Wood Cuts: Are wood floors a viable option for commercial environments? - Dec 2019
By Michael Martin
About a year ago, the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) released the results of a survey it commissioned to determine consumer perceptions about different flooring products. The results revealed that two thirds of consumers want wood floors in their dream homes. For those of us who work in this industry, that result should come as no surprise. Just walk any flooring trade show or into any flooring retailer, and you’ll see that wood is the predominant look and not just for real wood floors but for other flooring types as well. This tells us that wood is the desired flooring aesthetic for our homes, but what about for commercial applications? Is wood a practical flooring option in a commercial environment?
Increasingly, the answer is yes. Wood floors have always been a staple in certain commercial settings; gymnasium floors are one example, but they have become more popular in other commercial environments in recent years as well. So much so, in fact, that numerous NWFA members now focus their flooring businesses primarily on commercial projects.
One such company is J. J. Curran & Son, located in Albany, New York. This family-owned flooring company made the decision to leave the residential market in the late 1980s and hasn’t looked back since. “Our business is dedicated 100% to commercial projects,” says Seamus Curran, project manager-and with good reason.
The commercial wood flooring market may be small compared to the residential segment, but it is lucrative for those companies that commit to it. According to the 2019 U.S. FlooReport produced by Floor Focus and Market Insights, the commercial wood flooring market represented about 5% of the total U.S. wood flooring market for 2019, and about $143 million in sales. While this figure is projected to grow in 2020 and into 2021, it is expected to remain fairly stable over time because commercial projects typically are not impacted by economic influences that affect residential projects, such as housing market volatility.
Curran warns flooring professionals, however, that commercial projects are significantly different from residential projects, and that both sales teams and installation teams need to be aware of, and prepare for, those differences. One major difference is scale.
“[Commercial] installations are often quite large,” says Curran, “and while the overall contract amount for commercial projects can be higher than residential work, so are the risks.” For example, Curran explains that with larger spaces, the potential for the wood flooring to expand and contract is much higher. That has to be discussed with the client up front, with very specific maintenance instructions so that the floor will perform as intended. In most cases, it’s as simple as maintaining the correct temperature and humidity within the space year-round, but it’s important to get that information to the right individual who will ultimately be responsible for cleaning the floor and maintaining the space.
Another major difference is that commercial projects typically involve the services of an architect or designer, which can also pose some challenges. “Almost all [our] commercial projects begin with interior designers or architects,” says Rick Farrell, vice president of architecture and design with Woodwright Hardwood Floors in Dallas, Texas. For his part, Farrell has turned this into a competitive advantage for his business. “We are the local experts who become their go-to resource,” he says. “We assist and educate them through the process of selecting the right product.”
Certification programs are another consideration. Many commercial projects require that wood flooring be sourced from programs such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or the American Tree Farm System. The United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program is often specified in commercial work as well.
“There has been increased demand for sustainability programs in commercial projects in the past several years,” says Farrell. “We feel it will continue to grow.” He cautions that these programs can impact both cost and timelines, but that impacts are “not substantial if using the right supplier.”
Curran concurs. “Typically, an FSC requirement does not affect the timeline if the material is a standard product, but it does cost slightly more,” he says. There are exceptions, however, such as when an architect specifies a product with a species, cut, grade, length and face width that is not readily available. “This is when we encounter a long lead time and a higher cost,” he adds.
An example of this obstacle occurred on a high-profile job Curran’s company did for the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, New York. Curran explains that the material specified was very specific, and in very limited supply. Because of that, he says, “It took us over a year just to acquire the wood.”
The job called for 45,000 square feet of FSC-certified live sawn white oak, with minimal knots or sap wood. Because live sawn wood is a combination of all traditional hardwood cuts-plain, quartered, and rift-it contains all the natural characteristics of all these cuts, including knots, grain patterns, mineral streaks, color variations and other distinguishing traits. So to achieve the look the customer wanted, Curran had to source more material than he would for a typical job, and handpick the boards that met the narrow appearance criteria. Curran shares that these types of considerations need to be communicated clearly to the client to avoid any unrealistic expectations.
On top of that, the material was specified with a 1”x8” face, and lengths ranging from 6’ to 16’, which was also atypical. “Due to the size and thickness of the flooring,” he explains, “the acclimation period was longer than normal.”
Maintenance is another area that differs in commercial settings. Wood floors installed in commercial settings will see significantly more foot traffic than in a residential setting, so maintenance is critical to success, Curran notes, adding, “If the floor is maintained properly, wood flooring performs great. If it is not maintained properly, it will not perform to the customer’s expectations.”
Farrell agrees that maintenance is the biggest issue for commercial projects. “The fact is, the commercial clients are not going to maintain the floor properly regardless of what they say,” Farrell says, but both he and Curran note that this is an issue for all flooring products, not just wood. “Understanding how the customer will use the floor is important in order to recommend a successful maintenance program,” says Curran.
In general, both Curran and Farrell predominantly see commercial projects that are pretty routine straight-lay jobs, like is typical in a gymnasium, but Farrell has noticed that hospitality projects trend toward timeless patterns like herringbone, while Curran has seen everything from herringbone to custom parquet to intricate borders to elaborate chevrons. The bottom line, says Curran, is that the “the design depends on the customer’s budget and personal preference.”
End grain wood flooring is particularly well suited for commercial projects. It is much harder than other wood flooring cuts, is extremely durable, wears well, and provides a unique look. When the NWFA held its expo in Nashville in 2014, we saw that the Country Music Hall of Fame incorporated end grain wood floors into its facility. When you consider that more than 1.2 million people visited the museum in 2018 alone, it speaks volumes about the durability of the material. In fact, end grain wood has even been used to pave streets in Europe.
Species selection can play a part too. It’s important to consider Janka hardness ratings for commercial projects because increased traffic will result in increased wear. “We recommend against closed grain and softer species like walnut and cherry,” says Farrell. “Increased wear ability is accomplished through species like pecan and oak.”
Companies looking to expand their commercial footprint can do so successfully if they’re educated about, and prepared for, the unique complexities inherent in commercial projects. “Managing the process involved with commercial work is difficult,” says Farrell. “It is a very different approach with different players involved. Commercial projects involve safety programs, complex contracts, formal submittals and complete shop drawings. It takes a team of construction professionals committed to the process to be successful.”
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