Hardcore Floors

Environment, Maintenance Vital to Flooring Lifespan

By Deborah L. Vence

Advances in hardwood and synthetic flooring over the past few years have given recreation facilities more options to extend the longevity of their floors, help protect young athletes from serious injuries and even lessen the noise typically associated with wood floors.

Although more expensive, "Wood floors have the advantage of being long-lasting. The initial investment, cost-wise, equals out at the end of the day. Aesthetically, it looks great," said Randy Swartz, president and founder of a flooring manufacturer in Philadelphia. But, "it's definitely more demanding of the end-user relative to the maintenance and environmental controls."

And, "some hardwood floors are transportable and portable," too, "but they cost a bit more. The aspect of hardwood, essentially, it's a permanent installation," he added.

Alternatively, synthetic floors offer many types of foam densities that allow for different types of absorption.

"In facilities, such as YMCAs, they tend to go more for that," Swartz said. "Multi-purpose tends to be vinyl-oriented. You can have [people] running around playing volleyball, basketball, without big huge concerns."

In fact, that's where the door opened up in synthetic surfaces, which is more prevalent now in Europe than the United States. Synthetic flooring has become a more popular choice in Europe, in part, because of the large amount of material you have to dispose of after putting down hardwood; not to mention that vinyl surfaces cost less, too, Swartz noted.

In fact, William Thornton, North American technical manager for an indoor sports flooring company in Calhoun, Ga., said that if you go back about 25 years, a high percentage of flooring put down in Europe was hardwood, and only a small percentage was synthetic.

Today, it's just the opposite.

"That trend has reversed. [Now], the vast majority of products for sports flooring in Europe is synthetic," he said.

What's changed are some of the requirements for sports flooring in Europe. For example, many sports facilities there are government-controlled, which means they have specific criteria in order to put flooring in a sports facility. Used throughout Europe is EN-14904 testing, the quality and performance benchmark for the European Union Standard on sports flooring. The sports standard tests as a pass or fail. It relates to force reduction, which is the same as shock absorption, where there is a minimum benchmark.

In the United States, the flooring manufacturing industry has followed suit and set up standards of its own for flooring requirements.

"In the U.S., we never had that requirement," Thornton said. "Up until 2009, there were no U.S. documents relative to indoor surfaces … or performance benchmarks at all."

Now, there is a U.S. document relative to sports flooring. The AS F2772 sports flooring standard mimics what the EN-14904 does. The AS F2772 measures four factors regarding safety and suitability for sports activities. They are: force reduction, ball rebound, vertical deformation and surface finish effect. The systems that can be tested under AS F2772 include: area elastic (wood systems), point elastic (synthetic systems), and combi-elastic (systems combining area elastic and point elastic construction).

Citing new flooring standards and the continued need for both hardwood and synthetic flooring in the recreation industry, flooring experts discussed their views on the benefits and features of both types of floors, as well as the key factors to consider regarding a facility's environment and maintenance procedures to ensure lasting results.

Hardwood Flooring

Hardwood floors have been around for years, beginning in the 1900s in athletic gyms. They are nice-looking, durable and typically have a long lifespan, which makes them desirable for recreation facilities.

"I think years ago, hardwood, and I say years meaning 50 years ago, every gym had hardwood floors in it. Hardwood floors dominated the marketplace," said Colleen McKenna, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, associate principal, Cannon Design, a full-service architecture, engineering and interior design firm.

The fact is, "wood is the ideal surface for basketball," added Reed Voorhees, AIA, LEED AP, vice president, Cannon Design. "It's got a great look."

To top that, hardwood floor systems have progressed in the past few years, too, making them more forgiving for high school and college athletes who endure aggressive training and play harder than ever before.

For instance, pads are being used underneath wood floors in higher education and recreational centers that have basketball, volleyball and badminton.

