By K.J. Quinn
When it comes to flooring choices, public school systems have been creatures of habit specifying products based on immediate cost and function. But, times are changing and so are the interior design needs of today’s K-12 education sector as aging buildings undergo makeovers nationwide.
“Needs have changed over the years as clients are now looking for flooring products that encompass ease of maintenance, acoustical properties, durability and innovative design elements collectively,” noted Melissa Kelly, NCIDQ, CID, interior designer at KZF Design, Cincinnati. “And today, many budgets are prepared to include the upfront costs to get the long-term results.”
K-12 is in the midst of a remodeling boom, fueled by the rising number of students and older school buildings. Local and state governments have reportedly loosened their purse strings to fund capital improvement projects at elementary, middle and high schools. It isn’t that money is no object for school districts anymore. Rather, purchasing influencers — ranging from school boards to administrators to local community members — are spending more wisely. While performance, health and safety requirements remain important criteria, school districts are now looking beyond installed costs and factoring in the long-term maintenance expenses for flooring. It is, however, a work in progress.
“The greatest challenge that remains are opposing budget constraints, where it is difficult to increase the capital budget in order to reduce the maintenance budget,” said Kieren Corcoran, marketing director, education and government at Patcraft.
These life-cycle costing issues carry greater weight than ever for budget-conscious school districts nationwide, which is a major reason for increased interest in luxury vinyl tile (LVT) and carpet tile in the education space. This growth in low-maintenance soft and hard surfaces comes at the expense of vinyl com- position tile (VCT), a low-priced workhorse product requiring chemical applications that far exceed the original installation cost over time. Generally speaking, VCT often requires re-waxing due to major scuffing issues. By comparison, a product such as rubber flooring features a low-maintenance cleaning system and is known for “healing” itself when faced with punctures. “This means going to no-wax hard surface floors and better quality carpets,” noted Julie Tonning, district manager, Mannington Commercial.
“We will not recommend VCT for any schools because it requires heightened maintenance, adding overall cost,” said Raquel Morales, senior associate at CannonDesign, New York. “Whereas with an alternate product such as rubber, it’s installed once; no wax or top coat is needed.”
While new solutions continue to move design and sustain- ability in the education segment forward, some members of the A&D community are still reluctant to break away from VCT as a preferred product. “For some public school districts, this may be because VCT has a lower first cost, and maintenance staff tend to see it as a ‘tried and true’ product they know how to work with,” said Emily Czarnecki, NCIDQ, senior interior designer at JCJ Architecture, New York. “However, new education-specific needs are helping to drive innovation in the segment.”
LEARNING INNOVATION FROM THE GROUND UP
Flooring needs are changing, in part, to adapt to the new design of school learning environments. As classrooms evolve with the growing needs for each generation, designers report seeing more open environments that require different acoustic qualities, easy maintenance and flexibility for multiple types of activities. “You need to be more versatile as more areas in the school have become flexible and are used for different types of learning,” said Aimee Eckmann, AIA, ALEP, LEED AP BD+C, senior project architect, associate principal at Perkins+Will, New York. “School layouts are defined less by walls; flooring can now be used to differentiate space.”
For instance, Perkins+Will’s design team specified materials with an inherent finish to meet performance and design needs at Pitt River Middle School, Port Coquitlam, BC. “The district was apprehensive about using polished concrete floors in classrooms due to union grievances,” said Alex Minard, architect AIBC, MRAIC, LEED AP BD+C, CPHD and senior associate. “We therefore used a gray resilient flooring in classrooms and polished concrete in the halls. We left the concrete exposed in two classrooms as a test for the district to gauge their comfort with that material.”
Similarly, many elementary classrooms feature multiple settings within one space, so it is almost routine to specify a mixture of soft and hard surfaces. JCJ, for example, created L-shaped classrooms at the Northeast Academy and Kolnaski Elementary Schools in Groton, Conn. “Two-thirds of the classroom is carpeted for class work and reading areas, while the other third has resilient flooring where more activity-based centers and ‘wet’ areas are located,” JCJ’s Czarnecki explained. “We always try to promote a mixture of textures and surfaces that best meet the building’s needs and suit how its spaces will be used.”
Although designers report that hard surfaces are being specified predominantly in classrooms and soft surfaces in spaces such as media centers and common areas, each district has different requirements. This in tandem with the rise of open-concept, multi-use spaces has led to the recurring design theme of coordinating soft and hard surfaces in similar looks.
This theme often carries throughout an entire building, noted Jeff Krejsa, senior vice president of marketing for Tarkett. “A designer working within a school environment can easily go from a rubber material that may be inside a cafeteria, gym or multi-purpose room to a VCT or LVT material in the hallways.”
CREATIVE PRODUCTS SPARK FRESH DESIGN
LVT and carpet tile are also coveted in the K-12 segment today for their color and design flexibility, enabling specifiers to move away from the mundane looks of the past. “There is a strong trend to move from VCT to LVT, as the LVT aesthetics continue to improve,” Patcraft’s Corcoran said.
The striking realism of LVT and its strong resemblance to natural materials is a major draw for designers. CannonDesign’s Morales noted the great variety of stone and wood replicas — both texture and color — today as an example. “These are great for spaces with high-traffic areas where, aesthetically, you still want a natural look,” she said, “plus the greater slip resistance of an LVT.” For these very reasons, CannonDesign specified a vinyl wood plank in classrooms and a vinyl tile that resembles stone in all the circulation spaces at the Hyde Park Day School in Chicago.
While LVT is a rising star within the education segment, other resilient floors — including linoleum and rubber — continue to retain a small niche as they provide warm and sophisticated aesthetics that appeal to staff, students and parents. “We’re seeing resilient as the primary material used in K-12,” Krejsa
said. “Its popularity is even beginning to move it into areas that may have traditionally used soft surfaces like offices and administration spaces.”
On the soft surface side, carpet tile is growing the fastest, in part, for its creative application options with an assortment of sizes, colors and textures. The product’s sustainability factors — easier to take up and recycle than broadloom — also has modular carpet gaining traction in education.
“Carpet tile can be especially effective in assisting with acoustics within classrooms and corridors,” JCJ’s Czarnecki said. “We have seen a tremendous change in the engineering of car- pet over the years, and with the addition of vinyl backing, antimicrobial and stain-resistant nylons, it has become a very durable and versatile product that actually promotes a healthier environment.”
Carpet tile’s flexibility also allows the creation of multiple pat- terns to designate areas, zones or boundaries in open spaces, CannonDesign’s Morales noted. “Patterning or change of color can also help with wayfinding as well.”
KEEPING THE LEARNING CURVE
Whether specifying hard or soft surface, the biggest takeaway for designers in the K-12 segment might actually just be the importance of education and evolution. Looking ahead the A&D community needs to help school districts remain knowledgeable about flooring choices. Not all products are alike or applicable for every situation, but innovative solutions are blurring historical boundaries to meet the modern classroom’s needs.
“While districts want to make sure there is a respect for public funds being used,” JCJ’s Czarnecki said, “the trend toward blending the fit and finish of flooring materials to create a more welcoming and elevated environment is real and growing.”