School design has become increasingly complex for the owner, educator, architect and designer. Decisions can affect a student's performance, a teacher's ability to educate, a facility's impact on the environment, a staff's ability to maintain that facility, and a community's desire to be prudent.
But the first consideration should be the students. Schools and universities are built to be a center of the community and are successful when they are centered on students: the future of our communities.
Students in all settings need an environment conducive to learning. The physical environment of a school and its classrooms plays a significant role in creating this climate. Evidence supports the fact that a well-built learning environment reduces teacher absenteeism and increases student test scores. The adage about the weakest link is truer in school design than in any other building. A single compromise may jeopardize a student's education, or equally important, his or her health.
Flooring selection is one of these critical links. Decisions must be based on facts and not anecdotal information. Performance attributes should be considered, including:
Everyone who works and learns within a school should be taken into account when planners choose a floor covering. Indoor air quality is a primary consideration, as faculty, staff and students spend the majority of their time in the educational setting.
Indoor air quality can be improved by lowering the amount volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted. Floor finishes are the primary suspects in VOC emissions from floors; therefore, products with chemical finishes should be avoided in teaching areas: classrooms and libraries, and housing areas, especially. Vinyl composition tile (VCT) finishes have improved, but still create concerns because of the frequent application of water, chemicals and applied finishes. Flooring with an applied finish is best limited to labs and wet areas. For common areas, linoleum, rubber, ceramic and terrazzo are better flooring choices.
Carpeting also can lead to environmental concerns. Almost all carpets enable moisture and contaminants to migrate through the backing and open seams (carpet tile). In addition, some carpet tiles have antimicrobials, which are considered EPA-registered pesticides. Although some manufacturers consider them safe, they remain pesticides and should be avoided. Always ask for a third-party document that states the antimicrobial will not cause harm to the occupants and keep this document on file if questioned later. Floor coverings with a durable and permanent wear layer and installed without open seams do not require antimicrobials.
Triggers for asthma and allergies also are a concern. A University of Tulsa study, "Floor Coverings in Schools: Particle Buildup and Resuspension Potential Based on Preliminary Field and Chamber Studies," concluded that variable cushion tufted textile (VCTT) flooring with a closed-cell cushion construction reduces occupant exposure to airborne particulates by as much as two to five times compared with broadloom carpets in schools.
Hard floors in classrooms enable contaminants to move freely. These contaminants fall onto horizontal surfaces as settled dust, which has been attributed to asthma and allergy triggers and sick building syndrome. VCTT holds these contaminants even during active periods and releases them only when vacuumed.
- Good acoustics
Research shows evidence of what educators already knew: the built environment has a significant impact on behavioral and learning outcomes. The acoustical design of a classroom has a profound effect on learning capabilities. Poor acoustics causes as many as one-third of all students to miss up to 33 percent of verbal communication in the classroom.
An acoustical analysis of school classrooms demonstrates that VCTT helps reduce reverberation times and ambient noise levels in classrooms from 8 percent to 25 percent in an unoccupied classroom and 15 percent to 20 percent in an occupied classroom compared with a classroom with VCT. Floors that have a noise reduction coefficient of 0.20 or higher are best suited for learning environments and may add to LEED/CHPS points. VCTT has an NRC of 0.18 to 0.22.
Schools require a fit-for-purpose approach to flooring. Modular carpet tile is appropriate for libraries, teacher lounges, conference rooms and staff office space. Even though VCTT is preferred for student housing, modular tile may be a close second choice if it doesn't contain antimicrobials. Ceramic should be used in wet areas and restrooms. Corridors could use VCTT or other durable hard surfaces such as concrete, rubber and VCT to reduce noise levels.
- Maintenance and repair
It's important to minimize the disruption of students, staff and faculty when installing and maintaining flooring. Floor coverings with a peel-and-stick installation method makes installation fast and efficient, and enables immediate occupancy.
Almost all resilient floor manufacturers recommend vacuuming as a primary maintenance routine. Damp mopping and low-moisture maintenance help reduce chemicals and water consumption.
Modular tile offers another cost-effective solution as time and labor costs are substantially lower when replacing tile. However, replacement usually means disposal. Make sure you have an in-place recovery system to recycle flooring destined for a landfill.
Hard surfaces with an applied finish significantly increase the use of harsh chemicals, which can cost up to seven times the amount of textile cleaning supplies. Resilient floors with an inherent finish are preferred, as they are designed to improve maintenance and reduce chemical use. These products also need fewer repairs, and can easily be replaced or repaired with little effort and remain waterproof afterwards.
In the past, flooring products could not contribute to energy savings at a school facility, but today they can. Linoleum, rubber and VCTT offer cushion properties that can be calculated in energy modeling to save energy.
When possible, make sure to use products that can be closed-loop recycled. Fillers used to reach these numbers may not have sound environmental attributes. The occupants of education facilities have an interest in their surroundings. Using recycled materials no longer means just gaining environmental awards — the right flooring may also have financial and health benefits.