"We're using more systems that have a pad underneath rather than rubber or shock pads that occur every 12 inches," he added. "We are using a pad that is continuous under the entire wood system. Plywood goes on top and the wood floor on top of that. It's extremely quiet, and makes the room much quieter. It takes the vibration out of the floor system. Spaces are quieter, and nicer to play on."

Voorhees pointed out a client example that involved acousticians coming into the recreation facility suggesting that pads be put in underneath the wood floor to reduce noise, not only in the gym, but to alleviate noise in other areas of the facility as well.

"Owners are getting more particular about the noise levels in general. Buildings often are somewhat noisy to begin with. When you have spaces that are meant for more quiet activities, you have to make sure they meet acoustical criteria," he said.

"Having all sorts of activities, you just don't know quite what activities [you will have] in certain spaces. Making sure you can accommodate them is important," he added. "[You have to consider] the transition of sounds to spaces below, and putting in group exercise, dual layer systems, hearing, pounding and balls bouncing."

McKenna also noted that pads are much more cost-effective, too.

"If you were doing a high-caliber basketball venue, it's likely you would go with the full sleeper system. In a recreation facility that might be more budget-conscious, a pad is a more cost-effective way to go," she said.

"It may be used in a renovation where you are replacing an existing floor, [or] the thickness of the new floors needs to match the thickness of the old floor you are replacing. Overall, you are looking at the whole system," she added.

Nevertheless, in choosing a particular system, facility managers always need to ask: What are the characteristics of different systems? If you are trying to match floor heights and floor transitions, then that's something facilities should think carefully about of the system that they are trying to match.

Synthetic Flooring

Technology for synthetic flooring has improved over the years as well, having a much stronger presence in multi-use facilities in the past two decades than prior to that, simply because the products didn't exist or were used predominantly for tracks.

"There was a desire or need for flooring surfaces for multipurpose uses," McKenna said. "We'll still go in gyms that are 30 years old, that [have] hardwood, and are faded and beat up. But, they have stood the test of time. Those were the days where synthetics had not matured as a product. Now, there's a ton of options."

For instance, vinyl surfaces offer more versatility, use and density, and wear and tear. They also cost less, and have a tremendous variety of foam densities that allow for different kinds of absorption.

And, depending on the synthetic surface, it's easier to maintain, easier to keep clean and looking nice, making it a choice option for meeting rooms and low-impact aerobics spaces.

What's more, you can even make a synthetic floor look like wood. For instance, you can take the photograph of wood, and then over the top of that put a clear vinyl layer. You see the wood, but you are wearing through the clear vinyl layer above it. "You can even create a computerized texture on that surface, which feels like a wood grain," Swartz added.

And, while synthetic flooring is "much less sensitive to environmental concerns," when you are installing flooring, you still want to have a controlled environment. Vinyl floors are not going to crack or separate, but they can be affected by UVA, UVB radiation," he said.

In this case, the issue is heat. UVA radiation is a concern.

"Vinyl floors have flexibility, a plasticizer that's sensitive to UV radiation," he said.

In the United States, expansion has occurred with synthetic flooring namely because synthetics are driven, in part, by the need for a floor with versatile capabilities.

"There are quite a lot of facilities for multipurpose use: volleyball, basketball, multi-function products. Aerobics, fitness, people use them for … YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs," Thornton said.

He noted that the point elastic system works in such a way that the floor responds only at the area of contact. "An advantage of that, everywhere you turn, or leap, your performance is about the same everywhere you go."

That is, point-elastic flooring systems are made up of resilient sports flooring such as vinyl, rubber, polyurethane and linoleum. Such gym flooring options have uniform performance across the whole playing surface, which means that every location on the floor will have nearly identical shock absorption, ball rebound and vertical deformation.

Moreover, one of the things to do and what's really important for any architect or designer, is to take the opportunity to find out what's really best for the facility. "Each facility may have a uniqueness that may fair better than another. One product may fair better than another, because it may have particular needs," Thornton recommended.

Environment & Maintenance

Choosing the right indoor flooring—whether synthetic or hardwood—largely depends on your facility's environment and maintenance procedures.

