Education: Focus on K-12: Bonds and stimulus funds are driving growth in the segment - April 2023

By Darius Helm

Currently, the K-12 market is in growth mode, boosted by government stimulus packages and new rounds of municipal bonds, and all signs point to healthy gains over the next couple of years. However, studies show that the segment itself is grossly underfunded, with no long-term solutions, and it is unclear how the segment will cope with its shortfalls.

According to the Consensus Construction Forecast by the AIA (American Institute of Architects), the education market should grow by 3% this year and 3.6% next year. And the bulk of that growth is on the K-12 side, which is also a bigger market-8.1 billion gross square feet, according to the 2021 State of Our Schools report.

The same report, jointly published by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities and the International Well Building Institute, also determined that there was an $85 billion annual shortfall in funding for maintenance, operation and periodic capital improvements, up from $46 billion in the last report, published in 2016.

Also driving the need for renovation and new construction are recent shifts in population. Texas, for instance, is in the midst of a surge in new residents, and numbers are also up in Arizona, Florida and the Carolinas. Janet Farren, a Crossville architectural consultant for the Southeast Texas region, reports that schools are going up everywhere in the region to accommodate the influx.

Flooring producers with a focus on K-12 are well positioned for growth over at least the next couple of years. And in general, K-12 is not a sector with dramatic ups and downs. Pressing needs in school districts are regularly, if inadequately, reflected in the steady issuance of bonds. And since the early days of the pandemic, local grants issued through the government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) have been made available to respond to the pandemic’s wide impacts.

The ESSER funds came in three rounds, the third of which, at $122.7 billion, is nearly twice as big as the first two combined. And that third round is available through late 2024. While most of the funds don’t directly target construction and renovation, their use for other purposes, like HVAC systems, can still free up operating funds by shoring up other areas. And funds are applicable to flooring if it relates to reduced transmission of infection, reduced acoustical issues and the enhancement of indoor air quality.

Some industry experts express concerns that the facilities directors in a lot of these school districts don’t have the bandwidth to take advantage of these grant opportunities within the required timelines. School facility managers are still reeling from three years of managing their complex school environments and millions of students through crisis after crisis.

“Facilities directors went through extraordinary processes to keep children in school [during the pandemic],” says Max Cavalli, Mannington’s director of education segments. “They did a great job, making pivots that have not been recognized and acknowledged enough.”

The business of new construction and renovation in K-12 has a lot of moving parts, and the only way to navigate it is through strong relationships. Facility managers are critical partners, as are flooring contractors and A&D. Each of these entities has trusted relationships with the others, and manufacturer reps have to find a way into those tight circles. And for larger projects, that circle often has to include the general contractor, as well.

Facility managers are, arguably, the most important relationship, since they’re closest to the money and the needs of the facility. Once a rep gains a facility manager’s trust by demonstrating that they can meet their needs, the partnership strengthens and the ideal end result is to become a standard manufacturer for that institution, paving the way for future projects. These partnerships between reps and facilities, which used to be a source of contention with A&D firms, have become increasingly commonplace.

In general, most of the flooring in K-12 is LVT and carpet, with LVT bigger. And carpet tile accounts for at least three quarters of the carpet. “LVT is picking up momentum and has increased in the standards, whereas carpet tile has dropped,” says Kendra Mahen, vice president of sales for HMTX’s Aspecta.

There’s also some broadloom, including high performance products with moisture barriers, resilient backings and weldable seams. Ceramic tile also has a share of the space, particularly in restrooms and wet areas. Rubber is used for many applications, as is linoleum.

Polished concrete and terrazzo are also gaining some share, but they bring with them even more acoustical problems, limiting their application.

And then there’s VCT, a product category that has been losing share in all commercial sectors for many years. And now, with fewer producers than ever and prices by some accounts nearly doubling over the last year, the price delta between LVT and VCT has narrowed.

“Our major dealer partners are positioning LVT in lieu of VCT due to changes in the marketplace,” says Cavalli.

VCT has a low initial price, but part of the reason that it’s been so heavily deselected in recent years is because of its high maintenance profile, ultimately making it a fairly expensive product. Another reason is because its designs are so outdated, and the homogeneous construction does not allow for a lot of design.

