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Flooring: Something for Nothing

Experts share ways to make inexpensive flooring look like a million bucks.

Making your facility look its best can mean balancing a champagne appetite with a beer wallet. Affording the best of one thing means scrimping in other areas, and flooring often gets the short end of the stick. Luckily, there are ways to make almost any flooring look expensive, and help your fitness center achieve a signature look. Flooring isn't just something that cushions fancy equipment - it can play a vital role in creating a specific vibe for your facility. "Flooring is such a large part of what members see and feel in a club," says Christell Leonard, associate principal and senior interior designer at Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver, Colo. "It has the potential to make or break a user's experience." Consider, for example, the flooring in various popular stores. "The average shopper recognizes the difference between Target's vinyl tile floor and Pottery Barn's stained concrete floor," explains Brian Dunkelberger, senior associate at Sasaki Associates Inc., Watertown, Mass. "Both floors serve the utilitarian needs, but one has a more upscale feel than the other. Ironically, they aren't that different in cost." And that simple fact can give hope to any manager hamstrung by a budget tighter than a fitness model's abs: You can make inexpensive flooring look like a million bucks.

Flooring as design element

When brainstorming the overall look and feel of your facility, don't forget the floor. "It is one of those items that jumps out at you when you enter the club," says Dunkelberger. Leonard agrees: "Flooring is one of the most important design elements in a club. After all, the floor is the surface users come into contact with the most when exercising. Flooring choices influence how comfortable members are, both physically and emotionally." Function over form isn't the only choice these days. "In a club, flooring needs to be durable, but it doesn't have to be ugly," says Leonard. "There are many attractive, even beautiful, products that are extremely well-wearing. The emergence of bamboo flooring for spas and yoga studios is an excellent example of this type of product. Bamboo is highly durable, fairly cost-effective and a renewable resource." New flooring products are making it possible to turn even the ugliest fitness facility duckling - like the weight room - into a swan. "There are more and more options for free weight flooring, which, in the past, has been typically thick black rubber floors flecked with barely visible color," says Leonard. "Now, many free weight flooring manufacturers have broadened their color palettes to allow for more fun patterns and interesting flooring choices." Additionally, flooring can do more than just look pretty. "Flooring material or color changes can help with 'way-finding' and circulation," says Dunkelberger. "Flooring is a large horizontal surface in any design, and to ignore it as a design element is a missed opportunity."

Materials matter

All flooring is not created equal, and a budget-conscious fitness center manager will be on the lookout for key materials when searching for cost-effective products. "If flooring material does not hold up, the owner will always be fighting it looking old," says Dunkelberger. This begs the question: What materials should a fitness center look for in a flooring product that will help it look new 10 years from now? There are actually two schools of thought that provide answers. School one. "First, unless you are looking at wood, tile, stone, terrazzo or stained concrete, you shouldn't be looking 10 years out," says Dunkelberger. "Materials like carpet are not meant to last 10 years." Although floor coverings like rubber and vinyl could last 10-plus years, Dunkelberger says they typically become dated after four to six years because of their colors. "If you are looking for a long-lasting material, look to the above-mentioned, keeping in mind they are more expensive and still require regular maintenance," he says. "If you are going to go this route, then I would stay in the neutral color ranges. Like carpet and rubber, they can date over time, and are much more costly to remove/replace." School two. "The second school of thought is understanding the life cycle of the product," says Dunkelberger. "For instance, if you know that the carpet will need to be replaced every two or three years because it is going to look worn due to traffic, then you could go with more trendy color schemes because you are going to be able to change it when it goes out of style." Leonard adds that investing in higher-quality materials can also pay off in the long run. "Often, spending a little additional money on a unitary or other extra backing will dramatically increase the carpet's stability and appearance," she says. "Loop pile carpets are usually better in high-traffic areas as opposed to cut pile, which will crush over time. If selecting floor tile for a lobby, a good porcelain tile with color all the way through the tile is better than a ceramic-glazed tile, which has a thin wear layer that can chip off to expose the lighter inner color of the tile."

