Trends in Education: Market analysis, trends and manufacturer updates

By Calista Sprague


After a period of contraction, the U.S. education construction market stabilized in 2014, growing 1% to $78 billion, according to Market Insights LLC. This year got off to a slow start, actually declining by 1% through April. But manufacturers report that the market is warming up with education projects moving into the pipeline, and they have high hopes to parlay the pent-up demand into strong summer sales.

There is no shortage of projects that need to be done. Schools stretched thin for renovation dollars put off work as long as possible, and now that the economy is stronger, in many cases the facility needs can no longer be ignored. Also, school rosters are burgeoning, forcing many systems to build new facilities or expand old ones. This is good news for flooring manufacturers and distributers that sell to the education market.

Everyone agrees that the education market for 2014 was fairly flat, but predictions for 2015 are mixed. The FMI Construction Outlook calls for a conservative 3% expansion in 2015, while McGraw Hill Construction predicts 9%. So far the actual numbers have been disappointing, but most manufacturers are now seeing increased activity, with some posting strong numbers. And everyone looks forward to a vigorous building season, which typically runs from June to September, when many schools are not in session.

Education took a big hit during the economic downturn that started in 2008. Although privately funded sectors like corporate and hospitality have bounced back in the past few years, publically funded sectors like education and healthcare have been slower to recover. Cash strapped community members voted down bond issues, halting school construction projects across the country for a protracted time. Last year finally brought stabilization to the education market, and many forecasted a big year for 2015 based on the stronger economy and growing demand.

Spending in education is expected to tick up this year, but not to pre-recession levels. While it is indisputable that there is plenty of pent-up demand and the tax base has increased, numerous states and local municipalities still deal with persistent budget shortfalls, forcing some school districts and public colleges to struggle on meager budgets. Many schools are either taking on smaller projects or continuing to put construction off altogether. 

Higher education has fared better than K-12, since so many private dollars support the segment. Once the stock market rebounded, private schools and public institutions with private support resumed construction projects, keeping the segment viable. Also, higher education enrollment soared as employment plummeted, because many workers went back to school for additional education experience to bolster their resumes. 

Since a large percentage of college and university budgets comes from student tuition, institutions vie for top students—often described as fierce competition—and campus buildings have become major marketing tools, especially student unions and dormitories. Even, and perhaps especially in economic downturns, schools can’t afford to let their facilities look worn or out of date, so making regular refurbishments is almost mandatory.

Paradoxically, however, the economy is now rebounding and many college students have gone back to work, dropping enrollment, so even some higher education budgets remain tighter than in pre-recession years. 

The bright spot is that some areas of the country have rebounded and are investing in their schools. The manufacturers who are experiencing strong growth this year have likely tapped into states with healthier budgets, like Ohio, Georgia, Texas and several Northeastern states, or they are doing a strong business in higher education, especially with private schools, where expansion has been more robust. 

And the future beyond 2015 looks bright as well. FMI estimates U.S. school enrollment will increase by 2.5 million students in the next four years. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population is currently growing at the rate of an additional person every 13 seconds, up from one every 15 seconds last year. These new people have to be educated, and with so many already overcrowded schools and aging facilities, money will have to be reallocated for expansions and improvements in the coming months and years.

Teaching methods are changing, and as a result, the spaces for learning are changing as well. Education today is more collaborative and interactive, so classrooms need areas to accommodate large group, small group and one-on-one teaching styles. Much like the corporate sector, school systems are designing buildings with larger, more open spaces for flexible use. 

Modularity is the new buzzword in flooring, allowing designers to create spaces that can be used in a multitude of ways. Many manufacturers are creating modular systems in soft surface and resilient that allow designers to create large-scale patterns for the new open spaces, and also set off areas for small group or individual work. Some savvy manufacturers have created crossover modular collections in which colors and formats coordinate between soft and hard surface for seamless transitions from one space to another. 

Some communities are also building schools with the idea that the building may not house a school forever. With shifting demographics, a school may become a municipal building for community events or public offices 20 or 30 years down the road, so modularity is built into the space, down to the flooring with movable carpet tile and click-installation resilient. 

Evidence based design is another hot trend in education construction, so architects and designers are paying more attention to spaces and finishes that are conducive to learning and child development. As in corporate offices, floor plans now allow for more natural light in the classrooms, which is better for the students and also helps districts save on electricity bills. 

