Trends in Higher Education: Higher education design demands flexible, sophisticated and durable flooring materials - May 2020
By Jessica Chevalier
Higher education has gone personal. No longer are campus buildings utility-above-all spaces with bland tones and blank canvases. Today’s higher ed institutions are working to woo potential students and provide spaces that can be utilized to the student’s liking, and that calls for locations with flexibility, personality and design appeal. Furthermore, these institutions are not seeking one-size-fits-all solutions but designs that support the intended use of each particular facility and space. All that said, these qualities do not trump the basic expectations for durability. Universities require designs and materials, including flooring, that will serve for decades and look good doing it. This trio of desires is what makes contemporary higher education design so complex and so compelling.
“The students have to want to go into and spend time in the facilities to make them successful,” says Tracy Herzer, senior associate with SLAM Collaborative, an architecture firm with integrated construction services, landscape architecture, structural engineering and interior design. “This means providing good acoustics that accounts for boisterous groups, [noise from passersby], private conversations and quiet work. Every person has a different idea of ‘comfortable,’ so a variety of places, including nooks, pods, tables and lounge furniture will allow for each student to find a spot that they feel in control. Finally, bringing nature and natural elements into the interior creates a calming and soothing atmosphere where students are willing to stay for longer periods of time.” SLAM was founded in Connecticut and now has offices in Atlanta, Georgia; Boston and Glastonbury, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; Iowa City, Iowa; Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; Orlando, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
What holds true for these spaces also holds true to the larger landscape of the higher education campus: for a school to be successful, the design must equip potential students with the ability to visualize themselves within its world. Kelly Gilreath, senior interior designer with LS3P, notes, “Higher education today is not only about being a great school academically but really selling what kind of lifestyle students will have there.” And the “lifestyle” argument also has pull with parents of potential students. Says Gilreath, “I’ve had clients tell me, if a mom likes [the lifestyle the school is selling], they will send their child there.” LS3P has offices in Charleston, Columbia, Greenville and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia.
In all fields of design, the crucial question coming out of the pandemic is how it will change the way in which public spaces are designed, and this is certainly true of university campuses, as well. Says Gilreath, “At LS3P, we have had discussions about how we can ask clients what the new school world will look like after the pandemic. What does keeping people farther apart mean from a design standpoint? Collaboration, openness, working in groups-will all that change?”
Of course, mid-pandemic, we can’t yet fully see the ways in which the event will impact the mindset of the generations living through it-both conscious and subconscious-or how that will transform design, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t. Will shared workspace come to be viewed as a germ-sharing biohazard? Will the walls that have come down in the name of collaborative learning go back up? Will students abandon face-to-face collaboration and retreat to their private spaces in the name of safety? Will the pandemic irrevocably change not only the look but the daily function of the university campus? Only time will tell.
Currently, however, the designers with whom we spoke report that projects are generally still moving along, as these years-long projects are cumbersome to get rolling and equally cumbersome to halt. But how things are done has changed.
SLAM’s Herzer says, “The current shutdowns or slowdowns are directly related to social distancing guidelines for safety. However, all of our higher education jobs are trying to move ahead by creatively making construction administration decisions that allow professionals to evaluate submittals at home, send pictures and provide protective gear to staff. We at SLAM are currently 3D printing frames to support face shields for staff and others who need to go on an active job site. Zoom meetings have become the norm to help keep jobs moving through the phases, and managers are constantly working on connection and support for staff.”
EYP’s Antoinette Ayres adds, “Construction has largely continued unabated through this period. Of course, we are doing construction administration remotely, and that can be challenging. We are all learning how to work together with social distances, but our projects are not stopping. We have clients who trust us, and we work through a lot of issues together.”
FLEXIBILITY IS TOP OF THE CLASS
The traditional, hallowed university library-with its heavy, moody-toned wood furniture, hushed scape and stacks upon stacks of hardbacked tomes-is, perhaps, the best example of how higher education design has changed. Once a place intended for quiet study, lorded over by bun-wearing librarians shushing students into submission, today’s university library is a space for collaboration.
