In Sustainable Resilient Flooring, Rubber Tops the List

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

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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

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