However, there’s still a lot of VCT out there. Its homogeneous construction means that it’s tough and durable, and also every time it’s refinished, the visual is fully renewed, so it can last decades, making facility managers reluctant to replace it.

Education, led by K-12, is a major commercial segment for Shaw Contract in both hard and soft surface. Resilient flooring-largely LVT, but also sheet goods-makes up about 30% of its K-12 business, and the rest is mostly carpet tile, which gives schools the longevity they need for their flooring, as well as comfort underfoot and acoustic mitigation. Shaw does do some broadloom too, mostly in older schools where the structure lends itself to broadloom applications.

“Schools are designed differently now,” says Dean, noting the increase in multipurpose spaces, labs and rooms for STEM classes. The new designs lend themselves to high-performing modular flooring solutions. LVT is taking a lot of share from VCT, though schools on tight budgets often defer replacing VCT, despite the fact that LVT these days is not much pricier, and with better visuals and a much lower maintenance profile.

The firm reports that its K-12 business is robust right now, in part due to ESSER funds, which should keep the segment strong through 2024. Dean reports that demand for sustainable flooring solutions is also on the rise. “Students’ voices have growth louder,” she says. “We have generations who care about the future of the planet. Students today think about where products will go when they’re used up, as well as what they put in their bodies.” The firm’s focus on Cradle to Cradle certified flooring products helps drive its specification in today’s schools, Dean notes.

One new product category that may find good demand in K-12 is ReWorx, which is also offered by sister operations Patcraft and Philadelphia Commercial. ReWorx is a hybrid soft surface product made of PET with a needlepunched face and resilient base, offering performance characteristics typical of resilient flooring as well as comfort underfoot and acoustic mitigation from its soft surface face.

Engineered Floors’ commercial operation, under the EF Contract and J+J Flooring brands, manufactures soft surface flooring and also sources an LVT program, which it launched in 2016. In K-12, one of the firm’s largest market segments, soft surface is the bigger side of the business.

What distinguished Engineered’s commercial businesses the most, particularly when it comes to the K-12 segment, is Kinetex, a hybrid carpet tile that fuses a knitted PET face to a PET backing. The construction, which includes 45% post-consumer recycled content from drink bottles, enables its use in applications normally restricted to resilient or hard surface flooring, like corridors, with rolling loads and high foot traffic-and it brings with it the acoustical properties of carpet. Kinetex is priced equivalent to mid to high end carpet tile. In terms of moisture, Kinetex is permeable, obviating the need for moisture mitigation.

Engineered’s carpet tile is mostly nylon 6, with some PET styles in the last couple of years. Its mainstreet division, Pentz offers twice as much PET carpet as nylon 6.

Patcraft, another of Shaw Industries’ commercial businesses, serves the K-12 market largely with LVT, carpet tile and homogeneous tile, which is heat welded, along with walk-off tiles. LVT, which is the biggest part of its K-12 business is used in a lot of applications, particularly in corridors. Classrooms lean heavily toward carpet, more so for the younger students-not just because of acoustics but also because they spend a lot of time on the floor. Its homogeneous tile, a durable, low-maintenance product, performs well in high impact environments, including multiuse spaces.

According to Kent Clauson, director of performance markets, education and government, one distinguishing characteristic of Patcraft is its service and responsiveness, and that extends to its custom capabilities, like matching yarns to school colors, for instance, for an accent, and producing the carpet on a quicker timeline. It also has a technical team that trains end users on maintenance. And in terms of sustainability, it offers summary sheets so that schools can see key data like carbon reduction, landfill diversion and emissions.

Clauson reports that K-12 is robust right now, with good activity in both renovation and new construction-the bigger side is renovation.

Philadelphia Commercial, the mainstreet division of Shaw Industries (that also has built a substantial specified business), does a lot of business in K-12, mostly on the renovation and replacement side, calling on end users to understand their needs and offer suggestions. Compared to the larger contract firms, Philadelphia is more local in nature, going through the dealers its sales reps work with. A lot of business comes from projects that have already received funding but where details are still being worked out. In other cases, the firm will reach out directly to facility managers. And Philadelphia also partners with Source Well, a public procurement agency that focuses on this type of public funding.

Carpet makes up most of Philadelphia’s K-12 offering, followed by LVT. And it is optimistic about ReWorx carpet, which it recently added to its mix under the Nuscapes line.