Andrea Durbin, interior designer for MA+ Architecture, reports, “Today, libraries are interactive spaces, intended for bigger groups-say ten to 20 students-to get together and brainstorm or have charette-type study sessions. A lot of universities, seeing this trend, are allowing us to take the existing stacks and either compact those with a storage solution or create an offsite archive.” In these configurations, rather than prowl the stacks to procure it themselves, students file a request for a book from the archive, which a library associate will acquire, and the library space is freed up for other uses. MA+ Architecture has offices in Oklahoma City and Norman, Oklahoma.
With more usable square footage to work with, Durbin utilizes flexible furniture that enables students to cater the study space to their liking. This includes tables and chairs that can be reconfigured, bar and lounge seating, and furniture with multiple uses.
“The more uses for an item, the more useful it is to the school,” says Durbin. “If a table is also a markerboard or includes a wireless charging port or can be connected to other tables [to create larger workstations], it is more valuable.”
The same is true of spaces. A location with a single purpose is not nearly as financially appealing as one that can be converted to serve multiple uses, especially considering that costs for higher education space can run around $300/square foot. So if a library wing can be easily cleared to host an art exhibit, all the better. That may save the expense of building a separate space, at least for a time.
Of the trend, Durbin notes, “Big universities with more funding are the first ones to jump on the bandwagon, but the smaller schools with less funding are the ones that need it the most.”
Flooring plays an even more important role in these transformable spaces than it did in the static ones of old. Here, the floorcovering material and furniture must work in unison if the spaces are to function as intended. For example, movable furniture must slide easily over the flooring material, not catching on transitions or scratching the surface. For this reason, Durbin believes that it is important that manufacturers in categories of products that are used together-such as furniture and flooring-communicate and work together to solve challenges.
In addition, in these modern and transformative spaces, the flooring must work equally well for the various functions that the space houses, serving as effectively beneath a cocktail party as a student study session.
Designers weigh in on what brands and materials they prefer for higher education work.
Ayres: Carpet tile is still predominant in the higher education market, but we want a residential feel for accent areas. I go to Shaw, Interface and Mohawk for carpet tile and Ege [a Danish producer] for accent carpets. All of our classrooms are carpeted.
Durbin: For offices, media centers and locations where we need sound control, carpet tile with a cushion backing that helps mitigate water atop a slab is my go-to. Milliken is above reproach, and all its carpet tile products include a standard cushion back for water mitigation.
Gilreath: We don’t want to spec the same old products; we tend to use manufacturers that come out with new patterns and designs.
Gilreath: With the big players in LVT-Armstrong and the others-we have confidence that durability is there. Reps for new companies constantly want to come and talk to us, but we don’t even let them in anymore because we have enough options, and we know that our partner companies will stand by their products. A lot of our higher ed spaces have assembly rooms, and in these spaces, we are using a lot of Kinetex [by J+J] and Flotex [by Forbo] type products-carpet, but not. And we have had good success with these because they provide the visual and acoustics of carpet but offer greater durability and cleanability.
Ayres: I use LVT from Shaw and Spartan Surfaces and resilient products from Armstrong, Forbo and Tarkett/Johnsonite. We do a lot of resilient in lab spaces as well as seamless epoxy.
Durbin: Early on, we were leery about LVT because it scratched so easily, but now that the finishes are getting better, I feel that it is a really great contender for use in higher ed.
Durbin: Rubber is a great hard surface option with some sound deadening properties. I like to use colorful rubber in corridors that are echo-y or in makerspaces where students may be on the ground doing assembly work. As the rubber market has developed, the visuals have gotten better. Some have a nice swirl to them or an undulating pattern or a fleck. Nora and Johnsonite both offer nice looks.
Ayres: I like rubber tile from Nora for lab spaces.
Ayres: I use a lot of porcelain from Stone Source, Crossville, Mosa and Architectural Ceramics.
Gilreath: I love terrazzo and use it frequently, but it often gets pushed out of projects due to cost.
Durbin: We use quite a bit of terrazzo. Once you put it down, it’s there for life, and it has a beautiful look.
Gilreath: I still see a lot of concrete being used, both for its overall aesthetics and for its functionality.
Ayres: We are using much more polished concrete-often for the main circulation areas of projects- because of its durability and long lifecycle. It is particularly good for science, tech and innovation projects or to create a loft look in makerspaces.
