Trends in Education: Designers focus on durability and flexibility


By Heather Osteen


Construction and renovation spending in the education market hasn’t increased the way many had hoped it would post-recession. Spending in higher education, where institutions are competing for students’ tuition dollars, has been more active than K-12, where the infrastructure is exhausted even as enrollments are rising, but both markets have been sluggish over the last year. 

Construction starts indicate, however, that both are expected to gain strength moving ahead, activity that will likely begin impacting the flooring industry in 2015. 
It is enlightening t o consider the vast size of the education market. As of the 2010-2011 school year, there were more than 98,000 public schools in the U.S. and over 7,000 universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Interestingly, 2011 also marked the point at which the U.S. population had doubled in size since 1950, from 152.3 million people to 308.7 million people, says The Changing Demographic Profile of United States, a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service.

In that time, however, our nation’s public K-12 school facilities have remained relatively unchanged. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that, as of 1998, the average public school building in the U.S. was 42 years old, and 28% were built before 1950. We can still safely conclude, then, that many school buildings are aged facilities, operating under a heavy student load. 

The increasing enrollment won’t be reversed anytime soon. According to the U.S. Department of Education, school enrollments will continue to rise through the year 2021. The department predicts that public elementary enrollment will increase 7% and public secondary enrollment will rise by 5% between 2012 and 2021. “Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2012 to 2021,” reads a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

There is hope that funding for K-12 education may be increasing once again, but that is not the case according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The report titled “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession” and dated May 20, 2014 says, “States’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago—often far less.The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession but also continued austerity in many states; indeed, despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year with less state funding than they had last year. At a time when states and the nation are trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, this decline in state educational investment is cause for concern.”

The report goes on to take a closer look at funding at the state level, finding that at least 35 states are providing less funding per student for the coming school year than they did before the recession, with 14 of those states cutting funding by more than 10% per student. The report also found that, in instances where funding has increased, the increase has not been enough to compensate for cuts in past years, offering the example of New Mexico, which “is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.” 

Needless to say, the K-12 education world is having to do more with less, which necessitates that designers create durable and flexible spaces to accommodate the varying needs that schools have in the present and future.

In spite of all the challenges in education funding, the sheer size of the U.S. education market makes it the largest sector of new non-residential construction from a spending perspective, according to the 2014 Dodge report. New construction of K-12 schools is more common in parts of the country where populations are increasing at a higher rate, like Texas and Colorado, according to Market Insights LLC.


Because higher education gets a large portion of its funding from tuition and endowments, the investment activity of the higher education market can differ greatly from elementary and secondary education. While K-12 students are typically limited with regard to what public elementary and secondary schools they can attend, university students have the opportunity to choose from many, so, out of necessity, institutions of higher education must stay ahead of their competition, updating facilities on a regular basis to keep their look fresh and attractive.

Often, funding for construction projects in higher education comes from endowments, explains Carol Stolt, senior associate with FGM Architects in Chicago, Illinois. And according to Market Insights, the continuing upward trend of the economy and stock market gains have revitalized endowments, providing colleges and universities with a financial boost. As a result of this liquid capital, higher education is typically more open to a wider variety of flooring options than K-12, including those that are more expensive.

For instance, Amber Lake with MHTN Architects says that even though VCT is still used in some back-of-the house university spaces, products with a higher up-front cost—and, consequently, more visual appeal—like carpet tile, porcelain and stained concrete are specified for areas that serve as the face of the campus. 


As enrollments continue to increase, designers are tasked with creating facilities that will endure and offer flexibility, spaces that can be converted into multiple types of learning environments to extend the lifecycle of existing construction.

“Flexibility and versatility are some of the biggest drivers in making flooring decisions for the K-12 environment,” says Dina Sorensen, designer with VMDO Architects in Charlottesville, Virginia, an education-focused firm doing most of its work in pre-K through 12th grade public education. Design also has to be sustainable, according to Sorensen, and it must perform for many years and also provide an environment that is healthy for students both physically and intellectually.

