Skip navigation

A Floor for All

In September 2002, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities recognized 10 potential educational trends that could affect the future of school planning and design. One of those trends was that the typical spaces thought to constitute a school might change. Specialized labs and learning centers would replace traditional classrooms, and instructional and support spaces would be shared with the community.

Today's schools are facing the reality of this trend. With the demands placed on a room that tries to do it all, flooring selection becomes a decision that should be deliberated carefully.

Determining space function

The flooring in a multipurpose space must be able to accommodate the various activities and audiences that it will serve. Schools should determine the space's function in order to select flooring that satisfies its needs.

When selecting flooring for a more public area, a space's usage also should be considered. Some areas of a school, such as a cafetorium, can have daytime usage during school hours, occasional nighttime usage for after-school functions, and year-round community usage, says Julie Norris, director of educational interior design and associate at Jeter, Cook & Jepson Architects, Inc., Hartford, Conn. This analysis can help determine how durable the flooring will need to be and how much maintenance it will require.

Once a space's function and usage has been defined, it's time to think about additional factors including what kind of furniture will be used, how much maintenance and support will be required, what options are feasible for the project's budget, and the space's aesthetic requirements.

Considering maintenance

The type of furniture placed in an area and the frequency of its storage, setup and rearrangement should be considered to determine a flooring's durability requirements. Folding chairs and tables that are set up and taken down frequently can be a nightmare for flooring in multipurpose spaces. If the rubber caps slip off the tubular metal legs of a folding chair, wood flooring can be scratched, and synthetic flooring can be punctured or cut, says Fred Schuster, vice president of Ruck/Pate Architecture, Barrington, Ill.

Schools can minimize flooring damage with certain synthetic products, in both rubber and vinyl, that have adequate puncture resistance, says Schuster. However, while puncture-resistant products may preserve a space's flooring, they may not satisfy the space's other needs. For example, some active recreation areas demand resilient flooring with a cushioned backing, which can be more susceptible to puncture than other surfaces. Because there is no product durable enough to never sustain any damage, repair options also have to be part of the flooring selection process, says Schuster.

“You always have to consider what the repair options are — how a product is repaired in case it is damaged,” says Schuster.

Schools should think about how easily repairs can be made, what the cost will be for maintenance and support, and how noticeable repaired sections will be compared with the original surface.

Different flooring products have different maintenance requirements. Vinyl composition tile (VCT) will need to be stripped and re-waxed a couple of times each year. Linoleum is lower maintenance and can wait up to a year or longer before being stripped and re-waxed, says Norris. Rubber tile will need daily mopping and buffing in high-traffic areas, but it won't need the frequent waxing and labor-intensive periodic stripping and multiple coat re-waxing required by VCT, says Schuster.

In multipurpose areas where noise levels need to be kept low, such as a cafetorium situated near classrooms, carpet can be used to absorb sound. However, if the area offers food and drink, the school should develop a program to replace carpet as needed.

Carpet can be harder to maintain in multiuse spaces that get abuse from spillage and food in any kind of flexible performance or gathering, says Steven Imrich, associate principal of Cambridge Seven Associates. If the school opts for a harder flooring surface, it should use materials that absorb sound on the adjacent wall or ceiling surfaces to control reverberation, says Imrich.

Talking budget

Unfortunately, flooring in a multipurpose space sometimes only is as good as the school's budget allows it to be. Products with low upfront costs can end up costing more to maintain over the life of the product than those with a higher upfront cost. A flooring's expected life and the amount of maintenance it will require should be considered to find flooring that is the best investment for the institution.

VCT is commonly used in some K-12 multipurpose rooms and other multiuse spaces. Although this flooring option has a low upfront cost, its maintenance cost is higher, says Norris. However, rubber flooring, sheet vinyl and linoleum all are options for spending more money upfront and less money for maintenance in the long run, says Norris.

“The VCT is less than $2 upfront cost, but over a year, it's about $1.50 per square foot to maintain it,” says Norris. “The linoleum is $5 to $6 upfront, but it's about 50 cents a year per square foot to maintain it.”