Durbin: We use concrete sparingly. It’s good for science labs where chemicals might get on the floor, for makerspaces, for places where the flooring risks damage, but I don’t really see it being used like it was 15 years ago. It scratches easily; it might not meet ADA compliance; and people are shying away from it.
Herzer: I see the use of polished concrete reducing slightly in popularity as clients become either tired of the look due to overuse or realize that it is not that inexpensive of a flooring solution. It takes a multi-step process to get it to look even and consistent, and it also costs an enormous amount during construction to keep poured concrete protected and unmarred.
Ayres: It can be tricky to find the right concrete mechanics in smaller markets.
ALIGNING STORY & DESIGN
The function of a building or space plays an important role in the design. Gilreath has recently worked on aeronautics, nursing and culinary buildings. In each of these, the flooring was specified both to serve the types of activities taking place within the spaces and to communicate the “story” of the field of study. For instance, for the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center at Trident Technical College in North Charleston, Gilreath specified a lot of polished concrete, which fit the aesthetics of the field of study as well as the hands-on function of the space.
Of course, college campuses also seek to build their brand with their facilities. For some, that might be a hard sell with frequent pops of school colors and recurring mascot imagery. But, overall, Antoinette Ayres, lead interior design and associate principal with EYP, believes that university design today is leaning more towards a softer sell via a polished industrial aesthetic. “This is not cold but refined,” the designer explains, “bringing in more natural materials for balance within the industrial look.” Ayres points out that, materials-wise, the nature feel is often achieved through changes in texture rather than changes in color. EYP has offices in Albany, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Houston and Dallas, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Washington, D.C.
Herzer seconds the trend toward natural aesthetics. She notes, “Bringing the outdoors in through elements of biophilia-whether it is with natural light; materials like carpet and tile that look like grass, wood and stone; or simply a connection using large glass expanses to outdoor beauty-is a big trend today.”
In an interesting juxtaposition, the higher education sector is also being influenced by the residential aesthetic. “Residential influence has been moving through the corporate workplace for a while, and we also see it in higher ed,” says Ayres. “The home look. We have a lot of student collaboration areas in higher education, and, here, students like a lounge feel in both furniture selections and for the larger feel of the space. They want it to feel like their living room. They want to hang out and congregate. We see the same in faculty offices, too; they appreciate a look that is more like a home office, in effect.”
Regardless of the specific design direction, higher education clients generally want their spaces to have a timeless quality, as they are anticipated to serve for decades. To achieve that, both the larger concept and materials must age well.
“Flooring is becoming more directional,” says MA+ Architecture’s Durbin. “We are using it not only as a surface to walk on but also as a place to put signage, to direct walkers, such as a colored stripe that guides to a particular destination. This was thought to be more of a primary school application previously.” Durbin explains that advances in styling and waterjet cutting have made directional design more appealing at the university level.
LONG-LASTING & DURABLE
While style may steal the show when it comes to higher education design, concerns like durability, lifecycle and maintenance are of critical importance.
“Durability and ease of maintenance are very, very important in higher education,” explains Ayres. “This has been the story for quite a while. As designers, we are often interfacing with the facilities people, and they are always concerned about maintainability and durability. We need to have done our research and make sure materials are long-lasting.”
Close communications between design and facilities teams can be very important in achieving the best result. Gilreath notes that if the decision-makers hear the facilities manager say that something that costs more up front will be well worth it over the lifespan, they will often take that factor into consideration.
In terms of lifecycle, clients sometimes have unrealistic expectations about flooring products, and it falls on the designer to set the record straight. “In reality, we probably get 20 years out of carpet products,” says Ayres, “but clients sometimes expect 25. Generally, products ugly out. For the most part, we don’t see failures. If there are problems with an installation, they usually appear early on.”
Adds Durbin, “The expected lifecycle sometimes depends on the school, but if you can get 15 years out of a soft surface in higher ed, that’s pretty good. On hard surface, I’d expect a 20-year cycle. If someone is going for longevity, they really need to do terrazzo.”
Similarly, Ayres characterizes terrazzo as an “investment material” and notes that in spite of the hefty upfront cost, clients embrace it because they want buildings to be beautiful for 50 years. Porcelain also lasts a long time, and that’s an investment clients are willing to make as well, she notes.
