Take It Inside

Cost, Maintenance, Performance Are Top Issues in Sports, Fitness Flooring

By Deborah L. Vence

Basketball courts, multi-activity courts and fitness floors all have one thing in common: They're indoors. And, the type of indoor surfaces that recreation and sports facilities choose is dependent upon what that flooring is being used for and how often it's used.

"There are so many things to consider," when deciding on a sports flooring surface, said Reed Voorhees, AIA, LEED AP, vice president at Cannon Design, based in St. Louis. "Many of those things get overlooked. There are so many different spaces. At any sports facility and recreation center, there are so many unique spaces and so many unique systems for certain uses."

For instance, basketball and volleyball courts usually use hardwood flooring, even though synthetic options are available; multi-activity courts typically use synthetic flooring; and fitness rooms, such as cardio and aerobic studios, generally use wood floor systems.

In any case, facility managers need to take some factors into consideration when choosing indoor flooring.

What to Consider

Two factors to keep in mind when deciding on flooring are what types of sports are going to be played on it and what type of equipment will be used.

"Wood floors are good for basketball. Soccer can be played on it as far as Futsal soccer, which is played with a weighted ball so it doesn't bounce all over the place," said Mark Keane, AIA, LEED AP, project designer with Hastings & Chivetta Architects Inc., based in St. Louis. "If basketball is not the primary sport and you want a multipurpose [floor], changing from wood to synthetic works well for indoor soccer. And then you have to separate synthetics if you are going to go into rollerblading, something along those lines—even a harder synthetic surface so it doesn't get cut up by the rollerblades. So, the type of sports and equipment that are going to be used are the big items there."

For fitness rooms, the biggest factor is whether or not it's a free weight area.

"A free weight area will need a surface that can withstand the dropping of the weights," Keane said. "With cardio [rooms] and such, you can go to the sports flooring, but you can even go down to carpet. Again, that's more of a cost issue."

Likewise, Frank Parisi, AIA, LEED AP, at Carol Stream, Ill.-based Williams Architects, said that you have to take into account the type of programming when selecting indoor flooring.

"[You have to consider] the type of program you are having. For fitness [rooms], [you can have] any rubber flooring. In a free weight area, if you are dropping weights, it tends to soften the sound or deaden the sound. In a dance studio, you would look at the type of program you are doing. [It might be] recommended to use a sprung wood floor, a sprung maple floor, just because with dance, you need shock absorption. For the ankles, knees, hips, a sprung wood floor works the best," Parisi said.

To boot, product performance and product lifespan are key issues to keep in mind as well.

"From our perspective, we are considering the performance and safety and function of the products, and how well they suit the needs of the performance of the space," Voorhees said. "We are interested in the aesthetics. There are certain products that have better color ranges. The buildings are driven by activity, but we want to create beautiful buildings. So, we want to provide materials that achieve the best. And, the more research we do about various products, the more tools we have to meet various criteria."

"Maintenance far outruns the initial investments."

— Reed Vorhees,
Cannon Design

In addition, capital costs, replacement costs and maintenance costs all have to be considered.

"Maintenance far outruns the initial investments," he said. "Sometimes, acoustics comes into play. And then, if it is a multi-use space, in understanding the property—the different uses within the space, a specific function, the purpose of a space—there are products that can serve that function well."

Additionally, Voorhees noted that he always tries to work with product representatives to find products that will achieve flexibility at a higher performance level.

"[At a] recreation center, [you have to look at] how well the product can perform and protect from injury," he said.

"And then for specific systems—like resilient wood flooring systems—there is a set of criteria, DIN standards—a European standard that's been used for years. The DIN considers shock absorption, rebound and vertical reflection. With group exercise rooms, you need shock absorption," Voorhees explained.

When looking at floor products, "One of the things I look at is reputation of the company. And, there are known companies out there that most people are familiar with. But, there are companies that have been around a long time, and they work all over," he noted. "And, we know that we can have successful companies working in this business. Some newer companies are growing and growing competitive systems."

So, due diligence is important in this case.

"We need to know how [a product is] being manufactured, from the plant to the facility to quality control," Voorhees said. "There are a lot of good companies out there, but we are just very cautious that we understand the nature of the company. And so, when somebody has a rep come in, that's great, but every product has its own story. It's important to call other facilities that have used the product.

"It's not just about listening to somebody," he added. "There are some product reps who can talk to the nature of their products and the nature of their systems. They are diligent, but you have to get other perspectives, too."

