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Functional Floors for Outdoors

There are many options when considering surfaces for your outdoor areas, including those that are safe, comfortable and stylish.

Your members' safety and comfort is paramount - even before they hit the building. The surfaces you choose for walking trails, pool decking and curb ramps need to be appropriate, as well as ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.

Parking lots and sidewalks into your building are pretty standard as far as materials and ADA requirements go: Asphalt and concrete with well-placed line, curb and ramp markers are the standard. What may not be standard are the surfaces you choose for your outdoor fitness and sports areas. While architects and designers pay special attention to these surfaces because of specific durability and safety needs, fitness managers may not be as familiar with some options. There is a wealth of availability out there depending on your requirements, and just as many price points, too.

Walking and jogging trails and tracks

The Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas, Texas, and the Cooper Center at Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, take their outdoor surfaces seriously. "Our No. 1 consideration was wear and tear on the joints," says T.J. Estes, assistant general manager of the Cooper Fitness Center. "Our trails get a tremendous amount of use from 5 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. We have a considerable amount of joggers who need a cushioned surface." The Cooper Aerobics Center chose a 3/8-inch-thick synthetic rubberized granular surface that was poured right over top of a concrete walking trail. "We chose this for its durability and cushion factor, and have had this surface for about 12 years now," says Estes. "It's still a great surface, and you can feel the difference." The facility has had no issues with slipping or tripping, and it's great for running in the rain.

Brian Andersen, CEO of ProDek, Los Angeles, Calif., agrees that ease on the joints in one of the best benefits of a synthetic rubberized walking/jogging trail. Another benefit is easy care. "It's really low maintenance," he says. "You just rinse to clean it and that's it."

Of course, there are lots of options for walking and jogging surfaces, from wood chips, to asphalt and so on. When considering what you need, Steve Chase of Fitness Flooring, Indianapolis, Ind., says, "As long as you have a material installed that is accepted as commonly used in running tracks, you've protected yourself and assured your membership that you have concern for their safety and performance." He goes on to explain that "on a running track, you could put down playground material that is tested to keep kids safe from a fall of 4 feet, but this is an unnecessary expense. Yes, it is considerably safer than most types of running track material, and provides more shock absorption, but it's a bit unreasonable to go to that type of expense when most falls in running cause only very minor injuries. Of course, upgrading to a more sophisticated system also illustrates to your members that you are trying to allow them to achieve the utmost in performance."

A urethane type of surface is great for outdoor play areas because of its softness. Depending on the manufacturer, there are also graphic options available, such as your logo, a hopscotch board, etc. Andersen cautions, however, that while these rubberized surfaces are great for exterior use, they are odorous and therefore not a good choice for indoors, unless the facility has very good ventilation.

A synthetic surface is much cleaner for the user and easier to maintain than a woodchip surface, which is also common on walking trails and playgrounds. For one, a synthetic surface stays in place and doesn't spread over its boundaries as people run and play. It's also nicer for your members because they won't kick up as much dirt when they run.

The Future Is Green

The green movement is taking off in many industries, and surfacing is no exception. Recycled materials are being used, as well as materials that are more Earth-friendly. Says Steve Chase of Fitness Flooring, Indianapolis, Ind., "I think we've already seen [the emergence] ... of 'green' raw materials in surfacing. Already, many running tracks and multipurpose turfs use re-ground rubber as filler. There are certain technological barriers to making entire surfaces out of 100-percent recycled products, but certainly there is an effort to use more reclaimed material, and this continues to evolve. I'd expect to see that there will be advancements that allow us to manufacture entire surfaces out of reclaimed materials."

Pool decking and entry

"I think the most important thing in the design of an outdoor pool is not the pool at all," says Gary Schultz, director of operations for Aquattica Pools and Water Works Inc., Voorheesville, N.Y. "In my opinion, it is the deck space [and] seating area, and well-planned people movement. Often there are more people moving around, in shaded areas, at tables and in lounge chairs, than there are people in the pool."

Safety and non-skid surfaces are key here. The Cooper Fitness Center has a great example of a well-designed pool decking area, which has a rubberized surface that is sprayed over concrete. Aesthetics are important here, as they are everywhere at Cooper, so the facility chose a spattered look that was sprayed on with a template and spray machine by a concrete resurfacing company. "We put this in about six or seven years ago, and it's held up well. We are starting to see more and more of this type of surface at clubs. It's the right move for safety, as well as aesthetics."

