerobics room and childcare center all feature vinyl flooring with a foam subsurface designed for sports performance and multipurpose uses, with a similar surface used in the childcare center.
This multilayered surface, according to its manufacturer, gives both comfort and performance with an enhanced shock absorption rate of 35 percent. It is made from up to 43 percent recyclable material and can be completely recycled.
Architect Mark Wilson of Lehi, Utah-based Mark Wilson Architects, who provided architectural services for the new facility, said the decision was made to use synthetic flooring in these areas because of the value and quality of the product. It's also flexible enough to be used for many sports activities, as well as other purposes. Wilson, who has past experience with using the surface and lauds its benefits, said, "It has characteristics that I like. It's engineered to play like a wood floor with the same basketball bounce, but it's fairly maintenance-free, which the owners like."
The three floors used in the gyms have borders of black, green and blue. They're also used for indoor soccer games, basketball tournaments and even non-sporting events like trade shows.
Donn Hayes, the programs and special events director at the center, described the surface as a vinyl one attached over a foam undercurrent to give it a look of hardwood.
"It gives the feeling of a true gymnasium since gyms have [hardwood floors]," Hayes explained. "But it's not hardwood. It's a vinyl surface attached to a foam undercurrent that looks like wood floor."
What's more, Hayes added, it's better on the body's joints and provides more cushion and give. That's vital for the center, since many of its clients are senior citizens.
"We have a large senior population in the area," he said. "Seniors tend to have more knee and hip problems than most folks do. We try to target the market and take care of them."
Another reason they chose to go with a synthetic surface rather than hardwood at the Utah facility was a maintenance issue. With hardwood, Hayes said, every few years it has to be resealed and the lines repainted. Not the case with the synthetic flooring, which doesn't have to be refinished every few years.
Hayes and others in Washington, Utah, also like the surface because, as he described it, it's "very, very easy" to keep clean.
"We can run any machine over the top of it and know if red punch is dropped on it, it can be cleaned immediately and won't stain like a wooden floor," he said.
When it comes to cleaning, they use two methods: a standard mop and even a Zamboni machine that mops (normally, Zambonis are associated with smoothing ice hockey surfaces during intermissions of a hockey game).
Some synthetic solutions combine wood and synthetics to create the ideal solution, like the new gym floor at the Jefferson-Independence Blue Cross Wellness Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The new floor features a resilient vinyl surface layer with a DIN-certified wood subfloor. The 6,000-square foot gym originally featured a maple floor, which was more than 40 years old before its replacement in May 2008.
"It had definitely reached the end of its useful life and had been refinished several times," said TJU activities office and bookstore director Patricia Haas.
The wellness center's basketball and racquetball courts are actually located in a sub-basement, and the sports there are for recreational purposes and not intercollegiate play. The location tends to have water problems, such as leaks in the building that get down to the sub-basement. Once it got into the wooden floor, Haas explained, it resulted in a compromised floor that was difficult to repair. Also, since it's located under the outside atria, the roof tends to leak.
Haas recalled a sprinkler accident that caused the hardwood court to be closed down for a month. After the water was absorbed from the court, the floor buckled and had to be dried out with blowers and dehumidified. A few times portions of the flooring were taken out and replaced, which compromised the floor.
"You had different types of wood in there, and the wood behaves differently when different types are in there," she explained. "The surface isn't always smooth and screws were in different sections."
With this in mind, they wanted to find a surface that still had the look of wood along with other important characteristics.
"It was important for us to identify a synthetic floor that would give us the same service as a wooden one for ball return and for players' comfort," Haas noted. "We also wanted one that would look like a wooden floor and help us with the water issue."
So far, the new solution has worked well. "The players are very happy, and we don't have issues related to wood," Haas said.
The multipurpose floor is used for many sports besides basketball: volleyball, badminton, tennis, floor hockey and even normally-outdoor sports like soccer and football. Because the university is located in downtown Philadelphia, there are no fields outdoors to accommodate recreational players of these sports.
"This floor helped us expand our programming," Haas said. "Wood was not appropriate for some of these sports."
Maintenance is as simple as wet mopping or using a buffering machine.
"The base has the potential to last a long time," Haas said. "The vinyl surface layer is what would need to be replaced."
Using recycled rubber on flooring surfaces isn't an uncommon practice, but out in Southern California, they're taking it to a new level. One that involves using recycled shoes to resurface sports areas throughout Los Angeles.
One playground and athletic equipment designer, manufacturer and marketer is working with LA84 and Nike to build Freegame courts from rubber recycled from old athletic shoes. These sports surfaces include soccer, volleyball, basketball, field hockey and other sports.
The LA84 Foundation uses surplus funds from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games to serve Southern California youth in sporting needs and to increase their knowledge of sports. To help in recycling efforts and prevent Nike's worn-out shoes from filling landfills, Nike created the Reuse-A-Shoe program in the early 1990s. The old shoes received new life as a recycled material called Nike Grind.
Nike Grind is exactly what it sounds like—athletic shoes ground up into a raw material to be used to create sports and playground surfaces, footwear and other equipment. Besides old athletic shoes, others used for Nike Grind include shoes with production flaws and scrap materials left over from the manufacturing process—nearly all of the shoe is recycled.
Currently, the Reuse-A-Shoe program has recycled more than 23 million shoes from America, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. It recycles about 1.5 million pairs each year across the world. Once the shoes are collected, three sections of the shoes—outsole rubber, midsole foam and upper fabric—are processed.
According to Patrick Escobar, LA84 Foundation vice president of grants and programs, the goal is to work with Nike to improve 84 sports facilities in Los Angeles area over the next few years.
"In addition to good coaches and equipment, youth should have safe, adequate facilities to play the sport of their choice," he explained. "The Freegame court provides an environment where youth can concentrate on skill development and play."
The first Freegame court has been completed at the Algin Sutton Recreation Center in south Los Angeles east of Inglewood and was dedicated with the help of the community and retired Mexican soccer star, Jorge Campos (who was a goalkeeper for Mexico in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups).
Currently, Freegame courts are being used to run young youth soccer clinics and a league for ages 5 to 15, said Mark Mariscal, superintendent of the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks Pacific Region. "The Freegame court is heavily used for basketball pick-up games seven days a week," he added. "The court provides a safe environment for recreation activities. Projects including Freegame are an asset to the department and are well received by the communities we serve. This type of public-private partnership sometimes is the only reason we are able to make park improvements such as this court."
Escobar said the first court was installed last year. "Once you install it, anyone can play a variety of sports. It's an excellent product and we're happy with the service, and it's very wonderful for the communities."
Escobar added that since the surfaces can be configured to different sizes, it gives a lot of flexibility.
"They also have a fence that's perfect for football and soccer, particularly for young kids," he added. "It helps them to work on passing and control of the ball."
According to data from Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program, it takes about 2,500 pairs of shoes (midsole foam) to make an outdoor basketball court, outdoor tennis court and an indoor synthetic basketball court. It takes about 2,500 pairs of shoes (outsole rubber) to make a playground and about 2,500 pairs (upper fabric) to help produce an indoor basketball court. For a full field or soccer pitch using outsole rubber, 50,000 to 75,000 pairs of shoes are required. A mini soccer field using outsole rubber requires 10,000 to 20,000 pairs of shoes. And for a running track using outsole rubber, 75,000 shoes are needed.
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