Turf Options

In terms of synthetic indoor turf, there are three options:

  • Needle punch turf (looks like a scouring pad— just a bunch of looped carpet that has no direction to it)
  • A turf product that looks like indoor/outdoor carpeting.
  • Infilled turf (looks like shag carpet with rubber filling in the voids.

"Needle punch turf is a product that is used for low-impact sports, such as lawn bowls, or for very young athletes who do not require a cushioned surface," said Doug Wournell, Architect AAA, MAIBC, vice president, Recreation and Sport Architecture Studio, in the Vancouver office of Cannon Design.

"It can be placed over a cushioned surface for adults, but the surface is not generally considered suitable for fast action sports," he said. "It has a unique quality in that since it is so lightweight it can be rolled up and stored so that the surface underneath (concrete or hardwood) can be used for other activities (i.e., a car show). A changeover for a small gymnasium might take only four hours, including cleaning, and maybe three laborers."

A second option, which many people mistakenly refer to as AstroTurf (actually a trade name for a proprietary infilled synthetic turf system), is a short pile (1/2-inch) carpet that once was the mainstay of professional sports.

"It generally comes with an integral cushioning pad. It is a fast surface that is suitable for most sports, although soccer and football prefer the infilled product. Field lacrosse and particularly field hockey are two sports which prefer this surface," he said. "Its main drawback is that it is very abrasive and falling on this surface can produce nasty 'rug burns.'"

And, while it can be removed and put down again, "It is a long process (a day) that usually takes a special machine and many laborers," Wournell said. "Thus, once it is in place it is generally left in place, and this makes the facility less adaptable. It becomes an excellent facility for indoor field sports, though. The facility can be made more adaptable by having portable plastic plates that can be laid over the turf to provide a firm flat surface for other uses (this takes a day to install or remove)."

Wournell said that infilled turf is the state-of-the-art synthetic surface that is common on most sport fields whether they are indoors or outdoors.

"It is the preferred surface of the major sports of football and soccer. The surface looks and plays like a real grass surface. However, it is not a portable surface and, thus, once installed the facility really becomes focused as an indoor field. To make the surface more adaptable requires expensive machinery and a large amount of labor," he said.

"It is easier to cover the surface with the noted plastic plates if adaptability is required. One of the drawbacks of this surface is that the infill migrates out of the surface with the players' shoes and into the rest of the facility," Wournell added. "This creates more cleaning maintenance for the facility operators. However, the users very often demand this product. And so to use any other synthetic turf product indoors would require a program that weighs the specifics of the other two products over that of the infilled product."

Parisi, of Williams Architects, added that choosing indoor turf requires thought and consideration of the application.

"If you did indoor turf for a fieldhouse, indoor softball or soccer, it looks like fake grass. I've seen installation of it where it simulates an outdoor environment," Parisi said.

He noted that some sports facilities, football, soccer and softball fields have used the same indoor turf material as the type used on outdoor fields.

"The turf has rubber pellets in them. It looks like it has grass strands, but they are synthetic. It has rubber so when you run on it, you feel like you are running on grass," he said.

Flooring Selection

When choosing fitness flooring, there are several popular options: rubber floors; cushion-backed PVC floors; and poured-in-place polyurethane floors.

"The thing that works the best is a rubber floor. It has better traffic abuse on it," Parisi said. "I do like the operational aspect of all three of those, and they clean equally well."

Meanwhile, for gyms and group exercise rooms, "Wood, maplewood systems work great," Voorhees said.

"A resilient wood floor system is generally what you would see in gyms, etc.," he said, adding that in weight fitness areas, where there is a lot of weight coming down on the floor, a floor's durability and toughness is important.

Voorhees added that when choosing a sports flooring system, considerations must include: use or activity within the space, performance, safety, durability, cost, longevity and aesthetics.

For example, for indoor basketball/volleyball courts, the most common and preferred floors for basketball and volleyball use are resilient wood floor systems.

"These systems are most commonly made up of flat grain maple strips sitting on top of individual resilient, cushioned pads or a continuous padded subfloor system. The two types of resilient wood systems are 'fixed resilient' and 'floating,'" he said.

Fixed resilient are generally the most performance-oriented systems on the market.