Terrazzo is another flooring option that has a high upfront cost, but meets the durability requirements of high-traffic areas that will be used for many years, says Imrich.

“Older buildings that have had terrazzo in for 30 or 50 years have held up really well over the long haul,” says Imrich. “It's just that it's an expensive product to put in, in the first place. It has a reasonable life-cycle cost if your building is going to last that long in its particular function.”

Getting the look

Because flooring can play a big part in how an area looks and feels to its users, it should match the aesthetic requirements of the multipurpose space. It can be difficult to find a flooring product that accommodates both a space's aesthetic and its durability requirements.

“Matching up the product that has the right performance characteristics for the expected use, together with the right aesthetics, is the challenge for the architect,” says Schuster.

Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., used stained concrete in the building entrance and lobby area of the Center for Film Studies and Cinema Archives to provide a warm atmosphere, along with long-term durability.

“[Wesleyan University] needed something that was going to be long-term, take a lot of abuse, a lot of traffic, and they didn't want to do a whole lot of maintenance on it,” says Norris.

Because stained concrete is concrete with just a stain and a sealer, it's almost maintenance-free, says Norris. A pattern can be scored into the concrete, and colors can be changed up to the score, leaving a surface that has an outdoor, natural look for aesthetics and durability for a high-traffic area.

Some schools prefer to use carpet to provide a warm atmosphere that feels less institutional. When used in the K-12 setting, carpet also can safeguard against injuries in play areas, provide a more comfortable surface for students sitting on the floor in instruction spaces, and absorb sound from multipurpose rooms situated near study areas, says Norris.

If carpet is used to fit a space's aesthetic requirements, a few things should be considered to make sure it also fits the space's durability requirements.

“Carpet has to have some sort of a moisture barrier, and in terms of a K-12 school, clients are always asking, now with the mold issues, for antimicrobial,” says Norris.

A moisture barrier keeps excess moisture from the concrete from coming through the carpet, while still allowing the carpet to breathe, says Norris.

Another feature to look for in selecting carpet is branded nylon.

“You do get a longer life out of the carpet when it's branded,” says Norris. “Plus, you get an additional warranty on that, which is backed by the manufacturer of the yarn.”

Selecting one flooring to meet all the needs of a multipurpose space can be quite a challenge, but thinking ahead and deliberating possible flooring options can prepare architects and school administrators to make the best decisions possible for a given multipurpose space.

Strahle, associate editor, can be reached at [email protected].


  • $43.59

    National median K-12 cost of custodial/maintenance equipment and supplies (per student).

  • $0.24

    National median K-12 cost of custodial/maintenance equipment and supplies (per square foot).

  • $46.42

    Median cost for all colleges of custodial/maintenance equipment and supplies (per FTE college student).

  • $0.20

    Median cost for all colleges of custodial/maintenance equipment and supplies (per square foot).

Source: American School & University, M&O Cost Studies, April 2004

MIT selects flooring for multipurpose lab space

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, methyl methacrylate (MMA) was used to cover the multiuse spaces in the Astronautics Laboratory for Complex Systems.

The lab space is subdivided into areas with different functions: a student projects area, a series of fabrication and testing shops, an electronics shop and a larger project area. The space needed a durable floor that could deal with chemicals and the abuse of moving equipment around, but still be cleanable for areas such as the electronics department.

MMA was selected as a compromise between the available flooring options that suited the space's function.

“It's kind of a hard acrylic product used as a coating over the concrete, so it's a monolithically applied product,” says Steven Imrich, AIA, associate principal of Cambridge Seven Associates.

The space could have been kept as concrete, but even a polished concrete slab can be absorptive unless sealers or coatings are used. Coatings tend to be glossy and leave a somewhat slippery surface, whereas the MMA has options to get more of a matte or satin finish, which is better from a lighting standpoint, says Imrich.

It has an appearance appeal and general serviceability, and color matching for repairs is simple because MMA can have more of a variegated surface, like that of terrazzo flooring, so slight color differences are less noticeable, says Imrich.

By envisioning the function, maintenance and aesthetics of this multiuse space, the university was able to select a flooring solution that suits the area's many needs.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.