However, clients often don’t view soft surface in the same way. “With carpet, clients want it all,” says Ayres. “They want it to be long-lasting, and they don’t want high cost. I see the value in different qualities of carpet, but that’s harder for them to see. But we do usually specify carpets that are considered more high quality because it’s worth it.”
Says Gilreath, “Clients want to understand the value of the product they are getting. If they are going to spend money on materials, they want to keep them for the long haul and don’t want to invest in products that will look dirty or be complicated to maintain. A lot of the cleaning crews want simplification across different products.”
• Continued development on hard and soft surface coordination
• A better system for creating rugs out of carpet tile, one that will last long-term
• More numerous and more sophisticated options for
transitions between flooring types
• Lower minimums for custom products
• More carbon neutral and negative products, more cradle-to-cradle products
• Support from the manufacturer when a product fails
• More commercial hardwood offerings
• Increased acoustic mitigation
• Easily accessible education that requires little time commitment, even via social media
• More wool-nylon products
• More broadloom and rolled goods for applications with elevation changes
The importance of creating good acoustic environments in higher education cannot be overstated. In fact, EYP generally works with an acoustician on every project.
Ayres emphasizes that the acoustic management cannot be thought of as the work of a single surface but all of them in unison. “Acoustics is the treating of all planes: ceiling, walls and floors. You can’t do it all with carpet. Acoustics are the number one concern of clients. These projects have to function for the next 50 years, so they don’t want problems. Materials can make such a difference, and this is a great area of growth for flooring.”
Herzer points out that the rapid development in LVT has changed the game to a degree, noting that carpet has always played a role in acoustics, but now there are LVT options that can assist with acoustics in a space and also reduce sound transmission between floors.
Ayres adds, “You always want to treat floorcovering on an upper floor with some acoustic backing so you don’t hear footfall. This is really important to look at with all material types.”
SUSTAINABILITY & INHABITANT HEALTH
Whether or not higher education institutions seek green certifications varies from institution to institution and even from facility to facility. Some states mandate that their state-owned universities seek such accreditation, and some don’t.
While LEED remains an important tool, today’s higher education clients are increasingly expressing interest in WELL, which is more focused on human health in the built environment.
“Overall, our clients are concerned about a wellness focus more than a LEED focus because that’s something you can bank on,” Gilreath notes.
Both Herzer and Gilreath point out that clients not seeking either accreditation often still want to build as close to the standards as possible. “Clients are concerned about the health of materials even if they are not seeking a green certification,” says Gilreath. “They like knowing that they are making decisions that support the greater good.”
Herzer adds, “Interface and Shaw do a great job leading the pack with sustainable practice and flooring options we can feel good about. I like manufacturers that have a responsibility story with regard to the environment.”
MANUFACTURERS SERVING THE EDUCATION SECTOR
Mannington offers a comprehensive portfolio of flooring products and accessories to meet the needs of the higher education market. The offering includes high-performance rubber tile for athletic facilities, LVT for dormitories, and carpet tile and broadloom carpet, ideal for classroom environments.
For the higher education sector, the most important introduction this year is Mannington’s Comprehensive Xpress Program, which includes several collections of modular carpet, LVT and entryway systems to be shipped within five business days. The program offers transparent pricing.
Shaw Contract offers carpet and resilient flooring to support a variety of spaces throughout the higher education campus: carpet tile for library spaces and administration areas, LVT for corridors and classrooms, resilient and inset rugs in student housing buildings. Recently, the company added more subtle neutrals to its offering, which work across a variety of higher education environments.
In addition, Shaw Contract has expanded its virtual services. Virtual consultants are available for telehelp on topics ranging from product installation questions to cleaning protocols. Additionally, its InStock Now program offers hundreds of styles that can be shipped immediately.
And under its Patcraft brand, the company provides flooring options that are practical, durable and adaptable, designed with color impact, sound transfer, acoustics and performance in mind.
Armstrong Flooring offers a portfolio of resilient products-LVT, VCT, heterogeneous and homogeneous sheet vinyl and PVC-free composition tile-for the higher education sector, many of which features its Diamond 10 Technology for increased scratch, stain, and scuff resistance.
Armstrong Flooring recently simplified its system for creating custom LVT with a refresh of its Create Your Own Color online tool. In three steps, design firms or educational institutions can create custom Natural Creations with Diamond 10 LVT that incorporates a school’s colors and design theme.