Research is affecting color as well. Bright colors, especially primary colors, are still prevalent in elementary schools, but starting around grade four, more soothing, neutral colors and less busy patterns are being specified, especially in classrooms, to help students focus more readily. The bold school colors may be proudly displayed in the main entrance, for example, but softer, greyed versions appear in the classrooms. 

The use of LVT is changing the aesthetic of many schools as well, bringing in wood, stone and concrete looks. And some areas of the country, like the West, have a tendency to bring nature indoors through earthy colors and nature inspired patterns in lieu of the traditional bright color palette.

Higher education is a different animal from K-12. Colleges and universities have always competed for students, but the stakes have been raised since the recession. Student housing and student unions are now built to impress with sophisticated looks and high-end finishes in the hopes of luring potential students. 

Whereas dormitories once sported one or two colors of VCT, now the facilities are more akin to apartment complexes, replete with a kitchenette, a couple of bathrooms, separate bedrooms and more of a residential look for its floors. 

More and more often, hard surface is going into these spaces, especially LVT. The hardwood looks give a high-end feeling of home, but with low maintenance requirements. Carpet tile is also on the rise in these spaces, while VCT has virtually disappeared. 

Throughout the campus, design is becoming less institutional and more sophisticated with the use of more wood and stone looks, and stylish carpet designs. 

Branding is also important in the higher education market, and more schools are using flooring to reinforce their brand throughout their buildings. The incorporation of school colors is common, and many commercial floors can be customized to incorporate school mascots or medallions. 

Similar to healthcare, flooring for the education sector must perform in a highly abusive environment. In the lower grades, scuffing and soiling pose the greatest threat, while in the upper grades and higher education, increased foot traffic causes constant wear. 

In addition to withstanding abuse, educational flooring must possess a long lifecycle, especially for K-12. Tight budgets don’t allow the luxury of short replacement cycles. Higher education cycles tend to be between seven and ten years, while K-12 holds on for ten to 15 years or even longer. Manufacturers report that flooring in K-12 schools goes down and generally stays down until the next major renovation, which could be anywhere from 10 to 30 or more years. 

When choosing flooring, school districts are becoming savvier, looking at total lifecycle cost rather than basic upfront purchase price—in part due to dwindling maintenance budgets but also greater community pressure to be better stewards of local and state tax dollars. If a school has only $5 per square foot for total maintenance costs for the year, including the roof, paint, bathrooms and everything else and a different flooring could save $1 a square foot per year, it increases the maintenance budget by 20%. VCT has taken the biggest hit from this phenomenon, since it requires constant buffing and regular stripping and waxing. 

LVT and carpet tile have been the largest growth categories, despite their higher ticket price, and rubber flooring manufacturers say they have seen increased sales as well. The maintenance costs of these flooring types are far lower than VCT, and they still offer durability and longevity. 

Some districts remain focused on the initial bottom line, so VCT, while declining, is still being specified. Sheet vinyl is also used frequently in schools, along with linoleum. Ceramic is a small part of the education market at 16% of the total flooring in square feet. It is most often used for restroom and kitchen areas and is found more often in higher education than in K-12.

The Tarkett Group sells nearly a third of its hard and soft surface flooring into the education sector through its Johnsonite and Tandus Centiva brands. On the soft surface side, approximately a quarter of its commercial broadloom and a third of its carpet tile goes into the education-institutional segment. 

In the resilient categories, its LVT is expanding the fastest, with 10% of its commercial LVT currently going to the education sector, and 15% to 20% expected by 2018. LVT is mainly taking share from VCT, although VCT remains a strong category for Tarkett, and 40% of it goes into education settings. 

Education and healthcare are Johnsonite’s strongest segments, sharing similar performance requirements with a strong emphasis on durability, safety and maintenance. Color and design trends differ greatly between the segments, however. 

VCT and rubber are the two best selling products for Johnsonite in the education sector, particularly in K-12. In higher education, LVT and linoleum have been growing categories, used especially in student housing. 

Johnsonite reports that new construction floor plans for schools often include an open staircase. Its rubber stair treads and other accessories allow designers to continue the flow of color and design from the main flooring to the stairs. 

Schools, especially in higher education, are placing greater emphasis on sustainability and health issues. Johnsonite says its reclamation programs are used more frequently in education than in other segments. The Tarkett ReStart Reclamation and Recycle program, for example, has diverted more than 60 million pounds of post-consumer material from landfills since its inception.

