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In Sustainable Resilient Flooring, Rubber Tops the List

After thoroughly exploring the options, two major studies come to similar conclusions.


After thoroughly exploring the options, two major studies come to similar conclusions.

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Flooring is one of the most critical specifications you’ll make in any given project. It’s the most visible surface, and is used by literally every person who sets foot in a facility. A successful installation balances initial investment, installation, maintenance and upkeep, acoustics, lifespan, comfort, safety, recyclability, impact on indoor air quality and aesthetics.

For many projects, resilient flooring is the best choice because it offers a degree of “give” or elasticity for comfort, a high degree of durability and is resistant to stains and water. Under that umbrella, however, you still have a host of options: rubber, solid/sheet vinyl, VCT, linoleum and polyolefin.

Learning Objectives

Interiors & Sources’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue’s article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or AIA, read the article, then Log in to take the test associated with this article

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Describe the attributes of the “perfect” resilient floor for commercial installations

  • Explain the basic differences in the makeup of various types of resilient flooring

  • Discuss the meaning of “sustainability” as interpreted by different stakeholders in a flooring installation

  • Assess which flooring types have lower life-cycle costs
In healthcare—the most studied and documented commercial flooring market—resilient flooring rules. It better maintains its shape, withstands heavy foot traffic, and is also more comfortable, reducing fatigue and other health issues. Common wisdom tells us that if a certain floor performs well in a busy hospital, it’s a great choice for other applications as well.

Some of the most desirable attributes of a “perfect” resilient floor are that it is non-toxic, sustainable, hygienic, easy to clean, inexpensive to maintain, durable, safe, silent underfoot, attractive and budget friendly. This perfect floor doesn’t exist just yet, but some of the choices available do approach this ideal.

Recent and ongoing research is exploring the differences in how these materials are perceived and specified by designers and specifiers, offering some interesting glimpses at current trends, purchase intentions, and the gaps between philosophy and practice.

While rubber, linoleum and polyolefin flooring have been increasingly featured in the media, sheet vinyl is still the most commonly specified resilient floor, used by 73 percent of specifiers, followed by VCT at 64 percent. Rubber flooring came in at 57 percent, linoleum at 52 percent, polyolefin at 21 percent and rubber/cork at 14 percent.

One study (“Sustainable Resilient Flooring Choices for Hospitals: Perceptions and Experiences of Users, Specifiers and Installers,” by the Health Care Research Collaborative, 2010) found that the four priorities that influence flooring decisions for all user types—architects, interior designers, installers, facility managers and users—were cleanability, aesthetics, durability and initial cost.

Architects and designers are more interested in aesthetics and sustainability than the other groups. Facility managers and users are more focused on the cleanability of flooring products, and installers rated initial and life-cycle cost, as well as durability, higher on their lists. Interestingly, that study found that the meaning of “sustainability” varies with different flooring stakeholders.

The study revealed a tendency for many stakeholders to weigh the initial costs of installation more heavily than the maintenance costs over the entire lifetime of the floor; the true life-cycle costs, including feedstock, manufacturing, recycling and disposal, are only very rarely taken into account.

A well-known 1999 analysis of flooring life-cycle costs over a 15-year period, for instance, showed that VCT is the cheapest to install, but maintenance multiplies the initial investment by up to 15 times (see Table 3, pg. 112). Rubber flooring, on the other hand, is more expensive to install but results in the lowest maintenance cost over the life of the installation at two times the initial investment.

Ironically, the sustainable resilient flooring (SRF) survey found that more “green” respondents (75 percent) who identified sustainability as a positive attribute had specified VCT in the last five years; only 66 percent of “neutral” respondents—those who did not select sustainability as a positive attribute for flooring—had specified VCT. Each group’s self-identification seems to indicate more about their intentions for future specifications rather than the reality of their recent projects.

table 1: Evaluation Criteria for Resilient Flooring Choices

(From “Healthy and Sustainable Flooring: Choosing Resilient Flooring for the European Healthcare Sector,” by Dr. Rye Senjen)

Manufactured without hazardous chemicals impossible possible possible
Free from indoor air pollution problems no some partially or yes
Free from pollutants that may interfere with product recycling no some partially or yes
Free from plasticizers no yes yes
Free from halogenated organic compounds no yes partially or yes
Hygiene potential high medium high
Life-cycle cost medium to high(depending on quality) high low
Maintenance manageable manageable easy with high-quality flooring products only
Slip resistant yes yes yes
Good acoustics no limited yes
Comfortable less so yes yes
Free from glare dependent on surface treatment dependent on surface treatment yes
High quality eco-certified product available no yes yes
Recommended? no yes, in particular situations and conditions and if it carries suitable eco-certification yes, if quality is high and it carries suitable eco-certification