By virtue of its Marmoleum and Flotex programs, as well as entrance mats, Forbo also serves K-12 with both hard and soft surface flooring. Marmoleum is a linoleum product that comes as sheet and tile-tile is more typical in K-12-and Flotex is a soft surface hybrid with a flocked nylon face and an impermeable vinyl backing, and it also comes in sheet and modular formats. In the case of Flotex, which is commonly used for applications that benefit from acoustical controls, including libraries, band rooms, cafeterias and administrative areas. Low maintenance profiles for both Marmoleum and Flotex also drive demand.

Marmoleum and Flotex have very low carbon footprints. And Marmoleum, which is used in corridors and classrooms, is virtually 100% bio-based. Denis Darragh, Forbo’s general manager for North America and Asia, further adds that both are designed to last a long time, calling them “30-year products.”

Another leading player is Mannington, which serves the K-12 market with resilient and carpet products. The family-owned company, founded by the Campbell family in 1915, is headquartered in Salem, New Jersey. Education is the second-biggest segment for the firm, the largest being healthcare. According to Max Cavalli, director of education segments, “We’re a performance brand, which is why we’re a natural partner for K-12 and higher education.”

Mannington domestically produces all of its rubber, sheet goods and carpet, as well as about 95% of its commercial LVT, and it also has some specialty products like poured linoleum. For the K-12 market, it’s mostly LVT, carpet and rubber flooring, with LVT accounting for most of its K-12 revenues and still growing. The biggest target for its rubber business, which is characterized by its acoustical mitigation, ease of maintenance and slip-fall attributes, is K-12 corridors and cafeterias.

On the soft surface side, the firm offers carpet tile, which makes up 75% to 80% of K-12 carpet sales, as well as broadloom with its proprietary Integra HP (high performance backing). The 12’ wide product features a backing with an impermeable moisture barrier, preventing any wick-back staining, with a vinyl precoat protecting the EVA latex backing. And chemically welding its seams creates a fully waterproof installation.

For applications with higher moisture thresholds (up to 99% relative humidity), the firm offers most of its LVT products with QuickStix pre-applied adhesive, which won’t break down in the presence of moisture.

Cavalli reports that the firm works closely with K-12 facility managers, including on issues of maintenance. Commenting on the closeness of Mannington’s end-user relationships and its focus on elevating the learning environment, he adds, “We want our salespeople to be part of the facilities team.”

Education is also a major commercial segment for Tarkett, with K-12 bigger than higher education. The firm is notable for its broad portfolio of commercial products, including a wide range of rubber products, sheet vinyl, vinyl tile, VCT and linoleum. The firm’s focus on indoor air quality-it’s the only flooring producer to have products certified as “asthma and allergy friendly” by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America-serves it well in education, where there is increasing emphasis on health and wellness.

According to Jonathan Stanley, Tarkett’s director of education and government, asthma and allergy is the number one cause of absenteeism in K-12, with over six million students affected by asthma. It adds up to ten million missed school days a year.

Tarkett’s rubber is mostly used in corridors, cafeterias and makerspaces, due to its durability, low maintenance and acoustical properties. And the firm’s LVT with its high performance Techtonic polyurethane coating also goes in these and other high-traffic areas, as well as in classrooms.

The firm also does a lot of carpet in classrooms, particularly for the earlier grades. Carpet tile is a big part of that, but its more prominent product is Powerbond, a high-performance 6’ broadloom that the firm describes as a hybrid product by virtue of its moisture-proof resilient backing and welded seams. The construction prevents moisture from a slab from infiltrating the product. The line includes Powerbond RS, which has a preapplied adhesive on the back, reducing the chemistries associated with the product’s installation.

Stanley reports that the first Powerbond K-12 installation, which was at Prospect Valley in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, was installed in 1967 and lasted 55 years, until the school was torn down last year and replaced with a new structure.

Interface, a carpet tile specialist that also produces rubber (from its Nora acquisition in 2018) and sources LVT from South Korea, has a strong focus on K-12. According to Paula Meason, marketing activation manager for education and healthcare for Interface, after corporate, education is the next biggest sector, led by K-12. It’s a growth segment and a priority segment for the firm and, in a few years, could be as large as corporate.

