Feature Article - May/June 2003
Find a printable version here

Tread Lightly

A complete guide to selecting the right sports surface

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Medina Community Recreation Center in Medina, Ohio
What's on deck

Sports surfaces mean more than just gymnasiums and fitness centers. Facility planners, of course, need to look at surfacing choices beyond the gym—all kinds of other floors for recreational work and play, including aquatic spaces and locker rooms.

Where there's water, there's a special surfacing need. Friction and the ability to fight mold and mildew take precedence to ensure safety and cleanliness.

Depending on budget, facility managers can use ceramic mosaic tile with a textured "grip" surface, which has been the traditional, sometimes priciest choice. Other options now include a textured resin poured over concrete or slip-proof vinyl tiles with welded seams. When dealing with coatings that cover a concrete base, Kate cautions, owners must ensure that the seal stays true, since cracks can create leaks that lead to mildew and mold problems.

By the Numbers

Upfront installation costs often drive flooring decisions. Below is a sample rundown of average capital costs, including installation, according to product type. Remember, of course, these general costs can vary according to geographic region and can fluctuate according to the raw materials market.**

Cost per square foot
Single sleeper system$7.50 to $9
Panel system$9 to $10
Anchored systems$12 to $14
Interlocking polypropylene tiles $4.75 to $5.75
PVC sheet goods with foam backing/6. 5 to 8 mm thick $6 to $7
Rubber sheet goods/10 mm thick $6 to $7
Full-pour polyurethane/10 mm surface thickness $5.75 to $6.75
Sandwich systems/9 mm plus 2 mm (11 mm thickness) $5.75 to $6.75
Panel system subfloor with synthetic top $9 to $13
Anchored system subfloor/synthetic top $11 to $15
Two-inch pile height—infilled $4.50 to $5.50
Two-inch pile height infilled with 19 mm e-layer $7 to $8
Knitted nylon over closed-cell foam pad $7.50 to $9
Knitted nylon over 19 mm e-layer $10 to $10.50
Cost per square yard
1/2-inch black mat poly $17 to $19
1/2-inch black mat with structural spray $22 to $23
1/2-inch sandwich system $35 to $36
1/2-inch full-pour polyurethane system $49 to $50
Sheet goods $58 to $59

**Figures courtesy of Cannon/Johnston Sport Architecture in Victoria, B.C., and Moose Sports Surfaces in Chicago. Note: Figures reflect 2003 prices.

If you fall climbing the walls
The Spot Bouldering Gym in Boulder, Colo.

Surprisingly, no standards or guidelines exist for surfaces surrounding climbing walls, but the issue is under discussion in industry groups, says Sheila Raff of Vertical World in Seattle, which operates three climbing gyms. Her gym, for example, uses a minimum of 18 inches of pea gravel around bouldering areas, where falls are a possibility. Around top-rope walls, where falls are not an issue, her gym features two-inch pads or padded carpet. Rubberized sports surfaces would also work well around top-roped walls to provide cushioning for climbers descending, she says.

Again, whatever the recreational space, be sure to nail down all your facility's uses and needs when you do your homework.

Kids' Flooring Choices: Poor to Middling?

In the complicated world of flooring, competing manufacturers and designers may not agree on much, but they're unanimous on one topic: the need to upgrade flooring systems for youth sports in schools.

Due to budget and space limitations, most middle and elementary schools end up using vinyl composition tile (VCT) in their gymnasiums, which often double as cafeterias and meeting halls. While combining these functions may reduce building costs, it creates hardships for schools later on and creates safety hazards with flooring, says Sandy Kate, a partner with Fanning/Howey Associates architects based in Celina, Ohio.

VCT provides no cushioning or shock absorbency, increasing the chance of injuries during falls and increasing the possibility of joint damage after playing sports such as basketball over extended periods of time.

"There may not be an injury right away from playing basketball on a hard surface, but eventually there's going to be a problem," Kate says.

What's more, the tile can be slippery and doesn't provide much friction, raising the incidence of falls. And a combined eating/gym area creates scheduling difficulties as schools scramble to properly clean food off the floors and turn the space back over for physical education classes.

As an alternative, architects and flooring consultants are increasingly recommending that schools make room in their budgets for a synthetic surface floor.

"It may be at least a $5-per-square-foot price difference, but it's worth it," Kate says.

If budget limitations present a problem, schools can get booster and parent organizations involved to try and raise money to spring for a better athletic floor. Alternately, if a school can't budget for a better floor during construction, planners should make sure to choose a surface that is easily replaced, or which can allow a new floor to be placed directly atop it, adds Sally Cottingham of Chicago-based Moose Sports Surfaces.

Finally, elementary schools may compromise by selecting sports carpet with vinyl backing. While teachers like the carpet for its sound-deadening abilities and its comfort during the tumbling and rolling activities that make up a lot of fitness for younger children, the material can cause carpet burns and doesn't perform as well for ball bounce.