For example, floor care falls into two areas: First, environmental controls, regarding temperature and humidity; and, second, cleaning, maintaining and finishing that floor. Finishes, especially, have to be appropriate to the activity that is being planned, Swartz explained, adding that if you don't have the proper environmental conditions, hardwood flooring can buckle when exposed to high humidity after installation, or shrink during colder months.

Remember: "Cool air releases moisture. Warm air traps it," Swartz said. "You have to have the proper finish, and you have to maintain the proper environmental controls. If you close the place down in the summertime, you are likely to find disaster when you return. In cold and dry weather, hardwood shrinks and cracks. You need to have a proper subfloor system underneath the wood to [ensure] those things don't happen."

In addition, when a wood floor is being installed, the wood has to acclimate to the room.

"In new construction, if you will have the windows open, and then install the wood floor, but then close everything up [afterward], the wood is set in place and looks perfectly fine. [But], three weeks later, it looks terrible. As a buyer, you have to hook up with someone that knows what they are doing," he said.

Likewise, McKenna said environmental conditions affect hardwood because wood will swell and shrink.

"We have to look at the conditions … not just in the installation, but in terms of the selection process, in picking the best surface for your facility. What is that air quality and what is the intended day-to-day operational model, and how will that impact a surface?" she said.

Voorhees suggested that as managers consider the environmental conditions of their facilities, they should have a pre-construction meeting before the flooring goes in.

"It's a matter of understanding the conditions, what time of year the floor goes in. The moisture content of the wood can expand," he said.

Often when clients run into problems in the installation, for instance, the moisture of the slab has not been addressed, McKenna noted.

"With a concrete slab … once that slab has been installed, if there are issues in controlling moisture that will migrate up the slab into the surface, if that isn't addressed, you can run into some problems," she said. "And that moisture, if it does get trapped in there, the hardwood can swell or impact the glues or the performance and characteristics of the floor."

Problems can arise when a project is behind schedule, too.

"If the owner is anxious to get it completed, and [needs to] hurry up and install the hardwood floor, that's where you can run into some problems," she said.

"In most cases, you have to look at what the materials are. You have to look at the environment, where is the project being built," McKenna said.

Also, facility managers must have a maintenance plan in place and should address certain questions, such as: How are you going to clean your floor? Do you clean it once a week? And, maintenance requirements should be put into your budget and into your plan. If maintenance isn't accounted for in this way, the floor will likely wear quicker. And, consider the different finishes that are available. Don't go with just the first package. Find out what your options are, Swartz advised.

"You have to make sure things don't get on your floor," either. There are simple things that people can do. Entrance mats can cut 80 percent of particulate matter that gets on the floor," he said.

"Wood is pretty and lasts a long time, and there is a maintenance commitment that you must be arduous about. There is no shortcut. If you ignore it, it will be a problem. If the floor is too sticky or too slippery, you have to address those issues," he added.

Other questions you have to ask include: Is the recreation facility going to have dance classes, sports, line dancing with leather shoes? You have to sit down and discuss the possible uses. Are we going to have parties in there?

Moreover, during maintenance and upkeep, Swartz suggested that facilities should stay away from bleach and acetone for hardwood floors. Instead, opt for a mid-pH cleaner to cleanse wood floors.

If that's not enough, "We always recommend to call other clients who have these products and test them out, and talk to somebody who's had these floors, how they address the maintenance to the floor, architects, relative to specifications, and warranties, and maintenance, how to properly clean the floor," McKenna said.

"Going to see that firsthand is one of the best things owners can do when they are trying to evaluate," she said. "Usually manufacturers are happy to show them installations close by. How is it performing? Is it easier to repair? How often do you have to resurface? We often encourage owners to do that as well.

"We are constantly looking at new surfaces, staying on top of the latest," she added. But, "Nothing beats going on a floor and walking on it to see whether or not that would be a floor they would like."

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