In addition, Armstrong launched a design refresh for two of its Natural Creations with Diamond 10 collections, Mystix and ArborArt. The updated collections offer designers and end users a new array of contemporary designs.
Interface offers carpet tile, LVT and Nora rubber flooring to the higher education market. This includes a wide range of quick-ship products that can meet tight turnarounds and budgets for any need. Every flooring product Interface sells is carbon neutral under the Interface Carbon Neutral Floors program. Also, through its ReEntry program, Interface reclaims used carpet tile and LVT to turn into new flooring.
In 2019, the company launched its ReadyBac backing, which is a solution for high moisture levels, combining the dimensional stability of its GlasBac backing with a moisture-wicking felt layer.
Winning Team is a collection that launched last year specifically with the education segment in mind. The company assembled a collection of hard and soft flooring, including its i2 carpet tiles from its Ice Breaker and The Standard styles as well as Studio Set LVT. The refreshed color line expands the neutrals that most projects demand and introduces the vibrant accents that universities and campuses crave.
Ecore’s portfolio of products for higher education specification includes rubber, LVT and heterogeneous vinyl. While these were traditionally utilized in sports, fitness and recreation applications, the company reports seeing increased usage of its flooring in health and wellness areas. In addition, products like the company’s QT assistant with acoustic mitigation.
The company reports that its growth in the higher education space is primarily due to its introduction of ItsTru technology in the last decade, which merges the athletic-like performance of its recycled rubber with the inherent flooring benefits of traditional resilient or soft surfaces. Most recently, the company launched Aurora, which features the durability and sanitary attributes of a polyurethane reinforcement (PUR) coated calendared rubber wearlayer with force reduction and energy restitution typically reserved for Class l sports courts.
Mohawk Group’s higher education offering includes broadloom, carpet tile, resilient flooring-including LVT, rubber and Red-List-Free tile-and walk-off products.
Last year, Mohawk Group launched Learn & Live, a multi-category carpet collection of tile and broadloom inspired by biophilic concepts of complexity and order. This was followed by the addition of a plank format in colorways designed specifically for higher education spaces to create a coordinating full soft surface system. The platform supports increased branding and personalization capabilities through the use of color, motif and format.
The collection also includes soft flooring technologies such as Duracolor Tricor, Mohawk Group’s solution-dyed nylon fiber that utilizes a modified trilobal fiber cross-section. And select broadloom styles integrate Stitchlock, which ensures durability and lasting appearance retention by creating woven-like performance in a tufted construction that eliminates edge ravel and zippering. To meet the needs of education spaces that require resilient hard surface applications, Mohawk Group launched the colorful Matuto Plus Stone LVT, which coordinates with Learn & Live.
Tarkett offers a higher education product portfolio with solutions that span from soft surface to resilient to accessories. This includes its customizable digital-print LVT, a process that allows universities to co-create unique floors while utilizing Techtonic, its protection against scratching, abrasions, scuffing and staining.
Tarkett introduced its first carbon-neutral product, the domestically-produced ID Latitude LVT, which has also been certified asthma and allergy friendly by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The company also launched Lino this year, both for floor and wall applications. Lino is made of linoleum, an all-natural product with a C2C Silver certification.
Forbo’s EZvation program was designed as a solution to the growing skilled labor shortage-which is affecting all market segments, education included-by reducing costs through efficient use of materials and improved labor efficiency. Forbo’s EZ-ON 100 immediate occupancy adhesive system for Marmoleum sheet and tile is part of the EZvation program. It eliminates moisture testing and long set-up times, speeding up installation and reducing time and lost revenue for project turnover. No vapor retarder is required.
In an effort to improve maintenance and cleaning methods, Forbo introduced its hand-held Flotex Spot Eraser, which provides a solution for eliminating spots on flooring while standing upright, rather than working on hands and knees.
• Enticing and on-trend products
• Accomplished at delivering products and samples in a timely manner
• Fairly quick to respond to new trends
• Digital innovations make it easy to envision products in a setting and easy to use with software such as Revit
• Up to speed on certifications such as LEED and good at providing the necessary information to satisfy the requirements of these certifications
• Good reps who provide timely education
• Product designers who push the envelope
• Manufacturers standing behind their products
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