Trends in Higher Education: Flooring supports student preferences for learning - May 2017

By Jessica Chevalier

Millennials and Post-Millennials have inherently different modus operandi for learning and work than prior generations, and on university campuses today, flooring is being used as part of the design story to support this new approach. Here, components of many vertical sectors, both commercial and residential, come together-dining and communal spaces take cues from hospitality, gathering and lecture spaces look to the design leaders of Silicon Valley for inspiration, and dormitories are ever more residential-to support students in their educational endeavors.

Take the University of Tennessee’s (UT) renovated John C. Hodges Library as an example. While libraries have long been carpeted to promote the quiet associated with these study zones, UT’s renovated library features hard surface flooring as well, and that represents a significant divergence from the standard in the tone that it sets for the space. According to Dave Irvin, associate vice chancellor of facility services for the university, “In prior generations, the library was generally viewed as a warehouse for books. Now, it’s a place to access information and socialize. Ours includes the campus’ largest Starbucks, which is open 24/7, as well as a convenience store. There are parts of the library that aren’t quiet and have hard surface flooring. Many Millennials like that constant action and feel more comfortable studying there. Other parts of the library are quiet zones; these have carpet, are more homey and, overall, have a much different feel. When a student walks in, they can choose what zone they feel most comfortable in.”

At the heart of this change are concepts of personalization and flexibility. Students don’t want to have to change their methods to suit the space; they want spaces that configure to their methods, and to that end, a single space must have multiple zones embedded within it. Chalk it up to the availability and accessibility of information today, but these digital-since-birth generations have learned work doesn’t happen only at a desk in a quiet room. Literally and metaphorically, as we so often see in modern workplaces, walls have come down, and groupthink and collaborative learning are an important part of the higher education process today.

From a design standpoint, we see higher education taking cues from a variety of other sectors. “We are absolutely seeing a blurring of the sectors in higher education, especially influence from hospitality and corporate,” says Krista Easterly, designer at Bergmeyer Associates. “As in corporate, higher education institutions want their spaces to be more flexible. They don’t want a reading room, but a co-working space. They want an open-air group meeting room, where someone is sitting to the side with headphones working independently. They want rooms that offer more than one function. As in hospitality, we see materiality and finishes going higher end. The warmth and use of different types of finishes create a more residential feeling. Everything is blurring.”

Cameron Wilson, principal at LS3P Associates, agrees. “The feel of a college campus today is more hospitality-like,” says Wilson. “By 2025, Millennials will represent a huge percentage of the workplace. The generation is larger than Baby Boomers, and they dictate what will happen. What they want is a home away from home, a very comfortable, un-commercial environment. It has to function well but with built-in nooks for comfort, collaborative spaces, interesting spaces with a level of residential or hospitality design to them. The universities are trying to keep the students on campus as much as possible. They may let them bring their pets into certain spaces or have a bar.”

According to Irvin, UT did relatively little campus renovation or construction during the 1980s, 1990s and even the early 2000s, so it is in the midst of a very active period now. In the last ten years, the university has initiated $1 billion worth of new construction projects and around $200 million worth of deferred maintenance and renovation, and the thought process behind that work hinges on attracting and retaining students by appealing to their preferences for study and living. “Lots of studies by the APPA (Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers) show that, at least in terms of what students first look for online and how the campus looks when they visit, aesthetics are a huge determination. Of course, cost and a student’s major factor in heavily, but with regard to getting eyeballs on a school initially, design is itself a huge factor, and studies show that retaining students ties to design heavily. Where am I going to live and eat? What does the student union look like? Is my building new? Where will I study at night? What does the library look like? In all these, choices of flooring are absolutely critical, and we debate them at great length.”

Very often the performance of a flooring product hinges on the right people having the right knowledge. “Right now, a client wants us to change out a spec because they threw tomato sauce on it, and it didn’t clean well,” says Bergmeyer designer Easterly. “We’re having a rep go out to teach them how to clean it.”

When Irvin and his UT facilities team encounter challenges with specified products, they always begin by inquiring as to whether they are maintaining the product correctly. “Is there something we should be doing differently?” he asks. “If that doesn’t work, we talk to the designer and the manufacturer. We might say, ‘We had hoped the product would do X. It’s falling short in these areas. Help us understand why.’ We try to have the discussion. The most important thing is that we continue to have a fully inclusive discussion.”

These changing preferences yield an evolution in the flooring materials specified. Today, with regard to higher education design, branding plays an important role, and creating distinct spaces is key. According to Easterly, many universities crave the unexpected in design, something that will make them stand out from the crowd. Hard surface, in particular, offers ample opportunities for branding and customization, be it via vinyl product with a water jet-cut university insignia or polished concrete stained with the school colors.

“Using LVT in the library, we were able to do things with color and design that focused on branding, how the building fit into the narrative of what it means to be a Tennessee Vol,” says Irvin. A similar approach was taken with the university rec center, where a generic and somewhat unfocused color palette was swapped out for one centered on UT’s school colors, Volunteer Orange and Smokey Grey. The design story is reiterated across the facility, through multiple flooring materials including porcelain and various vinyl products. The chancellor reports that he has seen the use of LVT explode at the university level due to its durability and customization options. He adds that the negative view many once held about the use of vinyl is all but gone.

In the New England market, Easterly doesn’t regularly use LVT on her jobs, but she is seeing the material pop up in designs with more frequency. She attributes this increase to the material’s increasing realism and affordable cost.

For Easterly, porcelain remains a go-to choice because of its impressive lifecycle, ease of maintenance and design-forward style. “Instead of doing 2’x2’ in a brick pattern, we are seeing bigger sizes and a mix of sizes,” says Easterly. “More unique, less structured designs that are a little more interesting.”

