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Ground Control

Understanding the pros and cons of each flooring option, the root of facility design.

The foundation for a successful health club starts with the facility's flooring. Covering one of the largest visual spaces within the club, ground surfaces leave a lasting impression with members and prospects. Indeed, flooring can add aesthetic value, as well as offer acoustical advantages, tactile comfort and practical function.

Still, with so many options available — rubber, carpet, wood and more — operators must tread carefully when making a flooring choice. If you're uncertain what material will work best for your club, check out what's underfoot at similar facilities.

“[T]ake a look at other existing clubs and see what looks right to you,” advises Doug Baumgarten, founder and president of Country Club Fitness in Rockville, Md., which offers fitness center design, and management and staffing solutions for private high-end clubs and resorts.

By visiting other clubs, you can examine how various flooring surfaces hold up to the wear and tear of member use. And once you are on the premises, you can ask club owners what they like/dislike about the materials, and talk to them about their experiences with flooring.

When you understand the benefits and drawbacks of certain material, you'll be able to determine which flooring types are best suited for each area of your club. “It's not only the choice of material but the proper application of the material,” says Donald DeMars, the chairman and CEO of Donald DeMars International, a California design and development company for the fitness, sport and recreation industries.

For example, carpet, while visually pleasing, is not a good idea for group cycling rooms. Why? Because sweat, a caustic agent, can damage the fabric.

David Phillips, interior designer with Montclair, N.J.-based Fabiano Designs International, offers this advice regarding flooring choices: “A good rule of thumb for delegating the appropriate floor surface to the appropriate area is the more traffic, the harder (durable) the flooring should be. The wetter the areas, the less porous a surface should be. The noisier the room, the more sound-absorbing the flooring should be.”

With so much to consider, a refresher course on the basic flooring options might be beneficial. To help you, Club Industry dives feetfirst into the world of fitness flooring, and examines each surface type.

The Word on Wood

The most traditional of fitness flooring surfaces (next to rubber in the weight room), wood offers a big aesthetic bang for the buck. “Wood has a traditional appearance that people like and relate to,” says Edmond Zisook, an associate with the Illinois-based SAS Architects and Planners.

Since wood is typically used in group exercise rooms, which only cover a limited space, club operators can conceivably budget for this more expensive material. (Plain wood flooring goes for $5 to $7 a square foot.)

Clubs with more money to spend can consider cushioned wood floors — running $10 to $12 per square foot. Ideal for high-impact activities, cushioned wood floors help to prevent joint injuries and strain.

Still, expensive wood flooring may not be necessary for all clubs. “One thing we've found is people are spending too much on aerobics room areas because they tend to think they need to put in the very costly suspended wood floors, like in a dance studio,” says Baumgarten. “But 80 to 90 percent of the classes given nowadays are low-impact classes anyway…. You may not need the expense of a high-impact floor if you're not doing a lot of high-impact classes.”

In addition to group exercise rooms, wood is frequently used in sports courts — and different sports call for different thicknesses. For example, racquetball courts can use a half-inch thick wood, while courts for basketball (a higher-impact sport) should include a 3/4-inch thick material, explains DeMars. There are also synthetic floors that you can use for these areas, but “they're not as easy on the legs and they're less attractive,” DeMars adds.

If the expense of real wood is a concern, consider bamboo flooring, a tough, environmentally friendly alternative. Used wood flooring — that is, wood flooring taken from other buildings — is another less expensive (and eco-friendly) option. “A second-hand floor would certainly help the environment, and the distressed look of the floor adds another appeal,” Phillips says. “Future marking of the wood only adds to its beauty.”

Indeed, wood flooring can beautify a club's appearance. The only real disadvantages for wood flooring, besides the expense, is its acoustical value (sound is amplified) and, depending on the treatment of its surface, lack of slip-resistance. That means water or perspiration can create dangerous conditions when they come into contact with the wood.

“You need a floor with ‘tooth,’ that has enough grab,” says DeMars.