PageBreak the ‘system’ approach to flooring A successful flooring installation depends upon factors beyond just choosing the right material for the project. To ensure your clients will get the best performance out of their floor, the subfloor must be properly prepared, appropriate adhesives must be used, the installers must be properly trained, and maintenance protocols must be established and practiced. Only when the entire system is appropriately designed will your resilient flooring choice deliver satisfactory results.

If environmental friendliness tops your list, the choice of materials will determine the rest of your system.

Although there is a general perception that “green” products are poorer performing and more expensive to maintain, some of the more sustainable resilient flooring options actually offer lower life-cycle costs, easier maintenance, and higher comfort and safety. Rubber flooring, for instance, does not require the same harsh maintenance chemicals as other materials like VCT, and is not slippery when wet.

Another impediment to the switch to greener materials found by the SRF study is the fear amongst facilities managers of trying an unfamiliar material that, although successful elsewhere, would force them to update their maintenance practices.

The temptation to target lower upfront investment is a powerful one, according to the SRF study. Most participants who hadn’t used rubber flooring felt that rubber floors were too expensive, despite evidence showing its dramatically lower lifetime maintenance costs.

sustainability: choosing the best option Another recent study conducted in Europe explores the real-world sustainability of resilient flooring types—PVC, linoleum and rubber—in an effort to make sense of the many different certification regimens found throughout the European Union.

The 2012 study, “Healthy and Sustainable Flooring: Choosing Resilient Flooring for the European Healthcare Sector,” includes in its definition of sustainability many properties over the entire life-cycle of the product, considering the overall environmental impact of manufacture, use and disposal, including any use of toxic chemicals.

The European study grouped key selection criteria into three sections:

  • Sustainable hygiene is the most important consideration, as a material that is toxic and has a high environmental impact should be excluded from any further consideration.
  • Cost-effective life is traditionally considered the most important decision criteria, as most facility managers want flooring that is durable and inexpensive. However, cost considerations are baked into the assumptions, so it is essential to consider maintenance and repair expenses over a floor’s expected longevity rather than just initial installation costs.Many resilient floors are traditionally covered with polymer coatings (polyurethane or acrylic) to facilitate daily cleaning and maintenance. Even if these are applied in manufacturing, these coatings have been shown to need repair and additional care during cleaning/maintenance on flooring choices like vinyl. Further chemical emissions may result from cleaning fluids causing VOC exposure to the building occupants. Large amounts of water may be required, causing further problems with the safe disposal of chemically polluted wastewater.With these factors in mind, a goal of “easy maintenance” should steer designers toward floors that do not need these coatings, and that can be cleaned with green cleaning agents without additional protective measures such as harsh chemical cleaners, waxes and other floor cleaning products that may be sources of indoor pollution.
  • Comfortable safety (i.e., a material that is comfortable underfoot, has good acoustics and is slip resistant) depends to some degree on the exact nature of the healthcare environment that is being considered.

PageBreaksustainable hygene

table 2: Flooring Selection Guide: Which Materials Can Best Help Meet Specific Goals

(From “Sustainable Resilient Flooring Choices for Hospitals: Perceptions and Experiences of Users, Specifiers and Installers,” by the Health Care Research Collaborative, 2010)

Downtime: Rubber, Polyolefin
Comfort: Rubber, Linoleum
Initial Cost: VCT, Sheet Vinyl
Infection Control: Rubber, Linoleum
Life-Cycle Costs: Linoleum, Rubber, Polyolefin
Sustainability: Linoleum
Health: Linoleum
“In an ideal world, products would be manufactured from sustainably grown and harvested plant resources or non-toxic post-consumer recycled content and would be reusable, recyclable or compostable at the end of their lives,” the study says. “Raw materials would be grown without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and without the use of pesticides containing carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants or endocrine disruptors. Greenhouse gas emissions during the life-cycle would be as low as practicable, and water and energy use would be minimized.”