Since so many students have allergies and spend more than 90% of their time indoors with closed HVAC systems and no ability to open windows, air quality is another important consideration for flooring. All of Johnsonite’s vinyl products are phthalate free, helping schools achieve asthma and allergy certifications. 

Another Tarkett brand, Tandus Centiva, offers commercial carpet and LVT for the education market, which represents approximately 30% of its overall commercial business. Its LVT category has been expanding, now specified for just about any education space except large restrooms and laboratories. 

In 2014, Tandus Centiva enjoyed steady growth, taking share within the education segment. After a slow start to 2015, sales are up again, and the brand continues to grow above market pace within the segment, according to the firm. 

Responding to the trend toward modularity in commercial settings, Tandus Centiva created Freeform, a floating soft surface floor that can be designed with numerous combinations of long narrow planks, rectangles and 6’ panels. Designers Suzanne Tick and Jhane Barnes have each designed Freeform collections that allow for mix and match patterns. Because the floors are floating, the modular pieces can be reconfigured to expand a classroom or to create a designated study area outside the main classroom space. 

Tandus Centiva says that performance is the number one criterion in the education market, and that deferred maintenance is a major consideration. Its soft surface Powerbond product offers an extremely low total cost of ownership, lasting in some cases more than 20 or 30 years. In fact, later this year one elementary school will celebrate 50 years of a single Powerbond installation.

Tandus Centiva is also dedicated to product transparency, with commitments to share its ingredients list through globally recognized third parties like EPDA and Cradle to Cradle certification. 

Education represents Forbo’s largest segment of business. Its combination of Marmoleum, a linoleum, and Flotex, a soft surface product, has been the mainstay of its business, specified for both K-12 and higher education. 

In higher education, Flotex has enjoyed “tremendous success” in dormitories, thanks to its high performance and cleanability in a soft surface product. Developed for senior living, Flotex is marketed as a resilient floor with a flocked nylon face, perfect for the abusive environment in college dorms. The company boasts dorm installations that are 20 to 30 years old. 

Marmoleum is sold in both sheet and modular tiles, and is used especially in areas where people need resilient performance but acoustics are an issue. In dormitories and K-12 hallways, for example, it offers substantial impact sound reduction, performing twice as well as traditional VCT. 

Forbo maintains its foothold against LVT by pointing out that education is a high scratch environment, where Marmoleum and Flotex fare better. Also, the products are both antimicrobial, making them suitable for dorms and locker rooms in higher education, where meningitis and other illnesses pose threats.

For K-12, budget is the biggest factor, and not just the budget for the original flooring purchase, but also for maintenance. Schools have been doing more with less, and that includes facility upkeep. Forbo products can save schools as much as 20% of their maintenance budget as compared to VCT, which requires regular stripping and waxing. 

Forbo continues to be a leader in the flooring industry with regard to sustainability. Its current drive is for increased transparency, especially for the education market, which is most concerned about the health of the building’s occupants. In addition to providing HPDs and EPDs for all its products, Forbo has also published multiple health and environmental documents that detail what goes into its products, the footprint created by the manufacturing process and its recycling efforts. 

Bentley’s biggest commercial segment is corporate, but 10% to 15% of its business is in higher education, a growing segment for the upper-end carpet producer. However, it does very little business in K-12. The company has been actively marketing to designers and facility managers in the higher education sector, and business expanded last year by low double digits, mainly from projects at private colleges and universities.

Approximately 70% of Bentley’s education sales are in broadloom and 30% in carpet tile, almost the opposite of the corporate sector. Its carpet tile tends to go into the business areas of colleges, such as the administrative offices, financial offices, IT and human resources, while the broadloom most often finds its way into libraries, media centers and student unions. Bentley does some carpet projects in dormitories, though many schools are opting for hard surface in dorms.

Although there are many similarities between higher education and corporate environments, Bentley says higher education requires longer lifecycles, typically 10 to 15 years. Styling tends to be more timeless than trendy so the carpet won’t look dated after a few years. The best selling products are neutrals and greys, although universities sometimes specify school colors for student union lobbies and locker rooms. 

Mannington provides an array of products to the education sector, including VCT, LVT, performance broadloom and carpet tile, rubber sheet and tile, wall base, and a small amount of porcelain tile. Approximately 18% to 20% of Mannington’s commercial business is in education, around 60% hard surface and 40% soft surface.

