To basketball players, few sensations are more satisfying than the sound and feel of a ball bouncing off a hardwood floor as they dribble up a court.
But to the workers responsible for keeping that floor in peak condition, there are few sights more distressing than having that finely maintained floor scratched and scuffed by tables and chairs or trampled on by a horde of black-soled visitors.
So every school with a gymnasium has a critical decision to make when renovating or replacing their flooring: wood or synthetic?
To choose wisely, school administrators must understand how their facilities will be used and how much time and expense will be involved in maintaining the flooring surfaces.
If it were left up to those involved in athletics, most gymnasium floors would be wood. The aesthetics and performance of wood surfaces are what athletes competing at high levels expect. Proponents of wood floors also assert that because of the foundation that lies beneath a hardwood floor to absorb shocks, athletes are less likely to sustain injuries.
“The coaches and the players prefer to see the wood floor,” says Rick Hoenig, maintenance coordinator for the Ames (Iowa) Community School District.
The downside of wood floors is their expense. Installing a wood floor is more expensive than synthetic alternatives, and depending on the amount of sanding and refinishing required, can deplete an institution's maintenance budget.
“The wood floors take much more maintenance than the synthetic floors,” says Hoenig. “They last longer than synthetic floors, but they require more upkeep.”
Colleges and high schools, which have a wider range of needs for athletic space, often have both wood and synthetic floors.
“We have both synthetic and wood in our district,” says Hoenig. “Our high school has two gyms — one with a wood floor for varsity competition, and one with a synthetic floor for practices and other uses. Our high school is used pretty much 24/7. It's really more of a community center.”
In many middle and elementary schools, physical-education space often has multiple uses — lunchroom, auditorium, study hall. These schools need quick and frequent conversions from one use to another, and synthetic flooring such as vinyl or urethane often is the choice for many facilities managers.
If schools don't have the maintenance staffing or budget to provide the care a wood floor will need over its lifetime, a synthetic surface might be the best choice.
As with most school facilities decisions, the bottom line for many institutions is cost.
“It all depends on how much money you have to spend,” says Shirley Smith, a facilities department employee with the Lindbergh School District in St. Louis.
Total installed cost per year of maple sports flooring ($81,300 over 38 years of life expectancy, based on a 10,000-square-foot floor).
Annual daily maintenance cost of maple sports flooring (174 hours at $12 an hour).
Annual cost of screening and recoating maple sports flooring.
Annual cost of refinishing maple sports flooring.
Source: Maple Floor Manufacturers Association
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.