Bell Prairie Elementary School, Kansas City, Mo.

Getting Beneath The Surface

Sept. 1, 2003
Tips for choosing flooring surfaces in schools.

When you walk through a school, do you hear the rhythmic clacking of heels on tile or terrazzo, or the muffled sound of shoes absorbed by carpeting? Do you feel the soft cushion of a carpet on your feet, or the solid touch of a hard surface? Do you see the luster of freshly waxed tile, or the muted tones of textile?

The answer to those questions depends on where you are in a facility and what choices designers, administrators, teachers, maintenance workers, parents and students made as the facility was planned and built.

“You get five million arguments about it,” says Alan Bigger, director of building services at the University of Notre Dame, Ind.

As they determine what kind of flooring to have, schools and universities need to consider a wide range of factors: the function of the space, aesthetics, maintainability, durability, comfort, acoustics, indoor air quality and cost.

“They all have their place,” says Tom Bates, managing principal of BLRB Architects in Tacoma, Wash. “There is not one miracle product. Different spaces have a variety of different functions.”

Different perspectives

Teachers, administrators, students, parents and custodians have different roles in a school building, and all of those stakeholders have priorities in determining what kinds of flooring surfaces they prefer in their schools.

“For people in operations, it's a question of what works,” says Bigger. “For others, it's a matter of what looks nice.”

Surfaces that can be maintained most effectively would naturally appeal to custodians responsible for daily flooring upkeep.

But schools are about more than easy-to-clean floors. Teachers and students might be inclined to prefer softer surfaces, especially in the classroom where they spend much of their time. Some parents and teachers may pay special attention to how flooring choices can affect indoor air quality, and the health of students and staff in a building. Others may focus on how flooring adds to the overall aesthetics of a building design. Administrators and designers try to balance all those wants and needs as they make flooring decisions.

“You try to help a school make informed decisions,” says Bates.

The hard and soft sell

Administrators may feel they are caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between carpet advocates and hard-floor proponents, but education facilities have such varied functions that both carpeted and hard-floor surfaces can enhance a building's operation.

“If you're looking for acoustical quality and comfort, carpet might be a better choice,” says Bates. “In elementary schools, especially, kids like to sit on the floor. Other areas, such as art rooms, science labs, mass circulation areas and eating spaces — places that are susceptible to moisture, food spills or other contaminants — might be better suited for hard floors.”

Carpeting typically is less expensive to install, but its life expectancy in most cases is shorter than that for most hard-floor surfaces. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools says the life expectancy of carpet is 10 to 15 years, compared with terrazzo, which will last for a building's lifetime; ceramic tile, which will last 40 to 80 years; and wood flooring, which has an average life expectancy of 38 years.

The acoustical benefits and added comfort that carpeting can provide has made it more common in schools in recent years. But schools that don't do their homework when choosing carpeting can wind up with trouble.

“If the backing of the carpet is not impervious, spills can wick out and don't get totally cleaned up,” says Bates. “You never get it all out, and bad things start to grow. Odors and mold growth can result. You need to have a carpet with high-quality textile on top of an impervious backing.”

Just as crucial as the quality of the material is the expertise of those laying the carpet.

“You need certified installers to do it right,” says Bates.

Many schools install interlocking carpet tiles in some locations. Individual tiles that are stained or damaged can be replaced without incurring the costs of replacing an entire carpet. Bigger notes that this often amounts to a “band-aid” approach because a new tile often does not match well with squares that have been in place for a long time. Spills and moisture might leak through the joints on tiles and cause air-quality problems.

Administrators choosing carpet also need to select the colors and patterns carefully.

“Those are important for aesthetics,” says Bates. “Medium tones, multi-colors and random patterns can help make spills and stains less noticeable.”

Maintenance matters

Regardless of the type of flooring chosen, it won't meet expectations if it is not maintained properly.

“Whatever floor surface goes to the exterior of the building should be readily cleanable and not damaged by the elements,” says Bigger. “So whatever kind of flooring you have, you're going to need walk-off mats. If you put carpeting right to the exterior in this area, it's going to be damaged by ice, snow and ice melters. If you have terrazzo, you'll have to cover it with a mat so people won't slip as they enter. Wood is subject to being damaged quite easily.”

Before selecting a floor type, administrators need to assess accurately whether a school's custodial staff has the training, resources and time to maintain a floor properly. In times of tight budgets, maintenance often is one of the first areas targeted for cuts.

“If regular, effective maintenance and cleaning cannot be assured (due to budget constraints, inadequately trained staff or other reasons), carpeting should not be used,” says the Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools.

Custodial workers also might be accustomed to maintaining a certain type of floor and find it difficult to adopt different methods for a different type of surface.

“Maintenance departments need to be comfortable doing the job and have the resources to do the job effectively,” says Bates.


  • $2.20 TO $3

    Cost per square foot of a typical nylon carpet.

  • $5 TO $10

    Cost per square foot of a typical terrazzo floor.

  • $6 TO $10

    Cost per square foot of a typical wood floor.

  • $6 TO $12

    Cost per square foot of a typical ceramic-tile floor.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy, National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

Sponsored Recommendations

Schedule an AIA Course Presentation

Get closer to completing your annual AIA Continuing Education requirement.. Our continuing education courses will get you that much closer to completi…