Facility Maintenance Decisions

Flooring That Pays

Strategic specification that focuses on life-cycle costs and ongoing maintenance pays dividends for organizations

By Alan S. Bigger   Flooring

Recently, a significant and ongoing discussion on the internet focused on the problems some facilities managers were experiencing with a type of flooring installed in some buildings on their campuses. The clearly identified problem was that the flooring was cupping in various places, producing not only an eyesore but also a hazard to visitors and occupants.

Few managers will argue that some flooring types perform better than others in certain applications.

To make a wise decision in selecting flooring for a building, managers must consider a range of factors, including the type of flooring, the area in which it will be installed, operations in that area, and long-term maintenance requirements.

For a manager to have the fewest headaches over the lifespan of a building, it is essential to critically evaluate the characteristics related to flooring types before the installation.

One ongoing frustration for managers in selecting flooring types arises in reading literature available from manufacturers. The literature obviously is slanted toward specific brand names. Likewise, a review of the various associations that support the flooring industry indicates that these groups support their categories of flooring, rather than offering a dispassionate presentation of the facts.

What factors must a manager consider before installing a particular floor type in a building? Here are essential issues managers must consider:

Life-cycle Costs and Installation

The obvious first questions about flooring center on the cost to install, and how long it will last before it has to be replaced. For instance, carpet might last up to 15 years, depending upon traffic patterns and cleaning cycles. By comparison, terrazzo might last 50 years or even for the life of the building.

The longer a floor type lasts, the greater the savings in long-term operational costs. But just because a facility installs the most durable flooring system does not automatically guarantee long-term satisfaction.

The ongoing maintenance of the floor type selected probably plays a greater role in its life expectancy than such factors as traffic, climate characteristics or occupant use. A well-maintained carpet might last 15 years or longer, but if it is rarely vacuumed or cleaned, its life expectancy could diminish by up to half.

Life-cycle Costs and Maintenance

Any flooring type that is cleaned and maintained properly normally will meet or exceed a manufacturer’s — and even a manager’s — expectations. But in today’s tight economy, pressure is mounting to save money by cutting cleaning frequencies. And the less often a floor is cleaned, the greater the wear and tear on it.

For instance, regularly vacuuming carpeting not only cleans its surface. It also extends the carpet’s life. Dirt and grit that are ground into the carpet actually cut fibers at the base, causing irreversible damage. So there is a false economy — and only a short-term savings — in cutting cleaning frequencies of floors.

Life-cycle Costs and Use

Managers also need to take into account the amount of traffic through an area and the exposure of that area to the elements.

For instance, a manager might decide that a building’s main lobby should be carpeted and that the carpeting should butt up to the entryway. But an entryway typically is one of the highest-trafficked areas in any building.

Initially, the carpet might look beautiful, but the agitation to its surface from numerous visitors entering the building — all carrying soil on their shoes — will significantly shorten the carpet’s life, cause the carpet to “dirty out” faster, and require much more maintenance. Add inclement weather and the accompanying ice melters and salts, and the life of the carpet shortens even more dramatically.

Unfortunately, once managers discover that a flooring type is wrong for an entryway or that it is not holding up, their tendency in many cases is to install walk-off mats. This move, however, increases the cost of the flooring surface — now there are two — and maintenance increases sharply.

In short, choosing the right flooring types from the start of the process will ensure the best returns on life-cycle costs based on use.

Turnover and Change

One cardinal rule in facilities operations is that the way an organization uses a facility today is not the way it will use it tomorrow. One day, a space might house offices, and the next day, it’s a classroom. The following year, it might become a research laboratory, and two years later, it could be a storeroom.

Room turnover and changes in use are an expensive proposition, and any decision a manager can make to ensure a flooring type and its use will endure over time can generate significant savings. Prudent choices in floor types today can save significant problems of the operational budget tomorrow.

A manager needs to be intimately familiar with the long-term strategic plan for facilities and talk to the stakeholders to learn about the long-range uses of buildings for which they are responsible.

For example, vinyl tile is highly flexible in its use and relatively easy to maintain. As a result, it might be a better choice for some areas, such as offices or classrooms that are subject to frequent change. By comparison, terrazzo, which is highly durable, might be a better choice for first-floor lobbies and hallways because these spaces are less subject to change.

Aesthetics and Appearance

Without a doubt, some floor types provide more ambiance than others. Many interior designers prefer the warmth and natural look of wood. But manufacturers of carpet, vinyl products, and wood-composite floors have created new finishes that can provide similar levels of warmth and aesthetics.

The issue of aesthetics includes not only the appearance of the floor, but also the comfort and sound level it provides and its safety characteristics. If a large office building needs to minimize noise, carpet might be a better choice than vinyl tile. And if an organization aims to project an image of warmth and comfort, carpet might be a better choice.

Also, when selecting flooring for appearance and aesthetics, managers must make sure to select the safest type of flooring. Some areas in facilities require non-static-producing flooring, while others require flooring with high slip resistance because of the presence of moisture or greases. The flooring that has the best aesthetics, that improves the appearance and comfort of a facility, and that increases safety by decreasing slips and falls will provide a win-win solution for the entire organization.

To succeed, the process of selecting flooring must include proper consideration of its entire life-cycle cost — basically, from cradle to grave. And it must factor in the cost of ongoing maintenance.

The old saying, “Penny wise, pound foolish” has great applicability to flooring choices. Managers might save money initially by skimping on installation or ongoing maintenance. But those savings are likely to come back to haunt the organization tomorrow, when a floor system needs replacing sooner than anticipated and at a greater cost than anticipated.

Alan S Bigger is director of building services with the University of Notre Dame.

Flooring and the Environment

Many managers probably remember vinyl asbestos flooring, which was highly popular the 1980s. Today, much of that flooring has been removed at significant cost, due to health and environmental concerns related to the product.

One lesson from this example is that managers should select the flooring types that offer the smallest environmental impact, that minimize the impact on indoor air quality and that use sustainable and renewable resources.

Today, facilities increasingly feature wood, wood composites, natural stones and flooring made from recycled materials. All of these choices can minimize a facility’s impact on the environment.

But how departments maintain these floors might have an even larger impact on the environment and on the indoor environment. Chemicals used to clean these surfaces should be environmentally friendly. Products that are environmentally friendly also are easier to dispose of, and they might be readily recycled at minimal or no cost. On the other hand, products that are not environmentally friendly might cost significantly more to dispose of and might even include potentially hazardous components.

— Alan S. Bigger

Floor Focus

The October 2004 issue of Maintenance Solutions featured an article titled “Flooring Considerations: Facts Under Foot,” which is a companion to this article. You can read the article at: www.facilitiesnet.com/ms/article.asp?id=2196.

That article, as well as this article, continue to stress that for managers to have the fewest headaches over the lifespan of a building, they needs to critically evaluate the all key elements related to flooring types, prior to the installation of any flooring in their facilities.

— Alan S. Bigger

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  posted on 2/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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