20 Questions Underfoot

Shopping for a new gym floor can be a daunting task. The best way to start is by asking 20 questions.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1502/questions.htm

A playing surface, a stage, a multi-use area—a gym floor can be lots of things to lots of people. It can host a variety of events or just showcase your basketball and volleyball athletes. It can cause injuries or help prevent them. It can be a maintenance nightmare or something simple to care for.

There are many options in gymnasium flooring, so when it comes to purchasing a new one, there is much to think about. And since you may buy a gym floor just once in your career, you’ll probably only have one shot to do it right.

The key to doing it right is to ask a lot of questions. Ask questions of those who will use the floor, ask questions about the different types of floors, and ask questions of potential vendors. To get you headed in the right investigative direction, we’ve detailed 20 questions you should be sure to get answered before you purchase a new gym surface.

1. Who will use the floor? Before you even start to think about wood versus synthetic, installation costs, and aesthetics, you need to ask yourself and your colleagues how the floor will be used.

John Ruppert, Associate Director of Athletics at Bryant College, oversaw the installation of a multi-purpose synthetic floor at his school four years ago. The first step, he says, is “determining what type of use it’s going to get.

“Our facility is used from 6 a.m. to midnight, not just for athletics, but also for student activities, concerts, and dinners,” he continues. “We also had added field hockey as a sport, and we have intramural floor hockey, so we were concerned about wear and tear from the sticks. We needed to make sure the surface we chose could handle the amount of abuse it was going to get.”

Iowa Central Community College’s new multi-purpose facility had similar requirements. “It hosts basketball and volleyball games, and football and soccer indoor practice,” says Athletic Director Dennis Pilcher. “But it’s also used for exhibitions, which involves bringing in large vehicles and farm equipment. We needed something all-purpose and strong, but that still looked nice enough to dress up the building.”

Carl Franceschi, Principal at Drummey Rosane Anderson Architects in Newton Centre, Mass., has helped many high schools install new gym floors. “We start by asking clients about the primary use of the space,” he says. “What activities do they foresee—phys. ed., varsity sports, competitive meets, tournaments? Another important question is, what other events will they have in there? That’s usually beyond the athletic department’s purview, and that means the school’s administration gets involved. If there are going to be a lot of people in street shoes using it, or if it will be open to the community, where there’s less control, that affects the choice. Then, maintenance and durability take precedence over performance.”

2. Who should be involved in the decision-making process? Most administrators suggest that a small committee make the decision with input from others. At Bryant College, for example, the school’s architect and risk manager were involved in the selection process, along with Ruppert and two coaches.

“Definitely talk to all of the parties that are using the facility so that they feel they’ve had some input,” says David Hartman, Athletic Director at Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Minn., where a wood floor was installed last summer. “Then they’re not going to be surprised with the final result.”

Hartman met with his phys. ed. staff and also had staffers and coaches review computer designs of the new floor to make sure everything was in place. “If you do it right the first time, you really save yourself a lot of energy down the road,” he says.

3. What are the main advantages of wood surfaces? “The maple wood and the cushion subsystem combination is the preferred surface for basketball and volleyball at virtually all levels,” Franceschi says. “Most people enjoy the give, strength, and durability of wood—it’s a tested and tried material.”

“The wood itself hasn’t changed in a long, long time, but what you’re paying for is the system underneath the wood,” says Steve Buzbee, President of Gym Services & Installation, in Birmingham, Ala. “That’s where we can tweak it to do things we want while still making it environmentally stable, which is important in climate-changing areas in the northern U.S.”

“In the long run, wood is a much better investment,” says Jim Stevens, co-owner of Stevens Gymnasiums in Roswell, Ga. “It will last 60 to 70 years, and you can repair it, unlike a poured floor, which is almost impossible to make look good again if it tears or rips. Wood can be resanded and refinished and boards can be replaced, and it will look brand new.”

4. What are the main advantages of synthetic surfaces? The major benefits are durability and versatility. “Synthetic surfaces seem to be best for large field house types of spaces where there are multiple uses going on,” Franceschi says. “In the northern climate, a lot of teams, especially soccer and football, want to practice indoors, so synthetic floors do better there as far as standing up to wear and tear.” Synthetic surfaces are also easier to maintain than their wood counterparts (see below), and are far less susceptible to water damage.

5. What about combining the two surfaces? “We’ve done field houses where the synthetic surface is used for track and multipurpose activities, and then we inset the basketball floor in maple,” Franceschi says.

6. What are the cost differences? “You can get a pretty ordinary wood floor, or a fancy one that’s good enough for the pros, depending on what you spend,” says Franceschi. “With synthetic floors, you can choose from different thicknesses that significantly affect the costs.”

“As a rule of thumb, the cost of a wood floor is one and one-half times the cost of a synthetic floor,” says Stevens. “Wood is more expensive routinely than carpet or poured rubber, rubber tiles, or any synthetic system.”