Education sales were up in 2014 by low single digits, on track with industry growth in the segment and fairly evenly split between higher education and K-12. 

LVT and carpet tile are currently Mannington’s biggest growth categories, replacing VCT and broadloom at all levels. Its LVT mainly goes into college dorm rooms and public spaces, offering more warmth than sterile VCT. And in K-12 LVT warms up public spaces, auditoriums, band rooms, libraries and corridors, often with a wood look. 

Mannington says that each school district is unique in its use of hard and soft surface. Some use only carpet, others only hard surface, and some prefer a mix, but all are concerned about performance and lifecycle. Mannington’s Amtico brand of LVT offers a 20-year warranty, doubling the standard ten years. 

A tremendous emphasis on indoor air quality has surfaced in both education and healthcare, Mannington says, and many schools are designing to LEED standards even if they don’t pursue certification. Mannington has published EPDs for four of its carpet platforms, soon to be five, and for all of its hard surface platforms. Its products contribute to multiple LEED credits, and it offers PVC free options both in hard surface and carpet. It also provides several closed-loop recycling initiatives for LVT, carpet and VCT.

Family owned carpet manufacturer J+J Flooring Group provides broadloom, carpet tile and its Kinetex textile composite tile (TCT) for the education sector. First introduced two years ago, TCT won a Silver award in the Hard Surface category of the Best of NeoCon this June. It’s a ravel-resistant knitted face fabric thermally fused to a high performance cushioned backing, touted for its improved acoustics, indoor air quality and anti-fatigue. It is durable, easy to clean, minimizes airborne particulates and reduces potential for slip and fall injuries, making it ideal for education environments. 

J+J also designed a new customizable modular carpet collection called Student Union that allows schools to easily incorporate their colors for branding in their buildings, a concept more schools are adopting. Its recent In Theory collection was designed especially for higher education, and Fiction and Non Fiction, while not designed specifically for education, were introduced last month and are expected to do well in the education market. 

Carpet tile is J+J’s leading category, due to its flexibility and ease of installation. Within the last six to seven years it has outsold broadloom in the education segment at 53%, going into just about every space from classrooms to public areas. 

J+J was GreenCircle Certified as a Zero Waste to Landfill manufacturer in June, recycling or repurposing all but 2% of its waste, the remainder of which is sent to a company that turns the waste into energy for the U.S. military. J+J also offers EPDs on all its standard Invision broadloom and modular products, and it publishes an annual sustainability report outlining its numerous green initiatives. 

Mohawk Group sees LVT as a major opportunity in the education market, and its recent acquisition of IVC will boost expansion in the category. In addition to LVT, Mohawk goes to the education market with tufted and woven broadloom, carpet tile, walkoff systems, rubber, and to a lesser extent, Dal-Tile ceramic tile. 

According to Mohawk, designers love LVT for its visuals, especially stone, wood and concrete, and end users appreciate the ease of maintenance. One of its newer products, designed with the K-12 segment in mind, is Matuto, a stained concrete look that comes in 15 colors, including several bright and bold options. Its LVT has also been selling well in higher education, although the aesthetic is more sophisticated, often with wood looks and neutral colors. 

Mohawk’s hard and soft surface products are designed to work together, so that the colors and looks coordinate, which is important in the larger, multi-use spaces of today’s schools. The latest carpet tile and broadloom collection, called Get Smart, coordinates with Matuto LVT, for example, offering expanded options for designers. 

On the sustainability front, Mohawk has partnered with International Living Future Institute, participating in its Living Building Challenge, a certification program on par with LEED. The program focuses more on transparency, offering Declare labels for designers and end users that reveal everything in the product and where it comes from. In addition to Declare labels, Mohawk also has EPDs and HPDs for many of its products, and is working on more.

Education is among Armstrong’s most important segments, and it goes to market with several products, including LVT, linoleum sheet and tile, VCT, vinyl sheet, bio-based tile (BBT), slip resistant tiles, static dissipative tile, hardwood and laminate.

Armstrong says that LVT is going into almost every education space except laboratories, which usually require its homogeneous sheet. Its linoleum sheet and VCT are also among its best sellers. In February, Armstrong introduced linoleum tile, and designers have responded positively to the additional flexibility for patterns and design.

Its BBT, 3% of which comes from renewable plant material, also does well in the education sector. Wood and laminate are used less frequently but are sometimes specified for higher education, in dorms with a country club feel or in top administrators’ offices. 

