Time to replace?

How do you know if a multi-purpose or activity floor needs replacing? Our technical supremo Richard guides you through the signs.

You can usually see the signs when a sports or activity floor has reached the end of its days – it may have borne all the repairs it possibly can, it could be unsafe to use or no longer be capable of taking the loads and impacts it once could. Managers of sports centres, dance studios and similar businesses will know the importance of offering a good quality floor to their clients in order to maintain income levels and bookings. But to achieve this the floor has to have good all-round performance, not just look good on the surface. Users of the floor can become dissatisfied because of what the floor does or doesn’t do, rather than just the way it looks, and it is these ”intangible” issues that I wanted to talk about here.

The floor is arguably the most important element in a sports or multi-purpose hall because it is the surface with which players have the closest interaction. They rely on it for safety and to allow them to perform to the best of their abilities – consistent ball bounce, not too slippery and not too much grip under foot, protection from impact injuries and reducing stress to joints and tendons. A comfortable floor will help athletes to achieve their best performance not only in competition, but when learning new skills, so it is not just at the top level that it is important to have a “proper” sports floor.

Junckers’ Approved flooring contractor CourtCraft replaces a failed sports floor with a new area elastic Junckers solid wood sports floor. Image credit: Courtcraft

Assessing an activity floor for replacement should include questions such as; has there been a change of use? does it comply with current performance standards? have client needs changed? has there been deterioration of performance such as failure of the concealed load bearing or “sprung” components or irreversible changes to the surface friction?

Here are some of the main factors that can cause a floor to become obsolete or unsuitable:

Friction levels

Some types of floor, such as hardwood, can be refurbished and therefore offer a very long service life. Others are more limited in this respect, for example vinyl stuck to a timber deck.

Good maintenance procedures will often provide a cure for a slippery floor e.g. de-greasing the floor, applying a surface dressing or resealing if that sort of treatment is available. However, for some types of sports surfaces no post installation surface treatment is available. Synthetic floors such as vinyl and PU have a textured wear layer which may wear smooth over time, and when friction levels fall too low the floor system has to be replaced.

A synthetic floor which has lost its textured wear layer causing friction levels to fall too low. This floor needed to be replaced. Image credit: Courtcraft

Shock Absorbency

Older sports floors may have hard, solid surfaces with no “spring” at all. These types include composite blocks, homogeneous vinyl to screed, asphalt and painted screed. Fortunately, these surfaces are becoming less common for sports and are gradually being replaced with more modern, healthier systems, usually Area Elastic floors which have a timber deck of some kind on a “sprung” support beneath. Public awareness is increasing; serious indoor athletes and most members of the public know that a sprung floor is more comfortable, safer and reduces injuries compared with a “concrete” surface. The performance standards for sports floors are currently defined by EN 14904 and many clients, including the education sector under the ESFA and any facilities that follow sports governing bodies design advice will ensure that their new floor complies. There is no statutory need to comply, but providers of sport and leisure facilities will be more exposed to claims for negligence if someone should be injured. For coaches, fitness instructors and elite athletes who spend long periods using the floor the need for a healthy surface is all the greater.

With some types of flooring the amount of “spring” can change over time. This should not happen with a good quality system and for some parts of the sports floor industry the learning process is ongoing. Modern sprung floors often use timber battens with plastic foam or rubber pads to provide shock absorption. Others may use a timber deck laid directly on a thick layer of foam. Some low cost sports systems use foams that do not recover their thickness under long term compression. This might happen if heavy equipment is stored in the same place, for example. It can lead to a floor that looks fine but when you jump on it you get a hard landing! Good quality foam or rubber pads and underlays will always recover after compression. With engineered/multi layered timber floors some invisible damage can happen over time, where the core material becomes weakened and the boards lose their stiffness. This can happen where the middle of the board is made from wooden “fingers” or lamellas, laid crosswise. Over time and from repeated impact, the glue between the lamellas can fail and the board will bend too much, leading to progressive deterioration of the floor, including excessive deflection of the surface, poor shock absorption and incorrect ball bounce.

Significant changes in the shock absorbency of the floor may be a symptom of a progressive problem.

Variable bounce

If the sprung performance of the floor should deteriorate this will more often happen in the areas subjected to the heaviest loads. This means that basketball players or five-a-side players will get a “dead bounce” in certain areas. It can also happen if someone jumps on the floor at the same time as the ball lands. Players at all levels will find this a nuisance but at club and elite level it will be unacceptable.

Changing needs of sports and activities

Things rarely stay the same and over the years a client may need to use the floor for new purposes in order to maintain income levels, and previously popular activities may go out of fashion.

There is a growing trend for flexible spaces. What used to be a simple sports hall may now need to double as a theatre and performance space, a venue for local community activities, trade shows and other, similar events. A sprung floor has to be able to take on all these challenges. Floors need to become more durable, easier to refurbish and repair and be more load bearing.

School multi-purpose hall used as extra dining space. Junckers solid oak flooring at Marlborough Primary School by Dixon Jones. Photo: Paul Riddle

One of the main trends is the installation of retractable seating systems which allow a wider variety of events to take place. Some synthetic floor surfaces can suffer tracking marks and scuffs from the seating wheels, but others such as lacquered hardwood are more resistant and can be resealed anyway as part of the maintenance cycle. Some stuck-down finishes can de-bond and ruck under rolling loads. Some floor types cannot be strengthened to bear seating loads and therefore will not work with retractable seating units.

Environmental issues are already making inroads into gym culture. Perhaps one of the most striking examples is the London-based Terra Hale gyms which use energy generated by its clients during their workouts to power the building. But importantly, they also pay meticulous attention to the materials that are used in their fit outs. Both the company owners and their clients place a high value on using materials with good environmental credentials, reducing use of plastics and other non-recyclable, non-sustainable options. This would appear to make perfect sense as environmentalism and sustainability go hand in hand with health, fitness and wellbeing. The message speaks directly to a public for whom environmental issues are high on the agenda. It will not come as a surprise if other sport and leisure companies follow suit.

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