Higher Education Update: Flooring plays a role in setting a tone, and thereby winning students, on higher education campuses - May 2022

By Jessica Chevalier

Higher education is at an inflection point. Across the country, college campuses closed amid the pandemic, with students transitioning to remote learning. With Covid now waning and vaccines readily available, campuses have re-opened, but enrollments have not bounced back. As a result, the battle for students has intensified, and interiors play a significant role in catching the eye of prospects, both in terms of attracting students and their parents initially and also building the kind of school spirit that keeps them committed-and donating-for years to come.

At the same time, as we have seen across all vertical sectors, the pandemic changed priorities with regard to flooring specification. Maintenance programs were re-assessed with cleaning regimens increased. And, in the face of increased cleaning, durability became even more important.

Add to that the increased appreciation for the safety of home that was, in a sense, re-discovered amid the pandemic; today’s dorms must communicate the comfortable shelter of home, while also withstanding the wear-and-tear of the college crowd. And this comfort isn’t just the physical and aesthetic, it also relates to the comfort of knowing a space is healthy regarding indoor air quality and supportive of mental health, which can be negatively impacted by poor acoustics and the like. Add this up, and flooring products face a stiff line of boxes to check to win specification on today’s college campuses.

The cost of college has risen dramatically in recent decades, and the Covid pandemic-coinciding with record-high job openings-may have led some students to re-assess its value. “Total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1% from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6%-or 1,205,600 students,” reported The New York Times in a January 2022 article.

“Even before the pandemic, college enrollment was declining nationally as the number of college-age students leveled off,” the article notes. “At the same time, high tuition costs discouraged prospective domestic students, and the highly polarizing immigration debate drove away international students.

“That decline then accelerated steeply when Covid-19 forced many classes online and restricted campus life. The economic disruption caused by the pandemic also forced many prospective college students into the workplace.”

Interestingly, community colleges, which are more affordable and generally fare well in periods of economic turmoil, were hit the hardest. “Tens of thousands of students, many of them low-income, were forced to delay school or drop out because of the pandemic and the economic crisis it has created,” the article notes. “The new data showed that enrollment in community colleges was down 13.2%, or 706,000 students, compared with 2019.”

With so much uncertainty in the air, early-stage remodeling and building projects were generally put on hold across higher education campuses. “The overall health of higher ed was not good,” says Denis Darragh, general manager North America/Asia for Forbo. “There were a lot of projects on hold with all the disruption of where students would be. The overall market was subdued but is now coming back. The projects that were on hold are now moving forward.”

J+J’s Brandon Kersey, director of business development, notes. “We saw [the market] slow down for part of 2020, but since then, it has been very robust.”

With the increase in activity has come a new pandemic-inspired outlook on how a university must function. “The segment started to rebound faster than expected in mid-2021, and institutions found themselves needing to be nimble as they adapted to the shifting landscape and the need for enhanced maintenance protocols,” reports Paula Meason, marketing activation manager for Interface. “Today, we are seeing a lot of interest in resilient flooring from campuses that are looking to articulate what distinctive benefits set them apart from other institutions.”

Across the university campus, the buildings, grounds and interior environments serve as a visual representation of the school’s brand, promoting unity and pride, says Meason. “Flooring plays a prominent role in school branding, as it can be used to celebrate pride through the strategic use of branded colors, patterns and even logo designs,” the marketer notes. This manifests across the different space on a college campus in varied ways.

Because higher education campuses are sprawling communities with a wide variety of facilities with highly differentiated needs and uses, manufacturers often consider them as three zones: athletic, academic and student life. How siloed these three zones are in the university’s eyes often relates to the size of the school. In small private colleges, a single facilities manager may oversee all the entities, but in large universities, they may operate more independently.

Of course, the needs within these varied zones are highly differentiated. Athletic facilities need high-performance flooring, and it is often highly branded to make a big statement of school pride. This includes rubber for weightlifting and gym zones, hardwood for courts, and carpet and resilient for office and administration spaces. “Athletics is about durable product and a visual that ties to the university more than anything,” notes Darragh. “They want good product that is application-suitable, but the differentiator is whether you can create their vision.”

Academic facilities also have a wide variety of spaces and, therefore, a wide variety of needs-carpet for auditorium spaces; vinyl or hardwood for classrooms; rubber for lab spaces; carpet, hardwood or LVT for offices. Says Shaw’s Randa Thayer, director of government and higher education, “These are areas where we elevate sophistication,” noting that the influence of hospitality is often visible in these zones.

And student life requires home-inspired materials for dormitories as well as a variety of highly durable and often branded materials for student union, dining and amenity spaces.

