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Walk the Walk

Walk the Walk

Flooring choices for new and retrofit education facilities impact learning environments and affect student learning.

For new and retrofit projects, which types of flooring work best in education facilities? Opinions vary among facilities specialists. Also, user groups — teachers, students, principals and parents — have preferences. So, education institutions must do research to determine appropriate flooring for various spaces. Touring facilities and talking to design professionals, building users and manufacturers are effective ways to make informed decisions.

Criteria and types

Schools and universities should select flooring that:

  • Extends usable life expectancy.
  • Prevents mold and mildew.
  • Controls dust and particulates.
  • Eliminates volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Provides noise control and comfort.
  • Augments daylighting.
  • Minimizes initial and long-term costs.
  • Enhances educational delivery.
  • Provides increased flexibility of space usage.
  • Achieves desired aesthetics.
  • Responds to the environment.

Many choices exist; the flooring discussion goes beyond "vinyl tile vs. carpet." Other types:

  • Resilient flooring.
  • Vinyl composition tile (VCT).
  • Vinyl (sheet/plank/tile).
  • Linoleum.
  • Rubber tile (recycled/vulcanized).
  • Quartz vinyl tile.
  • Bio-based tile.
  • Variable cushioned tufted tile (VCTT).
  • Hard flooring.
  • Terrazzo (epoxy/thickset/tile).
  • Concrete (polished/ground).
  • Epoxy quartz tile.
  • Glass tile.
  • Quarry tile.
  • Porcelain tile.
  • Ceramic tile.
  • Wood (floating/glue-down).
  • Bamboo.
  • Cork.
  • Soft flooring.
  • Carpet (rolled/tile).

The best decisions

How do schools choose wisely? Consider budget, aesthetics, space purpose, durability and environmental impact. It is vital that the decisions take into account space function, traffic patterns/loads, occupants and tasks performed, and special requirements such as acoustics, hygiene, safety/slip resistance and static dissipation. Consider the environment. Be mindful of aesthetics in color and pattern choices. Evaluate product durability and appearance retention; resistance to scratching, gouging, staining, fading and shrinking; and repair/refinishing, maintenance and warranty choices.

  • Choosing green

    Select products that support LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) strategies. Steps emphasized in the LEED process include indoor air quality, origin of transportation, materials composition, manufacturing process, packaging, product life and end-of-life. Consider materials extraction; manufacturing (energy/water reduction and eliminating dangerous chemicals); construction (increased post-consumer recycled content); occupancy and maintenance; and demolition, disposal, reuse and recycling.

  • Thinking long-term

    An education institution's facilities team should develop standardized flooring specifications. Primary, secondary and post-secondary schools each have unique flooring requirements. List approved-equal products for competition, and limit proprietary conditions in the specifications. New products will emerge, so upgrade specifications periodically. However, grasping at the latest trends is not prudent in long-term planning. Consider initial and long-term costs when developing standardized specifications.

    "We look at floor-maintenance costs, quality and how they last, especially in high-traffic areas," says Mike Condon, director of buildings and grounds for Minnetonka (Minn.) Public Schools. "It costs too much to replace short-term products. Long-range planning stretches our budget and gets the most life out of our floors. Upfront cost is a consideration, but minimizing life-cycle cost is much more important."

    Condon also emphasizes the benefit to students, as well as the space function, its occupants and frequency of use.

    "We focus on what works in the specific learning environment," he says. "Obtaining input and feedback from teachers, students, principals and maintenance personnel is an ongoing effort."

Appropriate choices

Which flooring types work best in which spaces? Evaluate flooring for each space, as one type does not fit all purposes, and expect tradeoffs in the process. For example, users of preschool learning spaces prefer carpeting for noise, comfort and safety control. However, there may be difficulties with cleaning, maintenance and allergies. In other situations, the choices are clearer.

The Carpet and Rug Institute emphasizes that inexpensive carpets cannot match performance and appearance retention of better grades. It encourages specifiers to establish budgets and challenge manufacturers to meet performance levels and lifetime cost objectives.

The National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association compiles statistics for flooring products installation, maintenance and replacement costs. Schools facing increased pressure to reduce initial costs may seek savings by looking at finishes. The association emphasizes life-cycle cost analyses as a comprehensive approach for selecting flooring.

For any building, flooring decisions begin at the entrance. "Spaces adjacent to the exterior require flooring that permits removal of nature's elements," says Paul Minotti, director of facilities for Neshaminy School District in Langhorne, Pa. "It's the first line of defense for extending flooring life in a building. Vestibules should remove debris before it reaches the rest of the building. Removable floor grates or slotted mats over floor recesses are practical ways to capture unwanted particles."

High-traffic corridors and hallways require hard-surface floors. If initial budgets do not permit terrazzo, education institutions should consider cost adjustments in other categories. Porcelain tiles and resilient flooring are additional options. Carpet is not advisable for these high-traffic areas.

More schools and universities are using ground and polished concrete as a finished product. The process involves grinding and finishing the slab-on-grade or top-coat for a low-maintenance surface. Concerns with acoustics, ergonomic discomfort and aesthetics may be tradeoffs when considering this option.

Carpeting general learning spaces can improve acoustics, comfort and aesthetics. However, as indoor air quality issues became more prominent, longer-napped carpets have been replaced with VCT. Today, harder floor surfaces typically are installed in learning spaces, but compromise acoustics, comfort, maintenance and aesthetics. New choices and improvements include carpet and carpet tiles with impervious backing systems, tight fiber densities, and technical advances in soil and stain resistance. These are proving successful in preserving floor appearance, especially in learning spaces and moderate traffic areas.

Wet areas, including restrooms, locker rooms, shower areas, kitchens and pools, require hard, slip-resistant surfaces with low porosity. Ceramic tile with dark grout, terrazzo or epoxy quartz floors are good choices for restrooms. Shower floors and pool decks are best served by slip-resistant, smaller-squared ceramic tile or poured epoxy quartz, which can be installed easily on sloped floors. Smaller-squared ceramic tile is a good choice for pool basins. Quarry tile or epoxy quartz floors in kitchens provide quality, slip-resistant surfaces.

Family and consumer science (FACS) labs are well-served with solid-sheet flooring because spills are easy to clean. For heavy industrial-tech and art spaces, poured floors or sealed concrete are cost-effective. CADD labs, TV studios and other clean lab environments have many options.

Administration and student-services areas, especially with office cubicles, are conducive to carpet tiles. Replacing rolled carpet causes downtime at a high cost; carpet tiles provide easy replacement in heavy-traffic and furniture areas.

Installation and maintenance

Regardless of the floor selected, proper installation and maintenance are critical. Administrators should meet with a contractor before installation to make sure the architect's specifications are being followed. Specifications describe product data; the manufacturer's recommended installation; requirements for LEED certification; and product warranty obligations. They also stipulate contractor licensing, experience and performance bonding. After installation, schools and universities must provide initial, regular, periodic and restorative maintenance to preserve the product.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a firm specializing in pre-K to 12 school planning and design. 


90 to 95
Percentage of all dry soil weight that can be removed from carpeting by vacuuming with a routine schedule.


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