Flooring follies

Unfortunately, no matter how wide the selection is, tight purse strings make it difficult to find what's right for your fitness center. But don't let shallow pockets force you to make these common mistakes: Inappropriate flooring. It seems obvious that flooring is determined by its purpose, but common sense often takes a holiday. This is especially unfortunate when it comes to locker rooms, which are often the most scrutinized. "If the locker room flooring feels, looks or smells unclean, you will lose members," Dunkelberger says. "This is especially true with female members." Keep in mind the basic needs of this specific area when selecting flooring. "In the locker room, there should be a proper walk-off area from the showers (wet) to the lockers (dry)," Leonard explains. "Putting carpet too close to the showers does not allow members enough time to dry off as they make their way to the lockers. Too much water on the carpet will cause product failure much sooner than the expected product lifetime." Leonard suggests an intermediate area of tile flooring between the very wet shower area and the (usually) carpeted locker bay area. Keep aesthetics in mind when deciding between large and small tiles. "In wet areas where there are sloping floors with drains for proper drainage, the floor tile size should be smaller to more easily mold to the elevation changes in the floor," advises Leonard. "Otherwise, tile setters will have to make awkward, unsightly cuts in large-scale floor tile as it gets closer to the drain." Too-light flooring. Another common error is selecting flooring that is too light in color. "Assume that the grout in high-traffic areas, such as lobbies and lockers, will become stained," says Leonard. "Choose a darker-colored grout right from the beginning, instead. The best choice is usually an overall medium or dark-toned finish with light colors used as accents only." Light-colored flooring will also require more time and attention from the cleaning crew, she adds. Light-colored carpet is a poor choice, as well, according to Leonard, yet monotone dark carpet will show light-colored lint and debris that accumulates with use. The best choice is something with both light and dark colors that will camouflage a myriad of carpeting sins. Incongruent flooring. Fitness centers can do wonders with inexpensive flooring options when they have to, but sometimes, all that creativity goes out the window once the budget fattens up. For example, when facilities renovate piece-meal, as is often the case, they usually start with the flooring, "because it's the surface that has taken the most beating," Dunkelberger says. "At this point, they have more money than when they opened the club or did their last renovation, so they go for a more expensive product, like porcelain tile in the entry instead of the previous carpet." This approach can backfire if you don't take into consideration the overall look of the facility. "I am not advocating that you shouldn't upgrade, but when you design a club, the experience that a member has is the sum of everything the member can take in," Dunkelberger explains. "If the owner chooses porcelain tile that looks more expensive than the rest of the space, it will often times look out of place or, worse yet, make everything else look cheap." In this situation, Dunkelberger advises choosing a nicer carpet and using the remainder of the money to repaint. "This gives the club a greater impact for the money that the owner is spending," he says.

Keep it clean

The biggest mistake fitness centers make with flooring is failing to maintain it. Expect to get out of your floors what you put into them - and that's not counting cash. "If you don't take care of the floor - whether it's wood, tile, carpet, etc. - you can expect it to look as if you don't take care of it," says Dunkelberger. "Too often, I have been in older clubs when I hear, 'This carpet has been down since I opened the place 15 years ago and it's fine.' I am looking around thinking to myself, And it looks like it's been down for 15 years. By the same token, I have been in clubs where they just refinished a 15-year-old group fitness floor, and it looks brand-new." The rule for making the most of your flooring is simple: Keep it clean. "If you have carpet, make sure it is shampooed on a regular basis. If a member spills something, get it taken care of as soon as possible," says Dunkelberger. "If you have rubber flooring, make sure it is cleaned on a regular basis, and you should set up regular cleanings. If you have wood floors, they need to be sanded and refinished on a regular basis, oftentimes annually, if they are getting high use." If this cleaning advice plays like a broken record, no apologies are offered by our experts. Leonard wholeheartedly concurs with Dunkelberger: "Maintenance of the flooring is important. The cleaning staff must be educated on proper care for different types of flooring and finishes. The club manager is responsible for communicating instructions on flooring care to the cleaning crew."

Tricks of the trade

But even if your fitness center has zero dollars to commit to sprucing up its flooring, there are ways to draw members' eyes elsewhere. "You can divert attention by dressing up the walls," Leonard says. "An easy and inexpensive way to accomplish this is with paint. Often, painting one or two walls of a room an interesting accent color can make a boring space come to life. If there are larger, more expansive walls, such as a gym or an indoor pool area, design some simple wall graphics that can be done with paint. Tricks like these will instantly spruce up a club area, and distract users from basic or 'plain-jane' flooring." Think about where your members are looking - it's usually not at the floor. "Most people's eyes are focused on things at eye level," says Dunkelberger. "By creating a focal point on the path of travel or using accent walls, you can create very unique member experiences without really addressing the floor. Keep in mind, this is best achieved when the flooring is neutral in color."

When to pony up

No matter how flashy your paint job, our experts agree there are some areas where you simply shouldn't skimp on flooring. "Gymnasium floors should be wood floors with a good-quality sleeper/cushioning system underneath," Leonard insists. "These floors are not cheap, but worth every penny. Members playing any kind of court sports will appreciate the comfort, ball-bounce and look of a proper gymnasium floor. The larger … flooring manufacturers can often provide different grades of wood for the top surface layer. A lower-grade wood does have more grain, color variation and other visual imperfections, but is less expensive for almost the same durability as higher-grade counterparts." Leonard is firm in her opinion that a fitness center should never cut costs on flooring at the expense of member safety. "Any area where users will run, jump or move must have flooring with the proper resiliency or cushioning for that activity. If this aspect of flooring is lacking, members may, over time, begin to develop injuries due to joint and bone stress that could have been avoided with the appropriate flooring. Clubs that cannot provide these types of basic flooring needs should not be operating, or offering those activities."

Go green

Finally, consider recycled products or products that can be recycled. "There are carpet manufacturers that will take back their product or even other manufactures' products at the end of their life," says Dunkelberger, who considers environmental responsibility an issue of importance. Sasaki is so committed to going green, in fact, that it maintains a website devoted to the pursuit at www.sasakigreen.com, which quotes Hideo Sasaki as saying, "The ecological relationship of man and nature is inherent in sound design."

Common sense

The basics of selecting the flooring that best fits your facility's needs are often a matter of common sense. "Select a product that will stand up to high traffic," Leonard says. "If it's a beautiful product that doesn't wear well and starts falling apart quickly, it won't matter how much money was spent on it." Hopefully these ideas can help you make the most of your budget - and make your floor look like a million bucks.
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