Trends in Public Space: Post-Covid, public space may be more important than ever, and flooring must perform - January 2023

By Jessica Chevalier

Over the pandemic, cloistered up in their homes, many Americans yearned for the gatherings they had once taken for granted: concerts, sporting events, spiritual assemblies, lectures, readings and art shows. Today, rosters are booked with events that bring people together, and public gathering spaces are again bustling.

Public spaces may be government-, community- or privately owned. They may be a part of an education, healthcare or hospitality campus. They can be intimate or massive. But, in spite of their broad variation, they do share unifying traits, and the most important of these is the need for performance. However, with so many unique spaces clustered in the “public space” category, it is imperative that flooring manufacturers form strong partnerships with architects and designs in the public space field, as well as end users, in order to understand the unique priorities of each individual project.

While we generally think of public space as stand-alone spaces to be used for gathering, many manufacturers include the public portions of otherwise private locations-such as hospital lobbies and community-used education spaces-in this category as well because these spaces have the same use and requirements as traditional public space.

“Public space is any portion of the building that the public has access to,” says Nicolette Greico, senior vice president of sales for HMTX.

Adds Jessica Magee, a Crossville architectural and design sales rep, “Even projects that are typically focused on ‘private’ spaces have aspects of public and gathering spaces, like amenity areas and lobbies in multifamily projects, healthcare and hotels.”

The Covid pandemic drew a line between the haves and the have-nots in the public space field, says Randa Thayer, director of education and government at Shaw Contract. Many public space institutions suffered significantly in the pandemic with activity and income dropping off a cliff almost overnight. Some gathering spaces that had funds in reserve used the lull as an opportunity to renovate-though, of course, Covid policies and material and labor shortages added hurdles in that endeavor. Those institutions that could not financially invest in their spaces amid the pandemic may find projects piling up, creating some pent-up demand.

Thayer believes that the public space market is preparing for a boom, as the U.S. government invests amid the recession as a means to ease the worries of citizens, meaning that government-owned public space should be an area of growth for the commercial market. And conveniently, notes Thayer, manufacturers have more ability to deliver on time than they did even 12 months ago, when pandemic struggles were still slowing supply chains, so they should be able to easily fill orders.

That being said, when public spaces are under renovation, it generally means a full stoppage of income, so it is important that these activities are kept to a minimum, especially given that Covid is not that far in the rearview. For that reason, long-serving products are key, and most public spaces “are intended to be long-term installations, hence requiring performance-driven product selection, as they are difficult spaces to shut down and potentially expensive to renovate,” says Mannington’s Whitney LeGate, vice president of commercial LVT and sheet.

In addition to the cost and time required for renovation, performance is key in public space due it the very nature of its mission. Public space floors welcome guests and must welcome guests of all abilities. A tattered floor that causes a tripping hazard is potentially dangerous and can discourage use by those with differing abilities-both physical and mental. “We must think about who is utilizing the floors: consider those with different physical abilities, those who are visually impaired, people from different cultures and backgrounds. We must consider how color impacts those with neurological disorders, how bold pattern impacts those with dementia. Everyone should have the same joy in the experience of using the space. The diversity, equity and inclusion component is so large and playing a bigger role in design than ever before,” says Thayer.

While performance is a primary concern in all public space, because the sector encompasses so many different types of facilities and spaces, flooring priorities for each hinge significantly on the priorities of the end-user and the design team, so manufacturers serving this sector must be highly in tune to the specific goals for each space. “Material specification is always going to be driven by the end user and architect,” says Greico. “Every job is different. Much like in healthcare, when you are talking about public space with a lot of people and traffic, the driver is often wearability and ease of maintenance, with design and cost following. But as a salesperson, I never assume that is the case. In today’s world, with the growing concern about green, there are many public spaces where that is the driving force, so I would lead with our bio-based offering.”

Ultimately, performance and sustainability go hand-in-hand in public space projects. “Public space flooring tends to remain in place longer than flooring in many other sectors, so it needs to be able to withstand heavy use over time, retain its aesthetic appeal and require minimal maintenance,” says Shane Totten, director of sustainability for Mannington Commercial.

“By the nature of the space, the traffic is expected to be heavier than a non-public space, so making sure the product can withstand that additional wear and tear is important,” notes Mannington Commercial’s Al Boulogne, vice president of commercial carpet and rubber.