Mick Nelson with the Facilities Development Department of USA Swimming, Colorado Springs, Colo., says he likes just plain old "broom finished" concrete best. "It's functional, cleanable and non-skid." However, he also likes soft decks, like the one at Cooper.

There are many ways to get people, particularly older exercisers and people with disabilities, in and out of the pool safely. Gary Schultz says ADA requirements for a swimming area include access to the pool, either by a ramp, hydraulic lift or zero-entry area. ADA requirements are usually satisfied under normal code compliance during design and construction. You may also choose to use a ramp with handles. "When an older population is involved, we tend to use more egress steps, ramps and benches in the water," says Nelson. Cooper's safety ramp includes a 90-degree switchback, allowing for a gentle slope. "Most pools built after 1995 have some sort of stair or ramp," Nelson says.

Multipurpose fields

Playing fields are big business for fitness and recreation centers. The question is, what kind of surface best suits your needs and budget? Most adults grew up playing on "natural turf," otherwise known as grass. But for today's facility, grass is out and artificial turf is in. "The biggest benefit of artificial turf for a fitness center or recreational facility is the ability to literally provide 24/7, multipurpose use," says Amy Brackin, senior marketing director for Sprinturf, Wayne, Pa. "In recent years, growth has been exponential in athletics. No longer are youth sports a one-time-per-week or Saturday afternoon commitment. At younger and younger ages, children are participating in competitive sports such as soccer and lacrosse and training not one, but three to five times a week - and then playing games on the weekends. Almost double this by gender, and you've got these facilities with huge field usage issues. Natural grass simply cannot support the number of hours these facilities need to schedule, and have time for recovery in between in order to maintain optimal playability." Depending on how hard the play your natural fields get, they potentially can only take 20 hours of continuous use. The rest of the time, the field needs rest to give them time to repair.

Another benefit of artificial turf is that the issues that Mother Nature brings to the table are not as big a factor, such as heavy rain. Drainage can be a cinch.

Artificial turf fields are softer than the old Astroturf of the past, which consisted basically of a low-pile carpet and a pad backing over concrete. "Synthetic fields are a complex construction process," Brackin says. "Depending on the location and the condition of the surface, a typical installation requires a subsurface that consists of a base layer of material - either artificial or natural (rock), and a drainage system to ensure that the field will handle extreme weather conditions or heavy rains. This base work takes approximately six weeks to complete. At that point, the surface is delivered in rolls, similar to carpet. This material is then intricately laid, piece by piece, and either sewn at the seams or glued, depending on the application. Lines for soccer, football, lacrosse or any combination of sports are then cut into the field for long-lasting performance. They are not simply painted, unless the owner wants something that is temporary or removable. Once this process is complete, an infill consisting of either all rubber or a combination of sand and rubber is put in. This creates the same feel as a natural surface in pristine conditions - lush and soft, yet providing a surface in which an athlete still has firm footing and traction when running, turning, jumping, etc. The entire process from start to finish takes anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, beginning with the basework all the way through the finished product."

Research the products

Chase strongly suggests doing your homework before choosing a flooring company. "Any reputable manufacturer has tested his materials ... either through the U.S. certifying group ASTM, or the European certification group, DIN," he says. "While a lot of these test results may not mean anything to anyone outside of material engineering, it does illustrate that they've gone to the expense of testing the material. ... The unwillingness or inability of a manufacturer to provide test results likely means that they haven't had their products tested in any way, or the test results that they have don't indicate that their products fared particularly well."

Chase recommends that you get references from the company whose products you are thinking about purchasing. Then, follow up on those references. "Yes, it's a pain, and the company will be giving you the names of only their best customers, but I don't think that you should go into any purchase of this ... size without at least finding out how the company has performed in the past," he says. "You'll want to know whether the company delivered what they said they were going to when they were going to, and how the product has performed since it was purchased. ... [Y]ou might also find out there are preparations that you need to make that you hadn't expected."

Check out other facilities

These are just the beginning of surface options for outdoor areas. With basketball, tennis, volleyball and more, your fitness and recreation center has many options for all kinds of activities. Do your research and visit other facilities to determine what works and what doesn't. The Cooper Institute initiates these visits, and invites their competition in to have a look at their facilities, too. "We've been doing that for years," says Estes. It's a great way to see product choices and make your own best decisions.
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