Importantly, accordingly to Thayer, these different zones should work together to create a unified aesthetic. While the zones may be distinct, they should not feel disparate, so though athletics may be more in-your-face with branding and school colors, administration office design may instead use those tones as accents in a carpet tile with a more neutral field.

Some flooring manufacturers focus on serving one or two zones with their offering; some cater to all of them. One thing that unites all the zones is that they must look their best all the time. Prospective students tour college campuses frequently, without forewarning to maintenance teams, so there is no time to prepare. Looking good must simply be the status quo.

When it became standard for universities to have an office of sustainability on campus, their initial focus was generally on things like setting up campus-wide recycling programs and reducing water and energy consumption. With those programs now established and paths forged, many are turning to more substantial endeavors, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints, tracking indoor air quality and taking a holistic look at material choices and end-of-life options. “The recycling of flooring material is very important,” says Stanley, “but the impact that has on an overall carbon footprint is more important when you understand all of the science. Universities are looking to do business with manufacturers they align with regarding transparency.”

“Sustainability, once an added bonus, is now seen as mandatory criteria,” says Gluibizzi. “The new generations coming to colleges are very aware of these things.”

In fact, according to Goss, over 700 university presidents have signed Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments with Second Nature, a nonprofit focused on accelerating climate action in, and through, higher education.

Amid the pandemic, one factor that greatly impacted budgets was the lack of monies generated by housing. Housing, a component of student life, is a significant revenue stream for universities, reports Jonathan Stanley, national vice president of education sales for Tarkett. With students off campus amid the pandemic, this pinched purse strings greatly. And in pulling students back, it is more important than ever that housing spaces offer appeal.

“Many universities are looking to modernize their housing facilities because that is a very influential factor in the school selection process,” says Meason.

Where universities are willing to invest in design is largely about putting the best foot forward. Those priorities can change from one university to the next. For instance, universities with significant athletic programs, such as Penn State, will invest more in those spaces than a college that doesn’t have a strong sports identity, such as Harvard. “‘Customer-facing’ is really broader than it once was, and, as the father of an incoming college freshman, my perception of schools is heavily based on the environment and ‘vibe’ of all the facilities that constitute the student experience,” says Kersey.

“Another location that universities are focused on more than ever is the library, which offers a variety of spaces for both social and educational interactions, while also providing options for different learning styles,” says Meason. “In these spaces, universities are still opting for carpet tile in quiet zones; however, resilient flooring is being used in shared spaces meant for gathering to set a different tone for conversation.”

Katie Gluibizzi, senior designer for Armstrong, notes two main trends emerging from the pandemic that are impacting higher education design: first, a preference for comforting environments with warm and inviting design elements to keep students motivated to learn successfully, and second, the creation of inclusive spaces, communicating the idea that everything is for everyone.

The comfort trend, according to Gluibizzi, leans into color and texture to create a nurturing environment. Biophilia is a part of this, and that can be achieved through the utilization natural or nature-inspired aesthetics as well as through the senses of smell, touch and hearing. The designer notes that the creation of floorplans that include more-private nooks and comfortable spaces is a part of this trend. “Combining different flooring collections that feature neutrals and textures can achieve wayfinding and zoning while also bringing nature in,” she says.

And inclusion is an important focus for many higher education providers, says Gluibizzi. This includes utilizing colors that break away from gender stereotypes and also incorporating design supportive of diversity and neurodiversity. In other words, a school’s environment should not divide but unite.

Elizabeth Bonner, Mohawk Group’s director design segment–healthcare/senior living, education/government, and resilient, agrees, noting that university environments have seen a spike in student depression and mental health issues amid the pandemic due, in part, to their loss of community, and it’s important that spaces offer the warmth of home and inclusion, while also offering security through cleanability.

Along with that, with Covid-related wayfinding and social distancing signage coming down, Bonner reports that there has been an uptick in requests with wayfinding incorporated into flooring products and design.

In addition, she notes, “Universities have to keep versatility in mind. The pandemic caused the need for solo spaces. The classrooms of the future will accommodate coming together for collaboration and the ability to pull apart when necessary.” The proliferation of technology has impacted that trend as well. “Even students on campus today are doing a lot of virtual interaction. Spaces have to support technology.”

Adds Meason, “With technology playing a larger role in higher education learning and schools shifting toward offering more virtual courses, schools are integrating more community spaces within residential buildings for group study and collaboration, hands-on learning and more. These areas have a co-working-inspired design with flexible and attractive spaces to accommodate different kinds of events and meetings.”

With all this in mind, LVT has been a big winner in student life. “We can’t get it into spaces fast enough. Universities can put it in a space, maintain it, and it will perform well,” says Bonner.