These expectations around performance are not just about looking good for the sake of it but also about serving a long life and, thereby, reducing waste, as well. Given the square footage of public spaces, a poor specification that requires replacement can result in an enormous amount of waste, so it is important that all parties involved in specification of public space flooring take a long-term approach.

“At the early stages of the lifecycle are the opportunities for manufacturers to design and produce flooring that optimizes the material efficiency, using safe ingredients that pose no health risks and positioning the products for recycling at the end of their useful life,” says Totten.

The demand for sustainable material use in public space is often driven by institution initiatives and the goals around certification of space, such as LEED. “There is a major push for manufacturers to have more sustainable products,” Arnavaz Barshan, director of design for Durkan Hospitality, notes.

Adds Thayer, “Recycling at end of life is just a component, but there is so much more to the discussion than that. We have to consider the full circularity of material health. We can’t use these spaces to entertain ourselves and harm the future.”

Wiley reports, “In terms of trends, Covid has drastically accelerated the macro trends that were already in play: the importance of wellness; amenitized spaces that allow flexibility between socialization and personal space and better meet needs of all users (inclusivity); and a high degree of digital connectedness.”

Wiley adds that, in terms of these trends, “Design thinking is more important than ever. Architects and designers have embraced the opportunity to propel the built environment forward with physical space. As a manufacturer, we have the responsibility to continually rethink products and adapt for health, safety, and wellness with solutions that support people. Likewise, we must recognize the owner’s operational goals.

“End users are looking for spaces that contribute to engagement and productivity by meeting users’ needs both functionally and experientially. Spaces must be homelike yet flexible for changing demands. Flooring contributes to both the functional, for example, improved cleanability and simple maintenance; and the experiential, creating a homelike feel through design and contribution to improved acoustics,” he says.

Of course, the best flooring specification for public space is not just the bullet-proof high-performer, but the one that provides the greatest overall collection of attributes for each specific project. “Great public spaces are accessible to people, engage the public with activities, and are comfortable,” says Drew Wiley, product manager for AHF Products. “Designing a highly trafficked area means thinking at length about how to satisfy many requirements: functional, environmental, traffic, safety-each of which, in turn, must be able to withstand the test of time.”

Budget is also a major consideration, especially as public spaces often encompass a lot of square footage. “People are becoming more conscious about budget,” says Barshan. “And even though projects are coming back, the specifiers want the pricing they had pre-pandemic.”

“At Interface, we see aesthetics, performance, acoustics, and cost playing a role in the specification process,” says Jay Lanier, key account director. “With that said, the most significant factors when it comes to flooring for the government sector are performance and cost. Flooring is not routinely updated in this segment, so it’s critical that products are long-lasting and have a low cost of ownership.”

Among the most iconic visuals of the Covid-19 pandemic were the 6’ distance markers on floors across commercial spaces. Meant to keep humans separated to discourage transmission of the virus, some questioned whether these may become a permanent fixture of shared space.

Thankfully, with the worst of the virus behind us, public space flooring has returned to its prior roles: welcoming guests, providing an aesthetic stage on which the full design is built, and offering flexibility for the varied events taking place atop it.

“Experience is an important trend. You want users to feel good and be in the moment. The details need to be picture perfect, and interiors is a huge piece of that,” says Thayer.

Secondly, looks matter, and that applies both to aesthetics and wear. Heritage facilities have their charm, but worn and dingy finishes do not. So, while threadbare oriental rugs and rough hardwood may be a fine look for an experimental underground theater, they are not suited to spaces hosting events with double- or even triple-digit price tags.

In addition, the aesthetic must be driven by its setting and purpose. A public space within a school system may employ bold primary tones, but that wouldn’t be suited to a city-owned concert hall or museum. And spaces like churches, where solemn activities such as weddings, funerals and worship take place, must be soft, calm and inviting.

“Telling a story through a project,” to build favorite first impressions and unique experiences, is key in public space design, notes Boulonge. As in hospitality, these stories are often about the space, location and culture in which they are situated, and they serve to ground a facility and its visitors in a certain mindset.

Third, flexibility is key for many of these locations. “A huge piece of public space is multipurpose,” says Thayer, “with different spaces within the larger space. We don’t want to create one space that does one thing. A hallway doesn’t have to be just a walk-through anymore; it can now be gathering space. A lobby space can be an interview space or a coffee break location. And public space design must look through the lens of these many different views. They are expensive spaces. They must generate a return on that investment, and they have to appeal to all audiences.”