Given that no such materials available on an industrial scale exist at present, the European study focuses on the elements manufacturers have some control over—particularly the use of toxic chemicals that should be avoided if possible: “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs, as defined by the Stockholm Convention and which include dioxins), chemicals that are persistent, “bioaccumulative and toxic” (PBT), or “very persistent and very bioaccumulative” (vPvB). It is also important to avoid all materials that are known or suspected to contain carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive or developmental toxicants (CMRs), endocrine disruptors, or any materials that emit certain levels of volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs or SVOCs).

VOCs are usually emitted in the first few hours or days after installation, but SVOCs are released more slowly and over a longer period of time.

  • Rubber Flooring Rubber flooring is the most widely used alternative to PVC flooring apart from linoleum. It is long wearing, suitable for high-traffic areas, slip resistant and relatively resistant to fire. High-quality rubber floors are low maintenance, requiring buffing but no waxing, are low noise, and are comfortable to walk and work on.Until the beginning of the 20th century, rubber floors were chiefly manufactured from natural rubber, derived from latex found in the sap of some plants, where it helps defend them against small insects. Difficulties in supply drove the development of synthetic rubber.The mostly widely used synthetic rubber copolymer is made from styrene and butadiene. Styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) was developed in Germany prior to World War II, but become prevalent in the United States during the war as a replacement for natural rubber supplies no longer available from the Far East. Vulcanized SBR offers superior abrasion resistance and aging stability in the presence of certain additives.Some manufacturers use a mix of synthetic and natural rubber to produce rubber flooring e.g., one-third natural rubber, two-thirds SBR, as well as naturally occurring minerals that are open-pit mined.The European study warns against rubber flooring containing post-consumer recycled content, particularly tires, which may contain significant amounts of toxic materials, making it unsuitable for interior use. Because it is vulcanized—a process through which its molecular structure is changed through heat, pressure and steam—rubber flooring cannot be melted down to make new flooring. Some U.S. manufacturers have developed processes for grinding old rubber flooring down for use in playgrounds, athletic fields and as landscaping mulch.
  • Vinyl Flooring PVC, from which vinyl flooring is made, was the third most-produced plastic in 2010, using about 40 percent of the chlorine produced globally, according to the European study. It is made by heating PVC resin with a number of additives, including flame retardants, plasticizers to give flexibility, pigments to provide color, UV stabilizers such as organozinc to protect against degradation by heat and light, and mineral fillers to improve its properties and reduce cost.
  • Linoleum Flooring Linoleum was first developed in 1855 and was the floor covering of choice for high-use areas until the 1960s. It has been largely replaced by PVC but has recently started to make a comeback. It is made of renewable materials and is biodegradable. Commercially, linoleum has been popular for areas subjected to extremely high foot traffic like bus stations, airports and schools, as well as hospitals and art galleries. It has good resistance to gouging, good acoustical dampening properties and overall durability.


    Per 1,000 sq. ft. installed

    VCT $1.20-1.50 $24,313 17
    SHEET VINYL $2.47-5.00 $25,879 8
    NO-FINISH SHEET VINYL $4.00-5.00 $15,640 4
    RUBBER $4.00-5.50 $ 8,095 2
    CARPET $6.66-25.50 $21,982 9
    Traditionally, linoleum was made from dried, milled flax seed and limestone, mixed with other plant material (pine rosin, wood flour or ground cork) and pigments. Flax seed is now commonly replaced by tall oil, a byproduct of pulp and paper milling.One of the key issues with linoleum is that harsh chemicals cannot be used on it. While on some level this is an advantage, as it results in gentler cleaners being used, it also means that maintaining a strict hygiene regimen can be challenging.While the flax seed is renewable, it is important to consider how the flax is grown—whether it has been treated with pesticides or herbicides, and if so, which ones. Life-cycle assessments of linoleum frequently cite eutrophication of water (caused by agricultural runoff) as a key negative effect of linoleum production.Overall, when PVC, rubber and linoleum are compared in terms of life-cycle cost, linoleum incurs rather low initial costs but higher life-cycle costs, driven by the need to apply protective polyurethane (PU) or acrylic coatings.
  • Polyolefin Polyolefin polymer flooring is often made from mixtures of thermoplastic or elastomeric polyolefins. It is the least-specified resilient flooring, according to the SRF study, and rarely used in commercial installations in Europe, so data is limited on its life-cycle characteristics.It is generally used in limited areas due to the cost premium compared with other products. In healthcare it is generally avoided in clinical or treatment spaces because it is a tile product and cannot be installed seamlessly.

PageBreaklife cycle costs vs. cost-effective life The European study forgoes “life-cycle cost,” instead coining the term “cost-effective life” to encompass the four key aspects of cost: initial cost, durability, maintenance costs and installation issues.

