Maintaining Your Cover

April 1, 2004
Either carpeting or hard flooring can be appropriate for a school, but officials must make sure they have the resources to maintain the surfaces properly.

Some prefer carpeting; some prefer a hard surface such as vinyl. In today's education facilities, you're likely to find some of each installed on the floors. Each has its advantages, and advocates in either camp can make persuasive arguments.

But whichever side prevails in a particular school setting, administrators should be prepared to live with their choices — that means keeping them clean and well-maintained.

“You have to have the resources available to maintain the surface,” says David Frank, president of the American Institute of Cleaning Sciences, which works to establish standards to improve performance in the cleaning industry. “Whether it's carpet or tile, both require care. If you can't maintain it, don't buy it.”

Classroom comfort

In a typical school or university built today, classrooms are carpeted.

“We've found that carpet works better in classrooms,” says Arlen Stanek, a principal architect with LSW Architects in Vancouver, Wash. “The maintenance people like it because it's easier to clean, it really helps with acoustics, and there is a pretty good color selection available.”

Higher-traffic areas, such as corridors and cafeterias, typically are covered with hard surfaces such as vinyl. Schools often place vinyl in art rooms, science labs and bathrooms, where easy cleanup is important.

“We are working with about 20 school districts right now, and about two-thirds of them want all carpeting throughout their schools, and the others are looking at a mix of vinyl tile and carpets,” says Steve Crane, an architect and one of the partners at VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City.

As classrooms become more flexible and multifunctional, schools have to be equally flexible in their flooring selections.

“A lot of elementary schools now have sinks and wet areas in the classrooms,” says Crane. “We've been using ceramic tiles around those areas.”

The ceramic holds up better in those areas than vinyl. In high-school classrooms, where students are “not quite as sloppy,” a vinyl surface often is sufficient around wet areas, says Crane.

Green concerns

Environmental concerns have become another factor in the flooring selection process.

“School officials are becoming more and more insistent upon looking at the green aspect of the products chosen,” says Crane.

That means choosing carpeting and vinyl made up of recyclable materials that can be recycled again after they are removed from a school. It also means taking into account how the flooring will be cleaned and maintained, and what chemicals and other resources are expended in the cleaning process.

“Linoleum has become more popular because it is made from all-natural materials,” says Stanek, “but you have to wax it, and the chemicals become a green issue.”

In some high-traffic areas, schools choose neither tile nor carpeting and have a floor of exposed concrete, but Stanek says schools won't save any money by forgoing floorcovering. “By the time you're finished with all the staining and polishing, it's cheaper to put vinyl over it.”

Other flooring is desirable from an environmental perspective, but can be too expensive or impractical for a school setting.

“People love hardwood, but the drawback is cost,” says Stanek. “It's not going to hold up in schools, with students scraping desks and maintenance workers dragging things across the floor.”

Several school districts, says Stanek, want their facilities to meet the environmental standards required for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, even though they choose not to go through the paperwork and expense of officially seeking certification.

Maintenance a must

Carpet and tile require different kinds of maintenance, but with either type of surface, inadequate maintenance can lead to health and safety problems in a school.

“If they aren't maintained properly, they both have environmental impacts that can do damage,” says Frank. “They both have to be maintained.”

An overriding problem in much of school maintenance, says Frank, is that “schools are cleaned for appearance and not for hygiene or health.”

A hard surface can become porous if not maintained correctly; carpets cleaned improperly can become home to moisture or contaminants that harm indoor air quality, says Frank.

“Some schools choose flooring because they have to ‘put on something,’” says Frank. “They need to do a life-cycle cost analysis and determine the difference between price and cost. Price is what you pay to buy something. Cost is what you pay to own it.”

Making sure that flooring receives the proper level of maintenance is especially critical at a time when many institutions are slashing their budgets.

“Schools have to start building facilities with a lower cost of care,” says Frank. “They have to make an assessment of all the surfaces.”

Know your surface

To maintain a surface properly, workers need to know the correct procedures for each type of flooring. For many schools, that makes hard floors more appealing.

“One difference between carpet and tile is that maintenance workers are usually more familiar with the science of cleaning hard-surface floors,” says Frank.

In other cases, administrators choose vinyl in corridors because they want to be able to keep the hallways clean during school hours.

“They like to be able to have 5-foot-wide brooms sweeping the hallway during the day,” says Crane. “You can't really do that with a vacuum cleaner going 4 miles an hour.”

Frank says the cost of caring for vinyl floors can be 30 to 50 percent higher than for carpeted floors, but many schools have problems with carpeting because they don't maintain it properly.

“The dirt is not always apparent,” says Frank. “It doesn't show, and if they don't see it, they think it's not dirty. Carpet is much more forgiving, but it has to be cared for. It needs the same type of frequent care that tile does. The most useful thing you can do is daily vacuuming.”

As administrators weigh lifecycle costs, aesthetics, health concerns and environmental impact, they should be able to settle for a surface that is safe and durable, can be maintained at a reasonable cost and is pleasing to look at.

“Schools are always most concerned about maintenance,” says Crane. “We (architects) always push for aesthetics. But I think you can marry both.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


  • 10 TO 15

    In years, the estimated life expectancy of recycled-content carpeting.

  • 4.7

    Billions of pounds of carpet discarded in 2002.

  • 72

    Minimum number of hours to air out a space after carpeting has been installed.

  • 40 TO 80

    In years, the estimated life expectancy for ceramic tile.

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

Knock on wood

Some schools have covered their gymnasium floors with vinyl or synthetic surfaces, but for high-level competitive sports, wood is the preferred surface.

“The only way to go on any kind of athletic program is a wood floor,” says Steve Crane, an architect and one of the partners at VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City.

Many elementary schools can't afford the luxury of wood gym floors — they have to use the space as a lunchroom or assembly area, and need a surface that holds up to heavy traffic better than wood.

“In junior highs and high schools, we recommend wood gym floors,” says Crane. “When you get to high-end athletics, schools should choose higher-quality wood floors.”

Crane says some schools have opted for wood gym floors to reduce the chances of injury and because they fear being held liable if a student athlete is injured on a less-giving surface.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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