Twenty years ago, flooring options were pretty cut-and-dry with only a couple varieties to choose from. Today, manufacturers have incorporated improved technologies, health considerations, stronger durability and improved functionality into the variety of flooring types now available for facility professionals. These advancements are changing flooring trends within K-12 schools, colleges, universities and health care facilities.

Take schools, for example. In years past, the most commonly used flooring was vinyl composition tile (VCT). Today, custodial supervisors in K-12 schools routinely list three main flooring options best suited for facilities housing so many children, and VCT is just one of them. The others are carpet tiles and vinyl cushion tufted textile (VCTT). These flooring types are easily cleaned and maintained, they are durable and they contribute to the overall health of students and faculty.

Health And Schools

Flooring trends and health — especially in educational settings — have been closely paired in reports from the American Lung Association, Healthy Schools Campaign and the Carpet and Rug Institute. Studies done in schools across the country have analyzed the relationship between flooring types and appropriate cleaning methods as it relates to student absenteeism and test scores.

According to American School & University's Construction Report, many allergens and irritants will eventually settle on hard surfaces and carpeting throughout a school. In fact, carpet is a well-known "sink" for dirt, animal dander, pollen, dust mites and other asthma triggers.

Because of these health fears, hard floors such as VCT are still commonly used in entrances, hallways, restrooms and cafeterias — high-traffic areas in schools and universities alike. The idea is that hard floors show dirt so cleaners know where and when to clean.

But improving health doesn't necessarily mean ridding a school or university of carpet. By implementing proper walk-off matting and regularly scheduled cleaning at entrances, workers have successfully prevented the above "triggers" from ever entering the facility. This realization has resulted in a shift from hard floors to carpeting throughout specific areas of the educational facility.

Carpet tiles are now commonly found in classrooms, libraries and living quarters because it is pleasing to the eye, absorbs sounds, it is easy to maintain and the life-cycle cost is ideal for facilities working within a tight budget.

William Sutter, LEED Accredited Professional and director of facilities management at American University in Washington, D.C., has had success using carpet tiles throughout the university. This carpet can traditionally be kept clean using the same amount of work necessary for its hard surface counterpart. This is a plus in facilities that don't have the budget or ideal area for hard flooring, but want the cleaning benefits.

"With carpet, areas are less noisy — which is very important in a student environment — and carpet can hide a multitude of spills and stains," Sutter says, adding that carpet tiles are very durable. "Today's carpet tile materials tend to ugly-out before they wear out and/or get changed out due to program changes or facility upgrades."

Many facilities have successfully shifted towards carpet tiles, but an even newer carpeting option is now available and is ideal for these same areas. Vinyl cushion tufted textile (VCTT) has become very popular not only for its functionality, but for its contribution to health.

Explained by manufacturers as a "resilient sheet vinyl flooring with a permanent wear layer of tufted nylon," VCTT provides the benefits required in learning environments and a backing with the durability and water-impermeability required to improve indoor air quality (IAQ). In fact, according to flooring researchers, advances such as VCTT's "link-engineered construction" means that the parts — backing, surface nylon yarn with low and dense nylon construction and dry installation adhesive — are interlocked to provide a complete package for IAQ protection.

"We use VCTT in various areas throughout the university," says Norman Young, executive director of facilities at University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn. "This carpet is easy to clean and has a quick turnaround. It doesn't allow liquid penetration — which makes cleanup easier — it's virtually 100 percent recyclable and it improves IAQ."

Young goes on to say that the durability of this flooring type has contributed to its success within the facility.

"We've been using it for about eight years and have not needed to replace any part of the flooring," he says. "Not even in the classrooms where there is heavy traffic."

Making The Switch

Flooring can last a long time, but there will always come a time when it needs to be replaced. That's when it is important for facility managers to analyze durability, functionality and the maintenance necessary to maintaining new floors. And, when changes or facility upgrades are required, it is important for managers to stay open-minded about implementing alternate flooring options.

John Greene, physical plant director at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, takes great pride in his facility, which has been recognized by Princeton Review's "Dorms Like Palaces" four out of the past five years. The physical condition of the buildings is reviewed regularly and changes are made accordingly.

"Currently, virtually all of our residence halls are fully carpeted with a quality carpet tile," he says. "We have been getting satisfactory performance of 15 years or more out of this carpet, but [as facilities expand] some people on campus think we should consider other flooring surfaces such as ceramic tile or laminate."

Keeping an open mind, Greene tested the new options by implementing both carpet and ceramic tiles in various areas throughout a newly renovated residence hall. Following up with a student survey on the flooring, it was determined that carpeting was strongly preferred over hard surfaces. The ceramic met durability standards, but the functionality didn't match the application.

Steve Long, project manager of Facilities Services Planning & Construction at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., is waiting on the results of a similar study done on his campus.

"We use a variety of flooring types throughout the university, so it will be interesting to determine which types of flooring are preferred," he says. What might be more interesting, though, is how those results compare to the floorings functionality and cleaning requirements.

Hospital Trends

Whether it's a K-12 school, university or hospital, the market is always introducing newer flooring options that can satisfy facility owners, cleaners and building occupants alike.

In a health care setting, cleanliness is a paramount concern. Most hospitals benefit from hard surfaces due to their ease of quick cleanup. But, there are a lot of hard flooring options to choose from.

Most hospitals feature VCT throughout the facility, but this flooring type requires regular maintenance to maintain the "wet look" consumers associate with clean. Regular sweeping and wet mopping are customary with any hard surface, but VCT will also require regular stripping and waxing to maintain the floors shine.

Because of this additional maintenance, facility managers are exploring new flooring options. The new flooring of choice for Darrel Hicks, director of environmental services at St. Luke's Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., and one that is growing in popularity, is a no-wax, wood-appearance sheet vinyl hard surface.

"The Environmental Services Department likes it because we don't have to strip and refinish those areas and spills are easily cleaned in an odor-free manner," he says. "Nurses like it because they don't have to put up with the odors of strippers and wax, or areas being out of commission for hours at a time for cleaning. Finally, patients and visitors like it because it has that clean, homelike appearance of wood floors."

Another no-wax option is a sheet floor with foam cushioning that helps reduce fatigue, impact-injury and features sound-dampening for busy health care settings. These floors are growing in popularity because they have various applications and are easily cleaned and sanitized to hospital-grade specifications.

Finally, rubber flooring is gaining momentum in the health care setting. It is naturally slip resistant, has shock absorbing qualities, absorbs sounds and is sustainable. This type of flooring has a long life cycle and low maintenance requirements. Rubber floors are also popular in facilities working towards green goals.

Flooring trends are constantly evolving as materials become more durable and cleaning and maintenance gets easier. As time goes on, cleaning departments will have more choices in flooring, such as those that are stain resistant, help improve occupant health and do not require waxing. Facility managers will need to stay up-to-date with the evolving marketplace and install the best flooring options available.