For Interface, the resilient side is bigger than carpet in K-12. Carpet tile is used in classrooms and flexible spaces, often for its sound-deadening attributes. LVT, which has gained the most post-pandemic, goes in a range of spaces, competing with hard surface and carpet, in part due to perceptions that LVT is easier to clean than carpet tile. Rubber also goes for a range of applications, including makerspaces, labs, corridors, cafeterias and classrooms. According to the firm, its rubber, which is dimensionally stable, is manufactured with a dense surface for high performance, and it’s a low maintenance product with a long lifecycle, which K-12 facility managers appreciate.

Interface’s strong green story serves it well in K-12, a segment where environmental sustainability and health and wellness are increasingly important. And its product offering includes the most important flooring categories in K-12. And, in addition to its installation, maintenance and technical support services, the firm also has inhouse designers at Interface Design Studio to help specifiers and end users create floor plans and visualize and select products. All these services are free, as is its product reclamation program. It also does custom colors; on the carpet side, there’s no upcharge and a mere 100-square-yard minimum.

Two LVT collections specifically targeting K-12 are Studio Set and Stargazing. Both have colorways that are mostly high chroma, along with a few neutrals.

The Mohawk Group serves the K-12 sector with a diversified offering, including both carpet tile and broadloom, as well as LVT, sheet goods and homogeneous vinyl tile (HVT). Broadloom often goes to projects with tighter budgets, with an installed cost below that of carpet tile, though the bulk of the volume is carpet tile, and its share is still growing. But the larger movement is toward resilient flooring, which accounts for an estimated 40% of K-12 segment sales, double where it was five years ago.

The firm’s new HVT offering, which has a speckled visual typical of through-body products, is designed to compete with rubber flooring, but at lower price points. Its low maintenance profile, particularly compared to VCT, makes it appealing to end users. HVT is a high-performance product, making it suitable for corridors and mixed-use spaces.

The firm’s campaign targeting K-12, which it calls “No Worries,” promotes not just its product offering and value proposition, but also a quick-ship program, which comes in handy for issues like replacing damaged carpet tiles.

In K-12, hard surface mostly comprises resilient flooring and ceramic tile, and it’s used in high impact areas where performance is paramount-corridors, lobbies, cafeterias, restrooms. Porcelain’s highest share of K-12 square footage is in restrooms and back-of-house applications, with higher-end products in public-facing areas. Resilient flooring is used just about everywhere, including classrooms, multipurpose spaces and, importantly, in sports applications.

Most hard surface flooring is low maintenance, with the most notable exception being VCT, which has a higher running cost than any other flooring type.

For Tennessee-based Crossville, a domestic producer with a strong position in the commercial market, education is its biggest sector, led by K-12. Its products are used-as not just flooring but also wainscotting and other wall applications-in corridors, restrooms, cafeterias and back-of-house applications, where it often competes with quarry tile. Corridors make up the biggest piece. Its offering includes porcelain floor tile, ceramic wall tile and tiles with treads for back-of-house.

Janet Farren, an architectural consultant for Crossville Studios for Southeast Texas, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country (it includes Houston), notes that Crossville products are also being specified for CTE (career technical education) and trade applications, and that includes everything from auto workshops, cosmetology, building trade spaces and even agricultural barns-of which there are a lot in Southeast Texas.

Crossville has rounded out its portfolio in the last couple of years to offer more competitive price points, which has opened up more opportunities, particularly in the residential market. The firm reports that its Go To School program of U.S. made products includes special pricing for walls, floors and back-of-house applications, with about a dozen series in the program.

Mohawk’s Dal-Tile Corporation makes tile for both walls and floors for the North American K-12 market through its American Olean, Marazzi and Daltile brands. According to Mari Anne Randall, 85% of those products are made in the U.S. and have Declare labels, as well as HPDs and EPDs.

It also has products with Microban, an antimicrobial treatment, which meets the hygiene needs of today’s schools. And it offers floor tiles with Stepwise technology that Randall notes increases slip resistance by 50% and is low maintenance.

Randall reports that the firm is also seeing increasing demand for its 2cm porcelain pavers for outdoor learning areas and other outdoor applications.