Carpet Capers

“Carpet can give many types of looks with an endless array of colors and patterns,” Phillips says. “The area that it is used for plays a big part in the selection process, in regards to toughness and durability, color and pattern. It can give a warm rich appeal or [a] corporate look, or maybe that ‘New York, New York’ look — the options are endless. A big disadvantage is where it is used, like in under weight areas, or under Spinning bikes.”

Recall that members' perspiration can destroy the fabric. Also, even the most durable carpet selection will have a tough time withstanding heavy weights. Baumgarten solves this dilemma by placing rubber mats over the carpet in heavy equipment areas.

Even if you put carpet in the most suitable area, you can still ruin this flooring with improper maintenance. DeMars suggests asking the flooring manufacturer for advice about cleaning solutions. If you don't follow the supplier's recommendations, you could damage or shorten the life-span of the carpet. Also, ignoring the advice may nullify the floor's warranty.

Clubs that do follow the manufacturer's cleaning advice still may face a carpet-ruining accident. DeMars shares this story: A club used a bleach solution to clean the exercise equipment. When employees moved the equipment, bleach dripped onto the carpet and faded out sections. Oops.

Fortunately, by keeping extra carpet on hand, clubs can deal with these kinds of mishaps, DeMars says. Extra carpet allows clubs to replace damaged sections without having to redo the entire floor.

Not that clubs can patch up carpeting forever. Eventually, a new investment is needed. On the plus side, replacing a carpeted floor isn't very costly. Underlayments will increase the price, but carpeting itself is inexpensive (between $1 and $6 a square foot, with very nice, quality material as little as $3).

“The bottom of the economics ladder is old-fashioned carpet,” says Zisook. “It's a very good product, but it has poor serviceability. You'll have to replace every three to five years.”

In the meantime, you can get a lot out of carpet. To squeeze the most from your dollars, Zisook recommends carpet for large areas where wear isn't an issue. “The largest single area is the exercise areas, and that's where the price per square foot counts for most clubs on a budget,” he says. “If you're on the lowest budget, go for lower-priced items like carpet, and in the wear areas, use a harder surface (e.g., hard rubber or vinyl). The areas that you shouldn't skimp on, if you can avoid it, would be the lobby and reception areas.”

Many clubs insist on using carpet in the changing areas of their locker rooms, since members often dislike touching tiles with bare feet. However, there are some sanitary concerns associated with this, and, in some states, carpeting near wet areas is illegal (due to risk of mildew and molds).

“We don't necessarily recommend using carpet in locker rooms,” says Alex Harrow of New York's Freyer Collaborative Architects.

Neither does Zisook. “In the very high-traffic, big health clubs, we want to be able to put a hose on the floor at the end of the day,” he says.

The Rubber Room

An extremely durable surfacing option, rubber flooring is a heavyweight contender in the weight room. Rubber can stand up to the punishment of free weights, plus it's a great sound absorber, says Phillips.

While rubber is durable, it will have to be replaced as often as carpet. Plus, the price is higher, costing anywhere from $2 to $7 a square foot.

“It can get expensive,” admits Phillips, “and the more porous are hard to clean.”

Still, clubs get a versatile floor for the price. For example, “hard” rubber flooring, or composite rubbers, can be used in place of wood in exercise studios and sports courts — just as long as members don't object.

“Some people like the idea of wood floors for dance and for basketball,” explains Zisook.

Even outside of group exercise rooms and sports courts, members may dislike rubber flooring. Some may find the tough look of rubber flooring intimidating, or at the very least, unappealing aesthetically.

“More high-end clubs looking to attract high-end clientele want to go with carpeting for as much of the club as possible,” offers Baumgarten. “[A rubberized surface] has a little bit more durability to it, but aesthetically it's not as pleasing and it may actually cost more than carpeting.”

Clubs that want aesthetics — and want to save money — can put rubber flooring on top of carpeting in specific high-usage areas. This approach leaves more area of the facility carpeted, saving the club money while providing pleasing design options.