Wilson utilizes a variety of hard surface flooring materials in his higher education designs, approaching each job on its own merits when it comes to material specification. “We use every product type out there. We’re diversified. With the economy ebbing up and down, we feel that’s the best approach. In higher education, the schools are competing against other schools, so they have to have aesthetic appeal. They are vying for student dollars.”

Soft surface flooring specs have also changed, as carpet tile has taken share from broadloom and thereby altered what can be accomplished design-wise with a soft surface floor. “In New England,” says Easterly, “we are seeing, instead of using structured floor design, looks that are more organic and random, especially when it comes to carpet. We are looking at planks and injecting various patterning into our designs-in and out colors. Within neutral color fields, we may inject a stripe of color or a gradient. A fade-away accent. The materials that manufacturers are putting out there-the new sizes of tile and formats-have allowed us to push the envelope with designs. It allows us to shake up what we put in the space.”

Irvin explains that while broadloom was once the default product for use on university campuses, particularly for projects without a large budget, universities today are more closely considering lifestyle cost and demanding products that offer good performance and maintenance stories. “There has certainly been a decline in rolled goods. Today, unless you are talking about luxury broadloom used in a president’s office, for example, we are primarily using carpet squares. For years, broadloom was our default. It has natural warmth, and people respond to its residential character, but it goes back to lifecycle. If we were just looking at front-end cost, we’d get an inexpensive rolled good, but when you factor in the cost of maintaining carpet and the length of time before we have to transition to a new floor, the number of times that a broadloom spec makes sense becomes much less often. Today, we select soft surface flooring when it makes sense acoustically, sometimes in large classroom, for instance, but with strict specs for wearability and durability.”

With so many products on the market, Irvin has found that reaching out to the manufacturer is a useful tactic. “I posed the question to the industry. I said, ‘We are going to put carpet in high traffic areas, like classrooms. What product would you recommend?’”

Irvin then took samples of their suggested products and gave them to his custodial team. The team poured staining products like Coca-Cola, ketchup, mustard and coffee all over the materials and let them sit for a week, then conducted a simple soap and water cleaning to see which would clean up best. “No one had ever asked the custodians for their input, and they were very excited that we asked the question,” recalls Irvin. “Asking experts for their expertise is a model we’ve been trying to use. Our expertise should be in managing and maintaining, while relying on the experts for product insight.” Today, the university has strict design standards for soft surface flooring, which were developed in part through this testing.

The UT facilities team now has standards for vinyl specifications as well, both pertaining to thickness and sustainable profile. “These are broad parameters, and we give them to designers before they submit proposals, so they know going in. In terms of looking at materials, that discussion starts early in the process-earlier than you would think. We certainly aren’t picking products in the schematic design phase, but we are talking about the intangibles-how the space will feel and be used, about the kinds of materials that should be there. We have a pretty good feel of what we’re looking for early.”

Irvin points out that, in his continued effort to open lines of communication with manufacturers, he would like to see improvement on the new product front. “There is sometimes a lag between manufacturers introducing new products or product variations and us getting that information. One question I’m asking is, how do we bring manufacturer expertise in earlier?”

While the flooring industry and A&D have long been talking lifecycle costs, the concept has now taken firm hold at the user end as well. “The whole idea of lifecycle cost isn’t new but is now a given,” says Irvin. “For a long time, we [the facilities team] had to make the argument, but now everyone gets that. Today, those that aren’t in the [facilities] industry come into the discussion with lifecycle in mind.”

What’s more, the Millennials’ concern about sustainability has forced the issue higher on the university’s to-do list. “There is a tremendous amount of interest in how products are produced, delivered and, ultimately, disposed of or recycled, particularly by students.” Irvin adds. “They ask us about it when we are constructing or renovating a campus building. Maybe people in the industry have been working on that for a while, but the general public now has a much greater interest.”

Wilson points out that the degree to which a university seeks certification for their sustainability quests depends on how “progressive” it is, but adds that he literally cannot think of one higher education project he has worked on in recent years that has not sought LEED certification. “Millennials are into sustainability, and this is what a university wants to communicate to students,” he says. “It speaks well of a university if they build sustainable interiors.”

Easterly believes that a university’s approach to sustainable interior architecture is largely driven by the perspective of the facilities leadership. The designer sees varying degrees of interest in lifecycle cost and the like among the clients that she works with, but she points out that LEED compliance is required of all state schools in Massachusetts. Among non-state schools, Easterly sometimes sees clients track for LEED but not necessarily pay for the certification. Personally, Easterly is hoping that the Well Building Standard gains traction in the states because, in her opinion, it takes a more holistic approach to sustainability, considering the inhabitants of a space in addition to the construction materials and architecture.

Practical factors like cost and maintenance still rise to the top as the driving priorities with regard to flooring specification in Easterly’s New England market. “We have harsh winters, so the maintenance and cleanability of flooring, especially in student-facing areas, is very important,” she says. “Economics and budget always play in.”

There are many boxes a potential spec must check, but one of particular importance to LS3P’s Wilson is style longevity, “Certainly function is important, but in terms of product trends, we are seeking those that have a long shelf life. A lot of what we are doing in education environments is putting color in places where it can be changed out-maybe on the wall in paint, where we can come back in five years to repaint and freshen the space without a lot of expense. If the trend color is in floor tile, you can’t do that, so a lot of our flooring choices tend to be tone-on-tone neutrals. If we pay the price for good Italian porcelain, for example, we don’t want to rip it up in five years. We are looking for neutrals and materials that have a realistic look-not those that copy nature, but those that give the impression of quality.”

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:The International Surface Event (TISE)