Amber Lake, an interior designer with MHTN Architects in Salt Lake City, Utah, adds that the three drivers on every K-12 job are affordability, intent to design and durability. And she points out that value engineering is a key to K-12 work today. 

Wendy Watts, vice president of Chicago’s CannonDesign, says the flexibility of a design is key to creating user-friendly spaces for students: “Raising students’ test scores means offering them specialized spaces that perform. Floor products have to be able to handle what’s being taught in the classroom…dry, clean, wet, messy, the floor products have to handle it all, then convert back to a nice, clean space for next period.”

Watts adds, “A space that is a classroom one day might become a studio or a gallery the next, or even exp and into two rooms and become a science fair.” Education accounts for 29% of the CannonDesign Chicago’s work.

According to the 2014 Dodge Report, education facilities are expected to be a booming market for sustainable construction and renovation. Says Sorensen, “We look at both human health and ecological factors at the beginning of every design process. We consider not only the end product and the ingredients over time, but the origins of resources and the total cost of an investment in a product.” 

The designers with whom we spoke minimize the use of VCT in their designs because of concerns about potential health and environmental hazards. In addition, VCT requires waxing, involving harsh chemicals that can exacerbate conditions like asthma and allergies. And though VCT may be inexpensive on the front end, products that require less maintenance are often more cost effective in the long term. 

According to Lake, however, VCT is often specified for K-12 installations because it’s hard for many, considering the current state of funding in education, to swallow a higher initial cost. In addition, VCT offers a wide variety of color choices and can be custom cut, making it a good choice for creating the sort of bright, graphic patterns often found on elementary schools floors.

Stolt says that the decision to choose green materials sometimes comes down to the simple matter of educating clients on the long-term value of an alternative hard surface product like LVT. Stolt says, “It’s durable, it’s easy to maintain, and from a wellness perspective, you’ve cut the whole chemical interaction [from waxing] out of the cycle.” Seventy percent of FGM’s work is in the education market, and the bulk of that is in K-12. “I see LVT displacing VCT [in the education construction market], and LVT manufacturers continue to work on reducing VOCs, so LVT is getting better and better,” says Stolt. 

Stolt uses LVT that has a sustainable story, and she cautions that designers have to approach sustainability from a pragmatic point of view. She adds, “Look at the whole story of the LVT product, and at the overall sustainability goal of the project and how flooring fits into that goal.” 

Rubber is a flooring material that the designers with whom we spoke consider an excellent choice for K-12 environments. “It doesn’t have to be waxed. It has some absorbency. It’s slip-resistant, and it’s a great material to use in a space where carpet isn’t an option,” explains CannonDesign’s Watts. However, she adds, “Rubber is three times more expensive than VCT,” so it’s a difficult material to specify when budgets are tight.

In the ’80s and ’90s, VCT was preferred over carpet because it was considered a smarter maintenance choice, but today, Watts says, there’s a growing comfort level with carpet, primarily because clients can see that maintenance—especially with carpet tile—is easier now than ever before. In addition, a lot of carpet products have a great sustainability story. 

All the designers with whom we spoke prefer carpet tile to broadloom for education specifications. Watts adds, “You can’t beat the cleanability [of carpet tile], or the ability to swap it out should something go wrong.” And carpet tile offers a softness and quietness that’s tough to beat in a school setting—a good choice for both sound absorption and comfort, affording clarity of speech which is especially important for primary schools, ESL students and those with special needs.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, through the first four months of this year, the overall value of education construction put in place—completed projects ready for use—was down by 2.6% compared to the same period last year. However, according to Reed Construction Data, education construction starts through May are up by 11.2% compared to January through June of last year. So, although the completed project numbers may look grim, construction starts indicate that there’s improvement on the horizon.

In 2013, total education spending for state and local construction put in place, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $60.5 billion. Of that, the largest percentage, 60%, went into K-12, followed by higher education with 36% of the total. The remainder was spent on other educational facilities, like libraries. 

Educational construction spending from 2008 to 2013 also tells an interesting story. The total expenditure for 2008 was $84.5 billion, but this number declined through 2013 all the way down to $60.5 billion.  