HMTX Commercial goes to the education market with its Aspecta and Teknoflor resilient flooring brands. Aspecta One in particular has collections targeting K-12, like Midtown and Midtown Prism, a concrete visual in six neutrals from light to dark and six primary colors, respectively. Aspecta One, which is a gluedown flex LVT, is designed to be priced competitively in the education market.

K-12 has been growing in the Aspecta brand, with partnerships established with several school districts around the country, including a new one coming up in Wisconsin soon.

Aspecta’s Mahen says, “The big thing is we’re always changing, and we’re always open for suggestions on our collections,” adding that the firm is focused on being responsive to suggestions from school districts. And in terms of sustainability, in addition to EPDs and HPDs, its products come with Declare labels.

Novalis, a major resilient player with production in Asia and the U.S., goes to the commercial market under the Ava brand. Ava’s biggest commercial segments are multifamily and hospitality, followed by education (mostly K-12) and healthcare.

The firm has developed some collections specifically for K-12, a market it has been targeting over the last decade with color and design, including Sprk and more recently 2Sprk, a 38-SKU line with a lot of colorful options. Jeremy Whipple, vice president of commercial for Novalis, contends that it’s the biggest K-12 LVT collection in the market.

The firm also came out with a new LVT collection last year, a sparkly and colorful line called Orbt that it originally targeted at retail but now is finding traction in education and healthcare. Most of its LVT is used in classrooms, corridors and multipurpose spaces. The firm also sells some sheet vinyl to the segment.

According to Whipple, the firm’s Amp biobased, scratch-resistant finish, developed about six years ago, is a significant differentiator, offering more flexibility than many of the finishes out there that can be more like a hardened shell. The firm can also do custom colors on current designs for a 4,000-square-foot minimum.

Gerflor, a French resilient flooring producer with U.S. headquarters in Bolingbrook, Illinois, offers both commercial and sports flooring in the U.S. market, and its biggest commercial sector is education. Also part of the larger Gerflor family are two sister companies, Connor Sports and Sport Court, that serve the U.S. market. Connor makes wooden gym floors, including all the courts in March Madness through the Final Four championship. Sport Court makes interlocking polypropylene tiles, mostly for outdoors (The pickleball craze has boosted sales, and Sport Court even came out with a tile specially designed for the new sport.) And earlier this year Gerflor acquired Stage Step, a dance floor company based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Most of Gerflor’s revenues from the K-12 segment come from Taraflex, a line of cushioned resilient rolled goods that are specified in K-8 in cafeterias and multi-purpose rooms (“cafegymatoriums”), but the bigger volume comes from its use across K-12 as sports flooring-it’s the official surface for NCAA volleyball.

In addition, Gerflor’s LVT is used in K-12, as are its interlocking tiles-Attraction and Creation Connect are the ones mostly commonly used-which can be easily installed over existing flooring like VCT or concrete.

Pennsylvania-based Ecore is best known for its vulcanized rubber floors, black or speckled, made out of recycled truck tires. A lot of its volume is with those traditional products, but growing much faster are the products that come out of the firm’s Itstru technology, debuted a decade ago, that fuses its recycled rubber backing to just about any soft or hard surface top, from carpet to resilient flooring.

Post-consumer recycled content for these products ranges from 68% for Baller, a product in demand for high-impact mixed use spaces-an assembly hall in the morning, a basketball court in the afternoon-to 55% for products like HydrGrip, a new homogeneous sheet product with grit applied.

Late last year, the firm introduced a performance vinyl tile that should do well in K-12, called Heritage Motivate, with 5mm of vulcanized rubber with a vinyl cap. According to the firm, it offers cushioning and great sound absorption and is easily repairable over time.

Primary school is all about primary colors, and neutral stone looks dominate over wood looks-throughout K-12, wood looks are less common than they are in other commercial segments. K-12 is about “designing with color,” says Randa Dean, Shaw Contract’s director of education and government.
In the higher grades, school colors are more important. Most manufacturers offer custom color programs, with varying minimums.

In high school, design starts to emulate higher education looks, in the same way that university design looks toward corporate design. There are more biophilic designs in biophilic colors, and there are more wood looks, too.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Engineered Floors, LLC, Interface, The American Institute of Architects, Tarkett, Novalis Innovative Flooring, Marazzi USA, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., HMTX, American Olean, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills, Crossville, Daltile