7. Are there safety factors to consider? Some athletic administrators have found that their old gym floors are a culprit in increasing the number of shin splints and other leg injuries among student-athletes. That’s why risk management increasingly factors into purchasing decisions.

“Over the years, the buying criteria for floors has shifted from price to safety, especially with school districts concerned about any potential injuries that could result from a faulty floor,” says Mark Erichsrud, Sales Representative for Anderson Ladd Flooring in Minneapolis.

“Our primary concern used to be putting in a floor that would last,” Buzbee says. “Now we’re trying to put down a floor that will last, but also be safe for the athlete. That’s the biggest improvement in the last 10 years. There’s been a lot of testing done to get to this point.”

In particular, synthetic floors have come a long way in the past 15 years. “U.S. companies have imported European technology,” says Buzbee. “In the past, many synthetic floors were poured directly on the concrete. But the Europeans developed a sandwich system that is a big improvement and provides more give than the old synthetic surfaces.”

8. How much maintenance does each type involve? Wood floors tend to require more care than synthetic floors. They need to be stripped and refinished every year and resanded every seven to 10 years. Routine maintenance is more intensive, too.

“The most important thing is that the floor is kept clean on a daily basis,” Erichsrud says. “We recommend dry mopping two or three times a day, because any dirt or grime will wear that finish down. If it gets down to bare wood, the floor can get damaged. And no power scrubbers—water and wood do not mix.”

On the other hand, synthetics require very little maintenance, which was a major reason why Bryant went with a synthetic surface. “We wanted a surface that wouldn’t require a lot of upkeep and prep work—like putting down tarps before every event,” Ruppert says. “We didn’t want to overburden the custodial staff with the upkeep. Synthetic flooring is easier to take care of than wood—you’re not as worried about getting it wet, where with wood floors you have to get the water up after they’ve been cleaned.”

9. Should I consider aesthetics? Both Hartman and Ruppert did. “We went to a higher grade of wood,” Hartman says. “We felt if we were making an investment like this, we needed to put in a floor that would look new. With some grades of wood you get lot of knots and strips with dark colors, so we spent more money for a better-looking, higher-grade of wood.”

Bryant’s synthetic surface offers similar visual appeal. “We chose a fake maple flooring pattern that almost looks like real wood, so it actually brightened the facility up,” Ruppert says. “It made it much easier to see in there.”

10. What about painting the floor? “The type of paint you put on has to be compatible with the finish,” Hartman says. “I’ve heard a number of horror stories where people have used an oil-based paint and a water-based seal—and that doesn’t work.”

“It’s important to use the same company’s products for the seal, paint, and finish,” Erichsrud says. “That way there’s no passing the buck among manufacturers if there’s a problem.”

A lot of schools will want painted lanes and three-point areas for their basketball courts, but Erichsrud points out that those are hard to keep looking good. “The finishes nowadays aren’t as durable as they used to be,” he says. “So when you have a painted lane, you’ll see more scratches. That’s why we advise keeping as much paint off the floor as possible.”

11. What sort of prep work is needed? Most important to know is that tearing up an old floor can often be time consuming. “Our previous synthetic floor was not easy to replace,” Ruppert says. “They had to break the bond between the floor and concrete by tearing it into six-inch strips. When your facility is 110 by 120 feet, that takes a lot of time and effort.”

The quality of the concrete subfloor is often an issue, too, according to Franceschi. “It has to be dry, intact, and sufficiently level,” he says.

At Jefferson High School, the old 1958 floor had asbestos underneath it. “That’s common with floors from that era,” Hartman says. “Removing it got to be a major part of the expense. We had to have a separate bid process just to remove the old floor.

“The other thing that was a big challenge was the fact that we needed to reinstall the floor plates for volleyball,” he continues. “So we needed to make sure that they were ordered and ready to install along with the floor.”

12. Are there other installation issues to think about? Franceschi emphasizes that the little things must be accounted for as much as the more obvious ones. “Since you only want to do this once, you need to pay attention to the details, like getting the vapor barrier under the concrete right and making sure the concrete is finished correctly,” he says. “Gym floors definitely take more attention than ordinary floors.”

There are additional details when retrofitting a new gym floor to an existing facility can take some work. “If the new gym floor doesn’t match the existing profile, you might need to ramp at doorways, or adjust basketball goal heights,” Erichsrud says. “A lot of the time we also have to detach and reattach bleachers. Those aren’t big issues, but schools need to be aware of them.”

13. How do I research vendors and installers? “Many schools rely on architects to select an installer, but that’s passing the buck,” Erichsrud says. “Instead, school districts need to take a proactive approach in educating themselves. When you’re dealing with a product that can last 50 years or the life of a building, you should take an active role in the product being installed.”