Good quality rubber flooring will last for 15, 20 or even beyond 30 years and still be aesthetically pleasing. The initial investment is higher than other material choices, but this is more than offset by savings in maintenance and repair, as well as in an improved environment for staff and, in the case of healthcare installations, patient health.

A groundbreaking study in 1999 by Suzanne Barnes found that over a 15-year installation the maintenance for a rubber floor was twice the initial investment. Contrast this with VCT, whose maintenance costs were 17 times the initial investment.

A large advantage with rubber floors is that they require no waxing or stripping, and no harsh chemicals for cleaning. Because of this, they can be cleaned while the space is occupied, minimizing disruption for staff and occupants. They are resistant to staining, suffer from fewer color abrasions, and have minimal or no shrinkage.

The European study also found that rubber floors have excellent acoustics and are comfortable underfoot for long periods. They don’t produce glare and are non-slippery when wet.

rubber tops other flooring types The ideal resilient floor is non-toxic throughout its life-cycle, practical (hygienic, easy to clean), durable, safe, silent underfoot, pleasant visually and cost-effective. While this ideal material does not exist at present, some of the flooring choices available today come fairly close.

It’s important to keep in mind that flooring must be approached as a system and a component of the overall building, so it is critical to properly prepare the subfloor and to use approved low-toxicity adhesives. Maintenance personnel must also be thoroughly trained on maintenance routines, especially if the new floor is different from the previously installed floor.

Rubber flooring offers the best opportunity to combine low lifetime maintenance costs and very good hygienic characteristics, acoustics, comfort and safety.

steps for flooring success(From “Sustainable Resilient Flooring Choices for Hospitals: Perceptions and Experiences of Users, Specifiers and Installers,” by the Health Care Research Collaborative, 2010)The Sustainable Resilient Flooring study includes several case studies. Through those interviews it found that regardless of the type of flooring being specified, the following steps help ensure a successful installation:

1. Determine the needs. Before making a decision on what material to use, talk to the end users and find out what their needs are—for example, the performance requirements for the space, the ability for maintenance to get in and have access for cleaning, and the look that they want. See Table 2 for a quick guide to which materials help meet specific goals.

2. Touch and test samples. Obtain samples that people can see and feel and, if possible, install a small area of multiple types of flooring for users to evaluate. Put some of your tougher staining substances on the product and let them sit for an hour before cleaning to evaluate stain resistance.

3. Do your research. Get the manufacturer to provide references for projects that have used the product in a similar application, and contact them for practical input. Go and visit, ifpossible, to see the floor firsthand. Ask your insurance company to test the coefficient of friction for the material when it is dry, wet and when freshlyfinished to see if the product will provide you with a safe environment.

4. Make an inclusive decision.

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Narrow the selection down based on the information and feedback gathered in the previous steps. Involve key people from the affected departments in the final decision.

5. Ensure a quality installation. Set clear guidelines for preparation of the subfloor to create the conditions needed for the specified flooring material. Check the qualifications and experience of the installer, and verify references and feedback from the other projects they have done. Allow adequate time in the construction schedule for acclimatizing the building before installation. After installation, allow the required amount of time before permitting traffic into the area.

6. Inform the stakeholders. Make sure environmental services staff are trained in the proper maintenance procedures, have the appropriate equipment and supplies, and understand what they should expect in terms of the cleaning protocol.

7. Measure the results. Check in with the environmental services department and staff to document their impressions of the floor after several months in service. Track any impacts such as comfort, acoustics, falls or reduced maintenance costs that were anticipated.

8. Institutionalize the findings. Based on the performance of the flooring material, make changes to the system standards and procedures so that other facilities and future projects will benefit from your experience.



“Sustainable Resilient Flooring Choices for Hospitals: Perceptions and Experiences of Users, Specifiers and Installers,” by the Health Care Research Collaborative, 2010

“Healthy and Sustainable Flooring: Choosing Resilient Flooring for the European Healthcare Sector,” by Dr. Rye Senjen

“Life-Cycle Benefits of Flooring Surfaces in Health Care – Our Methodology Was All Wrong?” by Suzanne R. Barnes, AIA, CFM, 1998

“Resilient Flooring & Chemical Hazards: A Comparative Analysis of Vinyl and Other Alternatives for Health Care,” by the Healthy Building Network; Authors: Tom Lent, Julie Silas and Jim Vallette