The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Miltimore Residence Hall uses a combination of hard flooring and carpeting depending on the area and its use

Hard and Soft Flooring for Schools and Universities

June 1, 2013
Specifying hard and soft flooring in residence halls.

In the past, many different materials, such as carpet, ceramic or porcelain tile, and vinyl composition tile (VCT), have been the leading flooring materials in residence halls. Today, facility operators are looking for flooring products that are easier to maintain and provide more flexibility and comfort to student residents. 

This generation’s college student expects to live in an environment similar to the home they left behind. The type of flooring installed plays a big part in the experience of a building, including sound transmission, temperature and visual appearance.

Carpet Comfort

Housing staff that follow a consistently short replacement cycle are using carpet to add aesthetic interest and to stay on trend with colors and style. Most of the students asked over the past five years have an opinion: carpet feels more like home. The importance of pleasing the student population cannot be overlooked. Students want to know that they are living in residence facilities that are comparable to those of their friends on other campuses. 

Carpet can be a beautiful and warm product. Both visual and physical warmth can be elevated by using carpet on bedroom floors. Carpet is superior to most hard flooring products when it comes to thermal resistance (R-value). This can improve the energy efficiency of buildings, offsetting the cost of material and installation for years to come. The benefits realized from this increase in insulating value can be significant. They vary by geographic region and climate, and are affected by how the flooring is used in conjunction with the other materials in the building.

Noise absorption is another factor that is improved with the use of soft surfaces, such as carpet. Quiet spaces enhance comfort and concentration. This is more important than ever because many residence facilities now have a living-learning environment where students and faculty can immerse themselves in learning beyond the classroom. Carpet was compared with hard flooring options in a sound absorption study by the American Society of Interior Designers. Its findings determined that carpet absorbs sound 10 times better than the tested hard flooring options.

Carpet Maintenance

Both broadloom and carpet tile have the aforementioned benefits in terms of comfort, but only carpet tile can provide the ease of flooring replacement desired by facilities maintenance personnel at education institutions. 

Pressure adhesive carpet tiles are simple to remove and replace. If there is a wear problem in one area, the whole room doesn’t have to be re-carpeted. Innovations in adhesive methods have reduced or eliminated VOC content while increasing the ease of both initial and replacement installation. In addition, today’s carpet tile is more durable than the carpet tile of the past. Advancements in backing have made it as much as 40 percent lighter than traditional carpet tile backing, which makes it easier  to transport attic stock from campus storage facilities to residence halls. 

Most backings are stronger and have added antimicrobial properties, which help destroy or inhibit the growth of microorganisms, including fungi and bacteria.

Furthermore, many backings consist of high recycled content, making them a more sustainable choice. Products have been improved to eliminate edge ravel and provide better delaminating strength. Some carpet fibers offer a lifetime warranty for staining, colorfastness and abrasive wear. 

Many schools prefer to use carpet only in common areas that can be cleaned daily. Advocates of this concept believe that carpet in the student rooms may not be cleaned regularly and can contribute to allergies. 

However, an unpublished 2002 study on cleaning and foot traffic emissions found that carpeted areas have a lower concentration of dust and dirt in the air than areas with hard flooring. This is potentially because carpet traps dust, dirt and allergens that are removed with regular vacuuming. Therefore, when cleaned regularly, carpet can provide more healthful indoor air quality than hard surfaces, which allow allergens, dirt and dust to spread each time someone walks through the room. 

Hard-Surface Flexibility

For many years, vinyl composition tile (VCT) has been the most widely used product for facility managers who didn’t want to use carpet in student bedrooms. Residence hall managers and designers have been working together to find options that can be maintained easily while avoiding materials such as VCT, which have create more of a commercial aesthetic in student living spaces. If you wouldn’t put it in your house, today’s students don’t expect to find it in their residence hall bedrooms. 

Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is being considered and used more widely in residence halls, and in student bedrooms in particular. LVT provides a visually warmer environment, and can be more welcoming and comfortable than standard VCT or sheet vinyl.

With neutral flooring such as a “wood look” LVT, student sleeping rooms can be viewed as a blank canvas. Many students will provide their own area rugs, and this gives them more control over the appearance of their space. It may seem like students would find it an unnecessary annoyance to bring a rug to campus, but students seem happy to be able to choose the color of the floor in their bedroom, just as they would choose their bedspread and lighting.

Because students don’t always cover their own floors, care should be taken in LVT-floored sleeping rooms to provide protection on the legs of furniture so that it doesn’t damage the surface of the flooring.

Hard-Surface Maintenance

Hard surfaces provide the potential for a cleaner environment in an application where students may track in dirt or spill things on a regular basis. In many of college and university residence halls, the cleaning staff doesn’t go into the student bedrooms, so flooring that needs less frequent cleaning can be important over the course of a semester. When properly installed, LVT can prevent water from leaking through the joints and down to the substrate, which makes it useful in locations where spills are likely to occur. 