Hartman met his floor vendor at an athletic administrators convention. “We received bids from other companies and some of them were lower, but the company we chose had the reputation and technology that best fit what we were looking for,” he says. “You want to make sure that the company has been around for a while and will be around in the future by checking their reputation, references, and finding out what worked for others.”

“One of the things we try to convey to our customers is that who you have install the floor is just as important as the type of floor you choose,” Erichsrud says. “A good analogy is, if you’re building a new house, you can pick all the best materials, but who builds it is more important.”

14. How long does installation take? Removing an old wood floor and installing a new one can take several weeks, so it’s important to keep your staff apprised of any potential inconvenience. “We installed our new floor over a two-month period during the summer,” Hartman says. “We had to tell coaches they weren’t going to have access to the gym during that time.”

Synthetic floors usually take less time to install than wood. With Bryant College’s new floor, “They just rolled it right down, sealed the seams, and it was ready to go three or four days after being installed,” says Ruppert.

Ventilation is another factor when scheduling installations. “Synthetic surfaces require a lot of ventilation to get the fumes directly outside without any getting back into the school,” Franceschi says. “With wood floors, a varnish finish means the building needs to be unoccupied or ventilated for fumes until the floor dries.”

The demand for summertime installations can also lead to quality-control problems. “Everybody wants to replace their gyms floors at the same time when they’re least used, which is in the summer months,” Hartman says. “Companies are definitely under challenges to keep up with high demand, so they end up subcontracting parts of the job. We had some problems with the finisher—he didn’t apply the right stuff, so we’re still sorting that out.”

15. What type of warranty should I get? “For most of our projects we get a one-year warranty,” Franceschi says. “A certain amount of inherent problems will show up in that first year, so you can get them taken care of. Beyond that, it’s up to the school to decide how much more coverage it needs.”

16. Which sports’ lines should be painted on the floor? “It takes some planning when you are trying to design all the lines so you can utilize the floor for athletics and physical education,” Hartman says. “I met with my staff and asked them what they absolutely needed. One of them wanted badminton lines, so we put them on the floor, but we used a color that’s less obvious—it’s a light tan that matches the floor. You can see them when you’re playing badminton, but that doesn’t take away from aesthetics during varsity basketball or volleyball games.”

“Having many overlaid lines can create visual clutter, so we try to line up the basketball and volleyball center lines for minimal duplication,” Franceschi says. “We also try to line cross courts with thinner or lighter-colored lines so they don’t visually distract from the whole space.”

17. How do maintenance workers become knowledgeable about the new floor? “Our vendor conducted a workshop with our maintenance people,” Pilcher says. “They went over what type of chemicals to use and not to use, and told them how to clean it. I thought they did a good follow-up job.”

“Our vendor had a training session with custodians on how to maintain the floor after it was installed,” Ruppert says. “Then they came back a couple of months later to follow up.”

18. How long do floors last? Life span depends on the type and quality of the floor. Bryant College expects to get eight to 10 years out of its synthetic floor, while Iowa Community College expects to get 12 out of its new floor.

Wood floors can last much longer, depending on their thickness and if they’re properly maintained. “We expect to re-sand the floor about every seven or eight years, and we have enough thickness to get us through 50 or 60 years,” Hartman says.

19. How do I know if I need to replace my gym floor? Synthetic floors are easy to gauge visually. “An old floor will get gummy or brittle and you’ll see spider web marks,” Erichsrud says.

“With floors made from sheet materials, the seams can come apart to cause a tripping hazard,” adds Franceschi.

“With wood floors, refurbishing is the way to go until the floor gets water damaged to the point where it’s humping or buckling or it’s simply outlived its usefulness after 50 or 60 years,” Stevens says. “It might have dead spots where the ball just won’t bounce right. If it has lots of them, there’s little recourse but to replace it.”

Sometimes there are obvious visual clues with wood. “You can tell the floor is on its last sanding when the staples in the tongue and groove start to show,” Erichsrud says. “Or sometimes the gymnastic anchors will be crowned and sticking up from the floor.”

“Some wood floors will give out or lose spring in spots, or a joint may open up, and that can become a safety issue,” says Franceschi.

That’s exactly what happened at Jefferson High School. “Our students had gotten some back and leg injuries, so we commissioned a DIN test [which uses an international set of standards to measure performance characteristics of sports surfaces], and it determined that our old floor was not very shock-absorbent,” Hartman says. “That’s when we realized we had to replace it.”

20. Where can I go for more information? The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association has a helpful Web site at www.maplefloor.org; particularly useful is the Architects and Specifiers Buyer’s Guide. Most flooring manufacturers also have Web sites, as do many installers and third-party vendors.

Many manufacturers have demonstration centers that you can visit and literally try out floors you’re considering. “They’ll have ‘mini floors’ set up of all the various lines they sell,” says Buzbee. “You can get on them and dribble balls or jump to see how they work.”