Mapping and wayfinding are important tools as schools expand to accommodate ever-larger numbers of students. Says Sorensen, “The trend is to optimize the positive effects of creating smaller groups of learning communities within the larger context of the mega-school (900+ students).” Flooring can often assist in this goal, with little or no added cost. 

For example, the floor plan may be divided into different wings with differently colored or patterned flooring that serves as a means of guiding students through the facility. Color-coding and use of shapes is especially helpful to ESL learners, children who cannot yet read and students with special needs. 

Sorensen says, “Kids have sophisticated and sharply focused aesthetic responses that I consider when designing—the flooring is not a separate element…both wayfinding and active navigation patterns can promote movement, walking, stair use, playing and learning. When I go into a school [I’ve designed], and I see the children happy, responding positively to their environment, then I consider it a job well done.” 

Utilizing flooring as part of the learning process, and even integrating it into the curriculum as a way of repeating concepts and ideas for students, is taking hold in education design as well. Lake and her firm are currently working on Utah’s new Mount Jordan Middle School, which will be a STEAM school (one that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math), and the patterns on the floor will relate directly to what the students will be learning in the classroom. 

The school will feature colorful waterjet cut designs in VCT. The main entryway of the school features an abstract of the Vitruvian man, relating to math and science. The seventh grade wing will have protons and DNA symbols as part of the flooring design. The eighth grade wing, connected to the music and arts areas of the school, will include flooring depicting a musical staff and notes that roll into an illustration of how a nucleus works. 

New formats and sizes can make the design of such floors easier to envision and undertake. Stolt says she has seen the flooring options for education explode, “The design industry has been asking for that for years, and the patterns we can create are endless.” As Stolt explains, “The industry has truly come out of the box. Designers are no longer tied to the square and can utilize hexagons, long-length planks, and small and large rectangles alongside squares.”

Technology plays an important role in education. However, the designers creating today’s technology spaces want to move beyond stationary rows of computers into something that enables students to interact and collaborate, using technology to support and enhance these interactions. 

Lake explained that, through observation of high school students in a prototype learning lab, her firm learned that students can be even more successful when they have the opportunity to work in more than one way. Lake described the findings: “All the spaces were moveable, writeable, malleable. Technology included flat screens, interactive devices on mobile stands and projection, but the technology in use didn’t drive the success of the students in the space.” Lake explains that the students spent more time talking and writing—on a glass wall or white board, for instance—than they did utilizing the technology. 

Watts adds that technology spaces have to be flexible, not only for the technology of today but also for what develops tomorrow. She adds, “No matter what design renovations are made today, as soon as technology changes, that technology space will have to be changed accordingly.”

Libraries are a good place for schools to invest money allocated for renovations, explains Watts, because they can double as a technology center. “There’s a trend towards talking about core educational environments, seminar space, all the way from kindergarten to university…and you can’t ignore the technology element in the room, because it’s much more than another tool to use in the learning environment. So a lot of attention is spent on libraries. Libraries benefit everyone.”

The designers with whom we spoke are doing their best with current budgets. Lake summed this sentiment up: “My design philosophy is about making a difference in someone else’s life. Environment influences behavior, and I feel like we have a huge responsibility to make the school spaces comfortable and functional.”


Flooring can play a truly vital role in the design of a school where students have special physical or mental needs. Lake discussed the design for the new Vista Education Campus in the Davis School District of Farmington, Utah. The school was designed for students with varying levels of special needs from ages 15 to 35. Says Lake, “It was such an honor to design [the school] and yet such a challenge. We wanted to make a difference in the students’ lives.” 

The school was separated into three sections to serve different levels of needs. Acoustics were of great importance in all areas, as were concerns about falling. Stained concrete was specified for the entryways. This transitioned into carpet tile for the sake of acoustics. Thick rubber flooring was used in the activity area, and in spaces that wheelchair-bound students would frequent. 

Patterns and colors had to be considered carefully, as visual stimulation could be a hazard for some students.

Copyright 2014 Floor Focus 




Related Topics:U.S. Census Bureau