Court Sense

Experts Offer Tips on Choosing Indoor Sports Surfaces

By Rick Dandes

Getting the best use of your indoor sports surfaces, such as basketball and volleyball courts, starts at the design stage, and choosing the right flooring for your facility. Sports surfaces are best used in a very specific way and, beyond safety and comfort, their performance characteristics are often sport-specific. What is considered optimum footing—friction, traction, slide and protection against foot-lock—will vary from one sport to another.

And while appearance has no direct effect on athletic performance, the existence of design options also will allow the architect to create the preferred ambience in the building. Even more than aesthetics, however, durability and wear resistance of certain features, such as painted logos, borders and keys, as well as design patterns in the product itself, need to be taken into consideration, said Gabe Martini, manager of a sports flooring manufacturer based in Utica, N.Y. Since different colors of product may wear at different rates, in addition to the uneven wear caused in high-traffic areas, the presence of design features typically leads to more frequent resurfacing and higher lifecycle cost, although the amount will vary depending on the type of product.

What indoor sports facility managers also need to do, suggested Chad Eason, associate athletic director for operations and events at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa., is work to develop (or work with those who have) extensive expertise in designing floor systems for competition facilities that can also perform as recreation and multi-function spaces. For, no matter what the size of the facility or the complexity of events, you need the right kind of sports flooring to meet the needs of your users.

Defining Needs & Scope

To get the most value from the sizeable investment in an indoor sports surface, an owner must take care in defining needs, exploring available options and making appropriate choices, Eason said. To ensure user safety, surface longevity and long-term maintenance, it is necessary to make an educated and well-informed decision regarding the choice of athletic flooring.

Early in the project, an owner must decide on its scope, Martini added. What sports or activities will take place in this facility or on this floor? The specific sports to be played on the surface may influence the appropriate structural resiliency, surface hardness, surface texture, ball bounce, etc., for the proposed surface.

"The key is, the space has to be user-friendly," Martini said. "If possible, it should accommodate multiple sports. But the design is important. If we're talking about an indoor area—a small fieldhouse, for example—you don't want too many things going on in the same relative area. So design the court to be flexible, but not too confusing."

No matter what the size of the facility or the complexity of events, you need the right kind of sports flooring to meet the needs of your users.

Using tennis as an example, Martini explained, "Most tennis courts are laid out for adults; they are full-size. From a programming standpoint, it is just appealing to the adult population. But there has been a real push the last three or four years to bring that down a little bit by using 'quick start' courts. They are a little bit smaller. We don't expect kids that are 10 years old to go out on a full-size soccer field; why would we expect to send kids on a full-size tennis court? The logic doesn't follow."

From a programming point of view, you can take a full-size court and convert it into four quick-start courts, going across the courts, with two on either side of the net. It's about design. Now you have, on the same court, programming for both adults and kids. You've increased the programming in the same space, and introduced kids into the game in a way that enables them to enjoy it more.

Other questions to ask in the early stages of planning and design stage are: Which age groups typically will use the floor? Children in elementary schools have different safety needs from high-level college athletes. The same is true for elderly populations. At what level will these sports be played? Will sports with a very specific need for floor performance be played? For instance, indoor tennis or track events require specific and differing surfaces, Mason said. Non-athletic uses also should be considered. What kind of events will be hosted in the facility when it is not being used for recreation activities? Will the space, in the case of school gym, be used for the school dance, lunches or holiday programs? Will concerts also be on the agenda?

The principle function of an athletic surface is to provide the appropriate levels of safety, comfort and performance, Mason said. Young children's musculoskeletal systems are vulnerable. Safety includes protection against traumatic injury as well as long-term wear. A floor's force reduction, or resiliency, influences safety in a way that goes well beyond simple comfort.

Choosing the Right Flooring

When you are looking at indoor sports surfaces, there, historically, have been a fair number of choices. "Some people have used surfaces that were never intended for sports and continue to do that inside, and it's really a detriment to the safety of the kids who play on those surfaces," warned Joel McCausland, director of product management for a Salt Lake City, Utah-based sports surface manufacturer. "We've seen people use everything from carpet, which is typically glued right on concrete with very little or no cushion, to a linoleum surface, sometimes used in indoor facilities, but should never be used for sports. They are just not safe. They don't give any cushion or resilience. They are an accident waiting to happen in most cases."

