What's Under Foot?

The Basics of Indoor Sports, Fitness & Recreation Flooring

By Joe Bush

That weight room floor sure is nice—a handsome navy blue, not too firm, not too squishy, modular for ease of replacement, but there's a problem and it has nothing to do with sight or feel. The office workers downstairs find it hard to concentrate because of the constant sound of dropped weights.

It's a real problem and it has real solutions, and is just one example of the factors recreational facility operators have to consider when deciding on indoor flooring. It's also about budget and bouncing balls, traction and pretty colors, durability and safety, cleaning and ease of repair. You can get all those right but have to retrofit when the neighbors complain about the noise.

Brennan Prins, marketing director of a fitness flooring manufacturer based in Petrolia, Ontario, said more than half of his company's customers are concerned with sound reduction. "Many of these fitness centers have a major dilemma with sound attenuation," Prins said. "How do they mitigate this when Superhero Steve is dropping 600 pounds on the floor and that shockwave goes through the whole building? How do we absorb that sound, and how does that affect the whole building? How can we address this problem?"

Prins said his company's fitness flooring handles every issue for use in weight rooms, fitness equipment areas and exercise class spaces. At 5.25 inches thick, it's been recommended to clients of a Canadian company named Aercoustics Engineering that solves vibration and sound problems.

"The thicker the better," says Bob Rimrott, one of the principals at Aercoustics.

Rimrott said manufacturers can't merely make thicker and thicker weight room flooring, however. Stability must be maintained, and, especially in free weight areas, the danger of weights bouncing into people or walls and mirrors must be eliminated. He said another recreational facility flooring problem is the bouncing of basketballs on a court that is at a higher level than ground floor.

When Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto transitioned from a professional hockey arena to a multi-use building—the Mattamy Athletic Centre—two of the uses were a university athletic center and high-end grocery store, the former above the latter. The sound of the bouncing of basketballs on the second-floor court had to be dampened, and the fix was a floating floor—put simply, the hardwood court on top of a concrete slab supported by rubber discs on top of the structural floor.

"The higher-end athletics you do, the more important the actual surface is," Rimrott said. "Clearly on a basketball court, the last thing you want to do is have the ball not bounce well because the floor is trying to absorb energy, so in the case with Maple Leaf Gardens, we designed it with a concrete floating floor."

Organizations that have lower budgets for athletic flooring sometimes choose modular, or tiled, surfaces—one of the main benefits being ease and speed of replacement. Gabe Martini, sales manager for a Utica, N.Y.-based manufacturer of modular flooring for indoor and outdoor courts, said that the cost of his company's modular floor is about half that of a hardwood floor, so nonprofits and public schools make up the bulk of the company's clientele. Repair or replacement hurts a lot less, too.

"Lower maintenance continues to be a trend, not worrying about sanding and refinishing," Martini said. "You can pop out a bad tile and replace it. If you have a problem with your wood floor, you've got to call a carpenter or a wood flooring expert to come in and take the floor out of service for a week to repair. In a renovation project, we're in and out in a week, that's all we're taking the floor out of service. They have to do that in the summer for wood."

Different flooring products are designed for specific sports such as roller and inline hockey, basketball, volleyball, tennis, and aerobic studios and weight rooms. Mesh-like tiles service wet areas like pool decks and locker rooms. Cleaning consists of removing loose dirt and washing, Martini said, and the flooring can last 10 to 15 years.

"We're used in place of a hardwood floor—not everybody can afford one," Martini said. "We occupy a space on the lower end of the food chain, putting wood at the top. That market is always looking for alternatives, and whether they're renovating or building from scratch, money is tight. They're always looking for a way to have a nice effective floor, but also be responsible to their benefactors."

Jeff Vance, global sales manager for another interlocking synthetic sport floor tile company based in Salt Lake City, said it's not only repair that is quick. From the first customer contact to finished installation, it can take just six to eight weeks, he said, and some projects have boasted start-to-finish times of three weeks.

"Once an agreement has been reached, we custom-build their sports flooring, ship it out and get it installed," Vance said. "Complete installation usually only takes one to three days."

He said before that first call, facility operators should have a checklist of factors to help them narrow their flooring search: budget; design usage—what sports are being played; level of play—is it children, youth, adults, recreation, collegiate-level; expected life cycle; difficulty of maintenance; any particular loading issues; desire for "green products"; concerns with installation or eventual resurfacing or replacement; concerns with sub-surface; aesthetics and acoustics.

Vance said he has noticed several trends in indoor recreational flooring, like:

  • More green products
  • Low or zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) products
  • Installation methods and products that are better suited to "fast track" construction practices
  • Products and methods capable of being installed over concrete slabs with moisture and vapor emission issues
  • Products that are easier to maintain
  • Products with better performance characteristics, such as force reduction
  • Better methods to withstand point and rolling load issues

A Lancaster, Pa.-based manufacturer of athletic flooring reflects several of these trends: The company uses recycled rubber for its flooring, claiming to be the largest user of scrap tire rubber in the United States; its products help earn points in two of six LEED certification categories; and the adhesive used delivers 50 percent lower VOCs than the most stringent industry standard.

Bo Barber, vice president of marketing and business development, said the company's newest product is a marriage of a vinyl top layer that looks like wood, available in three shades, bonded with a recycled rubber underlayment for cushioning and one-step installation. Barber said besides the appearance and ease of installation, this new product attracts customers because of its multipurpose potential.

"On the sports side, it's ideal for basketball, yoga, Pilates, volleyball and cardio," he said. "It's attractive enough that it looks like a high-end floor you might find in an institutional setting like a library or school. It also performs very well when it comes to residual indentation and rolling cart or static loads.

"So, if this surface is installed in a community center, where you are playing a basketball game on Saturday morning, you can roll the bleachers up and into the corner for the spaghetti dinner later that night, and no indentations will have formed."

What if you do have the budget for a wood floor? Can they satisfy your sustainability concerns? Brandi Connolly, senior director of marketing and communications for one of the world's leading wood-floor sports surface companies, said there are wood floor options that can ease the environmentalist in you.

The company is a zero-waste company, meaning less than 1 percent of its waste is sent to landfills. Also, it has received an Underwriter Laboratory Environmental Product Declaration, certifying its full life-cycle assessment—an analysis on harvesting, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance and product removal—which can give buildings a bonus credit under a new LEED certification. Finally, it is a charter member of the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association and the first member of that group to be certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

That ethic has to be balanced with clients getting what they pay for.

"The use of sustainable, recycled and recyclable materials in sports surfaces continues to be a primary consideration for owners," Connolly said. "As we look to the future we see an increasing interest in limiting the use of raw materials when recycled and recyclable materials cannot be used. While a preference for using less resources is not new, like anything, the goal would be to do so without compromising structural integrity or athlete performance."

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