“LVT and rubber flooring remain great options for communal spaces due to durability and ease of maintenance, while carpet tile remains a fit for private spaces due to its warm, comforting aesthetic,” says Meason. “Overall, we’re seeing a large shift toward an integrated flooring system that supports space-specific objectives.”

Cyndie Goss, senior director of education segment strategy at Mohawk Group, notes that the use of LVT in dorms also enables students to further customize the space with an area rug, adding a bit of personalization and home-like comfort.

Of course, looking good on day one is expected but not nearly enough. “It doesn’t matter if the floor looks pretty initially,” says Bonner. “It has to keep looking pretty, and it has to take a beating.”

“The biggest thing we saw out of the pandemic was a focus on hygiene,” says Darragh. “How do you clean a material and keep it disinfected? We had to be ready when the students came back-that was the drive on the student life side.”

Meanwhile, with such a focus on attracting students, the lifecycle of flooring materials may not be extended as far as it once was. “There is the mindset that we will change the dorm flooring out every seven years to keep it fresh,” says Darragh.

At community colleges, on the other hand, renovations are often few and far between. Says Goss, “They are looking for 15 years out of a floor.”

The CARES Act for pandemic relief included monies for both higher education and K-12. On the higher education side, the funding was called Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER). According to Stanley, “When people were making decisions about HEER money, they started to think differently about how to manage the health of a building, because the funding brought in functions of indoor air quality, transmission of infection and acoustics.” In addition, the funding had to be spent on a timeline.

“The pandemic drove how universities make decisions financially and also, interestingly, the same people who make decisions about flooring make decisions about and carry out the duties of building safety,” continues Stanley, adding that HEER put universities under pressure to be financially cognizant of every small decision. “With so much uncertainly about transmission of Covid in the early months, university facilities teams were hungry for good science around their specification choices and more aware of the fact that these choices impacted the health outcome of each space.”

According to Stanley, “When the pandemic hit, sustainability didn’t really drive how products were selected, and then indoor air quality surfaced as an important part of lifecycle cost. But the facilities teams don’t understand how to specify flooring based on indoor air quality. Facilities people are good at numbers and data. They are attuned to data-driven decision making.”

Furthermore, in March, President Biden launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge to improve ventilation and reduce the spread of Covid-19 in buildings, focused on improving facilities as Americans move past the pandemic and back into their “normal” routines. As part of the challenge, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a best practices guide for improving indoor air quality and reducing the risk of spreading dangerous airborne particles. While the challenge doesn’t address flooring directly, as such a large surface in a space, it certainly contributes to the total outlook for indoor air quality. In addition, Stanley reports that higher education specifiers are seeking walk-off solutions to reduce particulate matter in their spaces. Capture of particulates at entries can also help preserve the life of flooring materials throughout the space, and walk-off flooring materials are often used as an opportunity for branding, which is very important to universities.

Facilities teams seek concrete data to support their flooring decisions and maintenance programs. Tarkett utilizes the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s certification program, which looks at total emissions, particulate matter and maintenance criteria. The firm includes that and all material data and certifications as part of its Floorprint program, which offers specifiers and facilities teams a single location source for production information.

Maintaining flooring materials correctly over the long term is key to keeping them looking and performing well for years to come. Often, this involves not only educating a team initially but time and again while the product is in place. Stanley reports that one of his reps recently retrained a facilities team on caring for a Tarkett Powerbond carpet installation that had been down for 25 years.

“It’s about the products combined with cleaning practices and having those aligned,” says Darragh. “We encourage putting test floors in and cleaning it the way they intend, to ensure performance. That’s the best way.” Forbo’s Flotex, for instance, is a good fit for both student life and athletics, the company says, due to its ability to be branded with school colors, its acoustic properties, its durability and its cleanable, soft surface. However, bleach cannot be used on Flotex, so if a university insists on using bleach as a cleaner, Forbo will steer them away from that product completely.

Thayer notes that a big piece of what Shaw Contract’s higher education account managers were doing through the pandemic was being a resource with regard to the sanitation of flooring materials. “We have seen plenty of folks utilize the wrong cleaning materials, especially through Covid, and ruin floors,” she says.

With regard to student life spaces, the college campus has a good deal in common with multifamily housing, so products built to manage acoustics for these properties are generally good fits for student housing as well.

However, this is another situation in which a test floor can provide critical data. Impact Insulation Class (IIC) ratings reveal a material’s sound properties within the controlled and standardized setting of the test. This provides an idea of how a floor will perform in a real life setting as well as a means of comparing one product to another, but situational factors, including subfloor construction, create variation, so a true deduction can only be made with the flooring in place.

Copyright 2022 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Interface, Tarkett, Armstrong Flooring, Mohawk Industries