At the end of the day, the design of each space must be dictated by who will be using it and its intended uses. And with so many different types of public space appealing to so many different audiences, the flooring used within these varies greatly. Says Wiley, “The key for flooring [specification in public space] is not so much the building, but the applications within the building and the performance requirements of the various areas within the facility, from sanctuary to foyers to classrooms and auditoriums. Many public facilities will have a range of different spaces and uses for those spaces.”

He continues, “Designing the perfect space is a challenging job. Designers of public spaces must create a space that will inspire while keeping people comfortable, and also meeting the performance requirements of the facility. For example, how much foot traffic is present through a particular space? How many times does that floor receive maintenance? And does the space have any long-term goals to save energy costs?” So, while carpet may be an ideal choice to manage acoustics in an auditorium, within the same facility, a corridor or gallery space may require a hard surface solution to maintain a polished look in the face of heavy foot-traffic.

“Floors must easy to maintain,” says Wiley. “Many public facilities include areas that are used for diverse types of activities-from scout meetings to community gatherings-so the flooring needs to be suitable for many unique needs.”

Within public space, specification of flooring can’t hinge only on what looks good today, but also on what will look good as time passes, tastes change, foot traffic intensifies, and even as lighting shifts with the transitions of the day and the seasons. It’s costly and wasteful to replace public space flooring, so proper specification the first time is key.

Wiley notes that in seating areas in a church or temple, modular LVT is a common solution, providing an inviting setting and offering the ability for product to be replaced as needed.

Porcelain, terrazzo and hardwood are other common choices in public space, with porcelain and terrazzo prized for their significant durability and style, and hardwood providing its warmth and traditional aesthetic. “Having the ability to meet requirements for slip resistance and making sure the public is safe are top issues,” says Magee, “so having a tile that meets DCOF requirements, quality and cleanability is a must.”

“Within public spaces, we often have common areas-where visitors and inhabitants are consistently moving and circulating-and quieter spaces that support collaboration and productivity,” says Lanier. “Hard surfaces, including LVT and rubber products, tend to be installed within circulation spaces, while soft surfaces, like carpet tile, are installed behind closed doors in quieter spaces.”

In terms of soft surface, Barshan has seen public spaces considering products that they have not previously. For decades, Axminster has been seen as the go-to for gathering spaces, but, as a blend of wool and nylon, Axminster cannot be recycled, so institutions driven by sustainability initiatives are considering cut and loop products instead.

Style wise, Barshan reports that soft surface designs for public space are somewhat simpler than they were in the past, meaning that a floral design, for instance, once bold and bright, is now simpler and more sophisticated pattern-wise, with texture and layering being used to add complexity and dimension.

Says Wiley, “Colors play a key role in the maintenance practices of a facility. If there is a strict maintenance schedule due to budget concerns, the type of space, movement of furniture or amount of traffic, then the design and the color selection become a critical factor in selecting the right floor for the space. Also, if daylighting and energy conservation is a goal, lighter colors reflect more light, hence reducing the energy needed to light the space.”

Boulogne adds, “Walk-off carpet is always an important consideration to protect the visual of the floor long term. Really understanding how the space works and how it is going to be used is also critical. For example, how natural light moves throughout the space may seem like a small detail, but it is a huge part of picking a flooring solution that will drive long-term satisfaction.” The wrong color, texture or traffic pattern can become a significant negative as light hits the product at different angles.

Interface believes that within government-owned public space, it is seeing a general prioritization of sustainability. This includes increased interest in low-carbon building materials as more regulations surrounding building-related emissions are put in place for government-owned spaces.

In addition, the company notes that, as government buildings are often operational year-round, this makes it more difficult for the facilities to be shut down for construction or renovations. “This high level of use is why we don’t see these buildings embrace new design trends as quickly as in other segments. The products within a public building need to be operational, timeless and durable while supporting the required outcomes for the space,” says Lanier. Lanier reports that, within local government facilities, renovations tend to take place every 20 to 25 years. For state and federal renovations, the schedule is more like 15 to 20 years.

Lanier adds, “Additionally, within federal, state and municipal buildings, a consideration for specifiers is ensuring that the buildings align with and reflect their surrounding community and its values. Often, this community awareness will impact aesthetic decisions as they opt for patterns or colors that will feel familiar to occupants.”

In 2022, Interface saw the government segment grow and expects it to continue to grow into 2023.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Mannington Mills, Mohawk Industries, Crossville, AHF Products, HMTX, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., RD Weis, Interface