It’s easier for a college student to wipe up a spill on a hard surface than to clean up a spill on carpet. Therefore, it’s more likely to be in good shape at the end of the year when the cleaning staff arrives. Also, because students are likely to place an area rug over the hard flooring, their area rugs endure most of the wear and tear from shoes, furniture rearrangement and spills. 

LVT products that don’t require a surface treatment now are readily available. The maintenance time associated with sealing and waxing VCT has become a concern of the past for facilities maintenance personnel who work with LVT.

Look and feel

A space can be defined by its flooring. The size and placement of spaces, which is so important in designing residence halls, is of equal importance to the interior finishes installed in those spaces. The materials and colors that finish off the rooms are the final step of a pleasing and cohesive design. 

Flooring is one of the components that people see the most and use the most. It helps to set the tone of the living environment. Considering the impact flooring in student bedrooms can have on the students’ home away from home experience, it is critical to the responsive design of a student-life facility. 

Sidebar: Q&A with John Storch, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Storch, associate director for operations, is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day custodial, maintenance and guest operations for the Department of Housing and Residence Life at UNC Charlotte. In addition, he is responsible for renovations and new construction for all housing facilities.

What are your major concerns when choosing a flooring product for student bedrooms in your campus residence halls?

JS: Durability and cleanability of the product is our major concern, which is why we use a solution-dyed carpet product, which enables us to maintain the standards that our students and staff expect. We’re considering vinyl plank flooring because of allergens, but we like carpet in the bedrooms for the comfort.

What is your typical replacement cycle for flooring in these spaces?

JS: Our replacement cycle is six years for carpet and 12 years for vinyl plank. When we install VCT, it never gets changed; we use it for its lifetime, which could be about 20 to 30 years.

What types of products do your students prefer in their bedrooms?

JS: Soft and warm, which is why we tend to go with carpet. We just did a test with two units in Witherspoon Residence Hall, and we got feedback that students like carpet. They don’t want to step onto cold flooring, and they think that having carpet helps keep down noise.

Do most of the students on campus cover the existing flooring with area rugs or leave the flooring you provide exposed?

JS: Yes, they cover hard flooring 90 percent of the time in their bedrooms. The problem is that they tape the carpet down, including using duct tape against the door opening, and after nine months, it’s difficult to remove the tape glue from the floor.

How do you think LVT (luxury vinyl tile) compares with VCT (vinyl composition tile) from a maintenance standpoint?

JS: LVT is light years ahead. I don’t have to do the same kind of extensive cleaning routine I would have with VCT. I can use a scrubbing machine and let it air dry and I’m done. It’s about one-fourth of the labor cost to maintain, and that’s why we’re looking into it for future buildings. I’m also moving from carpet to LVT in the living room areas because of the life cycle cost.

Sidebar: Q&A with Chad Henning, Penn State University, University Park, Pa.

Henning is the assistant director of Housing, responsible for the operation of the comprehensive residential life program at Penn State’s University Park campus. About 13,700 students live on campus, and that includes all first-year students, who are required to live on campus and are guaranteed housing.

What are your major concerns when choosing a flooring product for student bedrooms in your campus residence halls?

CH: The two primary ones are maintenance and the life cycle cost. First, is it a long-term durable product? But, also, how much labor do I have to put into LVT vs. VCT vs. carpet? We also consider cost, the look and sustainability.

What is your typical replacement cycle for flooring in these spaces?

CH: Most of our buildings have vinyl tile in them that is more than 50 years old. We have linoleum more than 70 years old in Atherton Hall. In our more recent projects where we’ve gone with more carpeting in bedrooms, our replacement cycle is targeted for 12 to 15 years. 

What type of products do your students prefer in their bedrooms?

CH: We’ve had mixed reviews. We’ve gotten tons of student feedback on the South Halls and other projects, and we’ve had good feedback on carpeting, but we’ve had the strongest positive feedback on the wood-look LVT flooring. For the students, the carpet isn’t as clean of a product as the LVT. Students with allergies and asthma prefer hard flooring because it’s easier for them to clean off dirt and dust more effectively.

Do most of the students living on campus cover the existing flooring with area rugs or leave the flooring you provide exposed?

CH: Most of them cover it. They may bring in small area rugs, but nothing huge in the room. Usually they have a 5x8 area rug to enhance the decor of the room. It’s much easier to keep clean, and the smell is better. In a lot of guys’ dorms with carpet, it smells like a locker room by the end of the semester. We have a carpet vendor that does in-room delivery; students got almost 1,000 rugs from them this year. 

How do you think LVT (luxury vinyl tile) compares with VCT (vinyl composition tile) from a maintenance standpoint?

CH: So far, I think LVT is a better product. We haven’t had it in our residence halls long term, but we did benchmark with Michigan State and some other Big Ten schools who have used it. Both VCT and LVT are easy to install, and VCT is less expensive upfront, but with the waxing, sealing, buffing and scrubbing, long-term labor costs are higher with VCT. LVT gives us a better look and feel, plus a better life cycle cost, with less labor to maintain its good looks, and it’s durable.

Randazzo, AIA, PMP. is a project manager and associate at Clark Nexsen, PC, in the Charlotte, N.C. office, where the firm specializes in residence hall design. 

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