Parents, schools and communities at large are beginning to put more emphasis on the health impacts of building materials, and all Armstrong’s commercial resilient products are FloorScore certified and meet California requirements for low VOC emissions. 

In addition to health issues, schools are also going green to help trim operating costs. Armstrong recently determined, through research done by Penn State and written by a third party, that schools can reduce electric lighting costs up to 15% by using flooring with the right reflective qualities, which 75% of Armstrong’s products possess. 

Although the industry was fairly flat in education last year, Interface grew 5% to 6% in 2014 over the year before, and in the first five months of 2015, business expanded more than 20%. Education is just over 20% of its business, and is two-thirds higher education and one-third K-12. The gap is narrowing, however, as Interface has been making strides in the K-12 segment this year and is picking up momentum. 

Interface focuses solely on carpet tile and has created a unique value proposition with its random carpet tiles that allow designers and end users to merge lots, install with virtually no waste, and selectively replace damaged tiles for longer lifecycles. 

The company designs products specific to trends in the education market, and the Skinny Planks collections introduced last year, called Harmonize and Ground Waves, have been successful performers.

For many years Interface marketed the benefits of carpet tile over broadloom, but now, with the popularity of LVT, Interface has launched marketing that makes a case for modular carpet versus hard surface. Two of its main benefits reach the concerns of so many parents and teachers: air quality and noise. Interface makes the case that modular carpet traps particulates to be vacuumed up, whereas hard surfaces allow footfalls to push particulates back into the air. Soft surface helps dampen acoustics as well, making the environment more conducive to focus and study. 

Interface approaches sustainability in the schools as more of a partnership, raising awareness for the environment while marketing its products, but also offering teachers fodder for the classroom. The Net-Works program, which recycles old fishing nets in the Philippines and Cameroon, is one that teachers can use to talk about environmental responsibility and recycling in the context of other cultures. 

Education is one of Roppe’s largest market sectors. It mainly goes to market with rubber flooring, accessories and stair treads, as well as utility and sports flooring. 

Rubber offers safe, durable, quiet flooring with comfort underfoot, so Roppe enjoys steady activity in the education market, especially in K-12. Its Health and Learning Rubber Tile includes a new tone-on-tone color offering with coordinating rubber stair treads that has been well received.

The shift in the education market to focus on lifecycle costs rather than basic purchase costs has helped Roppe move into more schools, replacing VCT, which is more expensive to maintain. Some states have been more aggressive in their move away from VCT to rubber, including Ohio and Georgia, while others remain focused on upfront costs. 

About 15% of Shaw Contract Group’s commercial business is in the education sector, and it is fairly balanced between K-12 and higher education. The group sells carpet tile and broadloom, resilient sheet and tile, and some ceramic to schools. 

An in-house studio dedicated to the institutional market, including a designer focused on education, creates Shaw products specifically for the education market. A product called Cut and Compose gives back to education through donations of 1.5% to the Center for Green Schools’ Green Apple Initiative for the purpose of building healthier, more sustainable schools.

Although carpet continues to be a strong category, Shaw says that the use of hard surface in education is growing. The most dramatic shift, however, has been from VCT to LVT due to lower maintenance costs. 

Shaw Contract Group carpet has been Cradle to Cradle Silver Certified. In addition, products with EcoWorx backing and Eco Solution Q are registered through the Declare program for the Living Building Challenge, and many products have completed HPDs as well. 

One third of Flexco’s business is in education, and it had a strong year in 2014, with 11% to 12% growth, well above the industry average. 

The company sells rubber tile, solid vinyl, LVT and cove base in the education market, and it says that smooth rubber tile is its biggest mover, along with stone-look LVT. Schools have been more apt to look at total lifecycle cost, and are willing to pay a little more for Flexco’s rubber or LVT instead of VCT. Flexco also points out that when VCT is stripped, those caustic agents end up in the water system, which is bad for the environment. 

Flexco designs products with a dual purpose for healthcare and education, since the two have similar performance requirements. Delane, a new solid vinyl tile collection introduced at NeoCon, offers a flecked look with updated colors and a new size of 12”x24”.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Interface, Roppe, Mohawk Industries, Tarkett, Mannington Mills, Armstrong Flooring, Daltile, U.S. Census Bureau, Shaw Industries Group, Inc.