Having said all that, you have several traditional choices, McCausland said. Many companies deal in hardwood floors as well as modular floors and flexible vinyl floors, "so there is a broad range of indoor flooring surfaces that can be used specifically for sports. They deliver great shock absorption. But today's sports surfaces are very versatile and can be used in many different applications and they exist at various price points, depending upon what your budget is and what your application is in mind."

A wooden floor as an indoor surface is great, but requires constant scrutiny. With a synthetic floor there is not that perpetual maintenance. And with a tile floor, because it is all modular, if there is any damage, it can be repaired or replaced at a moderate cost; with modular tile, in-house staff can make most needed repairs without having to hire an outside specialist.

"So, one of the first decisions you'll need to make is whether synthetic or wood is the best option," said Jeff Williams, director of sports sales at a Peshtigo, Wis.-based sports flooring company. Typically, where athletics are going to be the priority, wood is always the preferred surface to play on, Williams said, but a great number of facilities also have to be multipurpose, "where it might be 50-50 percentage of athletics to non-athletics, depending on the type of facility—a school, a club or a church. Those kinds of facts lead you to the best possible solution. Again, a facility with more non-athletic functions generally will choose synthetic floor and those with a higher percentage of athletics choose wood."

At Bucknell, for example, there is a university fieldhouse that is home to the school's indoor track and field team, "but we also have 27 varsity sports and numerous intramural and recreational programs here at the school," Eason said, "and over the course of a year, probably most of them are going to utilize that space for one purpose or another. Add to that non-athletic events held in the fieldhouse, like concerts or an internship fair. So when it does come time to start looking to upgrade or replace the surface, it really comes down to looking at the cost of installation, of maintenance and the playability part of it. And then what the primary usage is. That is a tough call because it has to be track, but after that it is really a multipurpose facility." Trying to come up with something that is going to work for all those different events is the challenge.

The cost of wood vs. synthetic is relatively the same, believe it or not, Williams said. "It depends upon the use. Some sports are very specific and require a synthetic floor, and have specific surface requirements. Even with wooden/synthetic choices, a particular sport could lead you to a certain type of surface for your particular use."

Maintenance Issues

As a general rule a wood floor and a synthetic floor are going to require you to dust mop daily. At many facilities today, Williams noted, "kids don't change clothes, they come right from the outside and what they wore into your building is what they wear for their events. So dust mop the floor daily, both wood and synthetic."

A synthetic floor you will probably clean a little bit more often, on a weekly basis, depending on use and time of year. During winter months in the north, people will track in salt, snow and water, so you have to clean a bit more often. In the summer most facilities don't have to clean as often because the use of indoor facilities is much less. You clean a synthetic floor with water and an automatic floor scrubber; for a wood floor, use a hardwood floor cleaner. You are not going to use water. You apply the cleaner to a mop and scrub.

You might need to apply a new finish to a wooden floor on a yearly basis, Williams explained, because wood tends to wear down through the year. But if you take care of them the right way, you can get many years of good use. Putting a new finish on this type of surface protects the wood. "We do a lot of gym floors, schools, parks and recreation buildings," Williams said. "A wood floor should last the life of a building. You want to re-sand the wood floor every 10 to 12 years and eventually you sand it to the nails and at that point it has reached its useful life." Synthetic floors can be rejuvenated. You can put a new surface on top of a synthetic floor every 15 years or so and then you have a brand new floor at a cheaper cost than installing a new floor.

Always review the manufacturer's maintenance instructions for daily and periodic cleaning prior to choosing a specific flooring product, Williams said. If daily dust mopping, weekly wet cleaning and biannual intensive scrubbing is indicated, determine the specific type of cleaner and cleaning equipment suggested. There is more to maintenance beyond cleaning. Touching up or repainting lines, repairing seams or mechanical damage, periodic application of maintenance coatings or resurfacing the entire floor needs to be considered in a long-term maintenance budget.

Modular flooring may be a better budget choice for smaller municipalities with their indoor facilities, McCausland explained. "It's versatile enough to be used for almost any application indoors, and you can deliver a great-looking floor that feels like a hardwood floor and yet it is done with modular flooring. It's a better price point and it gives versatility for different activities in sports. In the scenario where you have a small school district or a community center, a boys club, a YMCA, we find that modular flooring has always been a great choice because of that combination of great performance, durability and versatility at a budget price."

Remember that in budget planning, lifecycle cost considers not just initial cost, but long-term cost. Before committing to a project, be certain that you can afford the schedule of maintenance recommended by the supplier of your chosen surfacing system.

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