This isn't to suggest that rubber surfaces lack charm. No longer limited to black, rubber flooring can be ordered with color chips to jazz up a room. True, these color options carry a higher price, but operators haven't shied away from the material.

“Clients are now spending more up front on high-quality rubber flooring,” Phillips agrees.

Of Tiles and Terrazzo

Water is the universal solvent. Given enough time, water created the Grand Canyon. Thankfully, most of your club members don't take millennium-long showers or drip the Colorado River in the changing stalls. But there are all kinds of germs, molds and fungi that breed in wet areas, requiring heavy-duty scrubbing several times a day. Therefore, the surfacing you use in these areas has to be able to withstand both strong chemicals and flooding.

“In wet areas, it's ceramic tile and no close seconds,” says an adamant Zisook. “Ceramic tile is a category that's the most impervious to water. There's nothing better for toilet rooms and shower rooms…than tile.”

Design-wise, tiles (ceramic, porcelain, marble, etc.) offer much for the moolah. Rich in color and styles, tiles can create a very elegant, inviting look. A good rule of thumb though is the more intricate designs you use, the costlier. So while clubs can get tile for as low as $2.50 a square foot, natural stone tile ranges from $9 to $11, marble tile from $15 to $18.

Maintenance is another drawback for tile. Dark grout (not white) can help disguise dirt somewhat, but it's still important to clean the tiled areas every day.

For those who want complete ease of maintenance, terrazzo may very well be the answer. Poured terrazzo can set a club back $9 to $15 per square foot, but maintenance is a snap.

“Cleaning is a daily dust mop or wet mop for the most part, with a good sealer to protect and enhance this beautiful product,” Phillips says.

Terrazzo is available in virtually any color, and material may be mixed for added color versatility. “Terrazzo is a product that is being considered more and more in its poured and tiled applications,” Phillips says. “It can give a rich look or fun casual appeal. It is lasting, functionally and visually…. Terrazzo will certainly hold up on walkways, stairs, lounge areas, entrances and wet areas.”

Zisook doesn't agree. He considers terrazzo to be a “luxury product” — useful in lobbies and reception areas but too slippery for wet areas. The ground also has to be prepared properly for terrazzo, meaning that if your floor surface is not completely level, expensive prep work will be needed. The same is true of tile.

Clubs that opt for terrazzo should realize that this is a “permanent” flooring option. That's OK, but operators should try to leave much of their club open to a little change.

“Most soft flooring…has a life-span,” Phillips says. “I would like to think people are replacing these products around every seven years to keep their clubs fresh. This is something that should not be avoided. Also clubs become outdated much more quickly if they did not originate with a good design, and the members know that by looking at the new club that has just opened down the street from you.”

Keeping Score on Floors

Ideal surface use:
Group exercise rooms, basketball and racquetball courts, mind/body rooms
Major advantages:
Great aesthetics, easy to maintain
Major disadvantages:
Costly, can be slippery when wet, poor acoustics

Ideal surface use:
Office areas, children's areas, cardio and circuit areas, walkways/reception rooms
Major advantages:
Attractive, inexpensive, easy to maintain
Major disadvantages:
Needs to be replaced fairly often

Ideal surface use:
Weight rooms
Major advantages:
Very tough/durable, great sound absorber
Major disadvantages:
Low aesthetic value, and can be expensive and hard to clean (depending on the style)

Ideal surface use:
Wet areas, reception rooms, walkways
Major advantages:
Attractive with many design possibilities, and holds up well to water
Major disadvantages:
Grout maintenance, can be expensive

Ideal surface use:
Reception areas, walkways, stairways, entrances, lounges
Major advantages:
A very colorful, attractive material that's extremely durable and easy to maintain
Major disadvantages:
Expensive and can require extensive prep work

Put Your Foot Down!

We would like to know what you like and dislike about today's flooring options. Write to us at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462.
Fax: (610) 238-0992.

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