Raised Access Flooring - October 2012
By Brian Hamilton
Raised access flooring has been around since the early 1960s but the niche commercial flooring category may be finally hitting its stride. It began as a solution for data centers, but that all started to change when companies put a computer on every employee’s desk and needed to hide the cabling, and as companies moved to open office plans. Since then the flooring is being used to house a building’s heating and cooling systems, as well as modular electrical power systems for cubicles, offices and other areas. Some of the earliest significant users were financial institutions, call centers and trading floors.
Tate Access Floors of Jessup, Maryland is easily the largest company in the business. The firm estimates that it has about a 65% marketshare. A distant second is Haworth, the Holland, Michigan-based company known more for its office furniture. Those two are competitors for nearly every large project. Beyond them are a handful of small firms.
Reliable industry statistics are hard to come by—there isn’t even an industry trade association in the U.S. although there is one in the United Kingdom. The closest thing to an association is the Ceiling and Interior Systems Construction Association, which developed the test protocol for raised floors.
Scott Alwine, marketing manager for Tate, said McGraw Hill had the 2011 office and bank market at 50.7 million square feet. “According to our calculations the raised floor market penetration was between 24% and 25% last year,” he says, which is about double from two years ago but well below the 60% market penetration in the U.K. “The market penetration number is a good indicator of the strength of the raised floor market, as the percentage of the whole market has been on a steady increase over the last three or four years.”
Growth in the industry is getting a push from several fronts, including the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program.
Raised access flooring is being increasingly used in office buildings, although mostly in large urban centers. Data centers, libraries, Indian casinos, education and government buildings are also prime users as buildings use more electronics for networking and powered furniture, and try to save money on heating, cooling, and even general construction. Casinos also like it for superior ventilation of smoke.
One thing holding the industry back, according to Scott Alwine, Tate’s marketing manager, is the perception that it costs more than typical office flooring.
“It’s not more expensive,” he says. “It’s close to break even. The reason is that you’re using that space as your duct and there are speed of construction advantages in that cabling is installed faster than it is overhead.” He says the use of power system furniture, which can greatly simplify electrical cabling to, for instance, large rooms of cubicles, can nearly pay for the cost of access flooring. Electrical cabling, as well as communications and network wiring, doesn’t have to run to the ceiling and back down for every receptacle, which can save a huge amount of wire costs, given the cost of copper.
Haworth’s associate product manager Laura Stadler says there’s still a lot of mystery about the amount of money companies save in energy costs. “It’s a continually developing area,” she says. “A lot of architects don’t understand it and don’t buy the concept.” She says some Haworth customers claim savings as high as 50%.
Another advantage is that slab-to-slab construction height can be shortened because ductwork under the floor typically takes about 14” of space while typical overhead construction might require two feet. That might not make much difference in the average suburban office building but it’s a different calculation in a 40-story high rise where there are considerable contruction savings. Alwine says that every high rise in New York City in the last ten years has used raised access flooring.
ADVANCED TEMPERATURE CONTROL
Some of the most interesting innovations related to raised flooring have had to do with new ways of delivering heating and cooling, especially dealing with building perimeters. Tate has developed what's called "phase change material," which is incorporated in panels and coupled with in-floor active chilled beam. The material changes from a solid to a liquid, depending on the temperature, to shave the peakloads. The panels would be placed on the perimeter, and when sunlight begins to raise the temperature past 75°F, the material begins to melt, storing the heat. when the temperature drops below 75°, it begins to solidify and exhaust the heat. The chilled beam delivers cooled water to the perimeter.
Access flooring is ideal for the LEED program, says Alwine, who’s also a LEED AP. In addition to saving on construction costs, the flooring allows for far more efficient heating and cooling systems, typically saving 20% to 30% in energy costs over traditional flooring construction. Also, it eliminates obstructions so that more natural light can enter a building, which is a huge plus in LEED construction. In addition, the raised access panel system contains about 18% post-consumer content and 33% post-industrial content.
It’s a very popular strategy if a building owner is seeking gold and platinum certification, according to Alwine.
Roughly 25% to 30% of new commercial construction seeks some sort of LEED rating.
Underfloor energy systems allow for more localized temperature control. One control unit might serve two cubicles, for example. In addition, different methods, such as circulation of water, can be used to affect the perimeter of the building, where most of the temperature changes take place.
Raised access floors can range from 12” to 48” high, although the flooring has been used up to 9’ by Haworth, which often handles large projects with its furniture. The higher floors generally serve data centers. The most common heights are 15” to 24”. The framework is manufactured to handle loads ranging from 1,250 to 2,500 pounds per square foot.
Stadler says the 9’ high flooring allows builders to create a totally flexible building with different levels, all of which can be repurposed later with using any new concrete.
The industry standard for the top panel is 2’ square. The most common top covering is carpet tile, particularly in office situations. However, carpet can’t be used in some places, like data centers, because of static concerns, and it’s not necessarily ideal in others. So Tate and Haworth, and perhaps others, have concentrated a lot of their innovation in coming up with hard surface alternatives.
For example, Tate works with firms like Forbo and Nora to supply products that Tate runs through its own process to laminate the flooring to the top panels, which are concrete.
“We work with them to make sure the warranty isn’t voided,” Alwine says.
Tate has also recently introduced panels using a porcelain tile from Italy, and has also used engineered hardwood, as well as different terrazzo-like products.
“We’ve been expanding our high-end finishes,” Alwine says. “We want to fit out an entire office space and it’s nicer and neater for everyone if we can supply it all.”
Haworth also has a precast terrazzo floor panel, among other finishes.
While most access flooring is described as post and panel—steel framing with a 50 pound panel on top—there are companies that have taken a different approach. FreeAxez has developed a system for companies that don't need or want to put their heating and cooling pathways under the floor and are focused on cabling.
FreeAxez, a 12-year-old company based in Delran, New Jersey, has what owner Earl Geertgens describes as an "approach to wire management." It doesn't use traditional post and panel construction and instead has a very low profile steel quick connect system that goes no more than 2-3/4" off the subfloor. Finish flooring is simply placed right on top. It's ideal for new construction as well as retrofits.
"When you think of what traditional raised floor was designed to do, it was trying to solve a cooling problem because mainframe computers gave off so much heat. No one would come up with a 50-pound panel today."
According to Geertgens, FreeAxez deosn't really compete with the likes of Tate and Haworth. His method creates a grid to separate wires to keep wires neat and makes it easy to separate low voltage from other kinds of wires. The whole system connects quickly and requres no special tools. Any part of the system can be easily accessed through a carpet tile or other kind of flooring. Hard surface like vinyl and wood don't have to be laminated to a panel and can be installed as usual. The systems can also be moved easily and, unlike post and panel construction, it's not attached to the building so it can be depreciated like equipment.
Geertgens says his system can be used in most places where traditional raised floor is used, and many places where post and panel can't be used. He says only about 20% of raised flooring projects want the HVAC capability. His products have been used in everything from retail stores to courthouses to manufacturing centers.
"The cost overall is less than traditional raised flooring, because it's affecting a lot of things, not because it's less expensive" at the outset, Geertgen says.
Like traditional raised floor, FreeAxez products can be helpful with LEED projects. Geertgens says his system can contribute in five LEED categories. The systems are manufactured in New England and contain 38% recycled content.
Copyright 2012 Floor Focus