"The hardwood flooring is installed on top of plywood panels, sleepers or sometimes proprietary anchorage systems that are then separated from the concrete slab by a resilient, shock absorbing material (such as rubber or EPDM pads or a continuous cushion)," Voorhees explained. "These floor systems are physically anchored to the concrete subfloor, providing structural and dimensional stability to the entire surface. For basketball and volleyball, these systems not only offer shock absorption and resiliency, but also a higher level of stability.

"A floating system can be similar in makeup to the fixed resilient floor systems, except these floors are not anchored to the floor. The entire system rests on top of the resilient, shock-absorbing material and completely floats above the concrete subfloor," he explained. "These floors are great for shock absorption, but aren't necessarily as stable as the fixed resilient system. The floating systems are often less expensive than the fixed floors, but are great for recreational use. They are also commonly seen in group exercise rooms."

Voorhees pointed out that proper installation of a wood floor system is critical for the performance and the life of the floor. Factors to consider in specifying wood floors include humidity level, under-slab moisture, thermal expansion and specifying proper sealers.

"There are numerous multipurpose floor systems that are used for basketball and volleyball, which are capable of serving other activities. But, for surface friction, shock absorption, vertical deflection, area deflection and ball rebound, these systems are hard to beat," he added.

Proper installation of a wood floor system is critical for the performance and the life of the floor.

For multi-use activity courts, identifying the uses desired for a MAC will have the greatest impact on the system chosen.

"The wood floor systems mentioned can be used in a MAC if the primary purpose is still basketball and volleyball, but an occasional use of other activities such as indoor soccer or lacrosse," Voorhees said.

"However, there are continual strides in the evolution of flooring systems that can accommodate a multitude of activities while maintaining a reasonable level of performance, which a MAC demands. We continually talk to flooring manufacturers to find better systems that can accommodate more activities."

Historically, he added, the majority of older multipurpose floor systems were poured surfaces, directly applied to the concrete substrate. Today, these systems have advanced, but so have many other products. These systems are referred to as "point elastic" because the shock is absorbed at the point of impact only.

Meanwhile, newer multipurpose floors include the pad and pour system that consists of a rubber shock pad anchored to the subfloor, and covered with a multilayer polyurethane structural top coat. In addition to providing good shock absorption, this system is "seamless and comes in varying degrees of durability, depending on use. Depending on the amount of reinforcing applied in the structural surface, these floors can provide reasonable quality for a wide variety of activities—from basketball, volleyball and badminton to soccer, inline hockey, banquets, etc.

"What has been the latest evolution of multipurpose flooring is a hybrid of the systems mentioned. By combining the strength and durability of the point elastic flooring systems noted, with the resilient, cushioned subfloor systems of the area elastic floor systems, the combined product allows a floor that can accommodate a wider range of activities, meeting the unique performance characteristics of each activity," Voorhees said.

"There are tremendous products on the market, and each provides very high performance characteristics for a specific activity," he added. "Generally, the more activities served, the less effective the product is at serving each activity to the level of performance desired. Compromises begin to occur with regard to performance. These newer hybrid systems provide improved performance for a greater range of diverse activities, thus more creative programming within the MAC."

Furthermore, for weight fitness areas, 3/8-inch rubber tiles or rolled material made of vulcanized rubber can be used.

"These materials can be extremely durable, easy to maintain, slip resistant and attractive. Recycled rubber floor systems are available in a wide range of thickness ranging from 3/8 inch thick to 1 inch," Voorhees said, adding that carpet—rubber backed, solution dyed carpet—also is acceptable in weight/fitness areas in which there may be cardio equipment.

"While the carpet requires more cleaning and will not last as long as many rubber products," he said, "it can provide a quieter, more relaxed setting in certain areas."

Cover Up!

Once you've made your flooring decision and have finished your installation, you might think your work is done. But in fact, ongoing maintenance is crucial to ensure your surface—whether it's hardwood, synthetic or something else—performs well over time.

In addition to the regular maintenance tasks recommended by your floor's manufacturer, you also should invest in a floor cover. Why? It will give you the ability to protect your floor when it's used for a purpose other than the one it was designed for. This helps reduce your long-term maintenance costs, and gives you the ability to stretch your programming beyond the sports the floor was designed for.

For example, while basketball, volleyball and other indoor sports may represent the bulk of your floor's use, what happens when you use your gym for a graduation, a dance or other event? The floor can be damaged by street shoes and chairs, which will necessitate refinishing, resurfacing or other costly repairs.

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