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The Right Flooring for Your Space

Sept. 1, 2008

If you're looking for an alternative to carpet, stone, or wood, consider the choices featured here

Are you considering a switch from carpet to resilient or laminate flooring? Is your current flooring shouting out its decade to everybody who visits your building? If what's underfoot is underperforming, but you don't know where to start in choosing the right flooring, knowing the basics about the different durable flooring options will prepare you for your flooring makeover. To help you make smarter decisions along the way, check out the chart at the end of this article for a quick reference on the attributes of different types of flooring.

What is Resilient Flooring?
According to the LaGrange, GA-based Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), resilient flooring refers to flooring materials that have a relatively firm surface, yet characteristically have "give" and "bounce back" to their original surface profile from the weight of objects that compress its surface. The most common types of resilient flooring are vinyl, linoleum, rubber, and cork flooring. (Laminate, though not considered a true type of resilient flooring, is also presented here as another durable flooring option.) Manufactured in tiles and rolls, these floors are often chosen for commercial buildings because of their comfort underfoot, durability, long life, and easy cleaning requirements. "Resilient flooring has the advantage of comfort, but it also has durability and ease of maintenance," says Bill Freeman, technical consultant at RFCI.

Though all types of resilient flooring share some characteristics, what sets them apart is what you really need to know to make the right choices.

Vinyl. Though it was discovered in the late 1920s, vinyl wasn't accepted as a commercial flooring material until the 1950s. Since then, it has taken off as one of the most popular floorcoverings in the industry because of its cost, aesthetic options, and extremely long life. While vinyl has recently received criticism regarding its environmental friendliness (the main ingredients are polyvinylchloride [PVC], plasticizers, fillers, and pigment), building owners and facility managers are still specifying this versatile product. "While overall floorcovering sales in 2007 dropped 7.5 percent, vinyl floorcovering sales grew 10.6 percent during the same year," says Freeman. Additionally, many types of vinyl contain recycled materials. "Manufacturers are taking a proactive lead in [making] vinyl a more attractive alternative for the environment, including the use of pre-consumer recycled content. It is also one of the lowest emitters of VOCs," says Takashi Abe, executive vice president and COO at Carson, CA-based Lonseal.

VCT (vinyl composition tile) is the most popular form of vinyl, and it's generally the lowest price point in commercial resilient flooring. Sheet vinyl—slightly more expensive and often specified for healthcare environments, where seams aren't desirable—is manufactured and processed using large drums or made by coating a thin layer of mix onto a backing material. "A protective wear layer is easy to clean and is antimicrobial," explains Abe. "The middle layer provides dimensional stability and sound-absorbing properties, and the bottom layer is molded to the backing cloth for stabilization."

The manufacturing process for vinyl is fairly quick, according to Dominic Rice, vice president of product management at Lancaster, PA-based Armstrong Commercial Flooring. "From the time you process the raw materials to when you put the finished product in the packaging, it's a very short process," he says.

Aesthetic options with vinyl are virtually limitless. "It's available in any hue of the color wheel," says Abe, "but it can also be imprinted to replicate the look of any substance, such as wood or metal."

Why should you choose vinyl? Because:

  • It has a low initial cost.
  • It's waterproof, slip resistant, and resists stains and fading.
  • It absorbs sound and is easy to clean.

Linoleum. Linoleum is not manufactured with petrochemicals. "It really comes down to material content," says Rice. "Does the product use renewable resources vs. nonrenewable resources? Linoleum definitely does." Linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, is a key ingredient. Other ingredients include wood or cork powder, resins, mineral pigments, and ground limestone. The ingredients are mixed together and then rolled out between two cylinders onto backing. Then, the linoleum is cured in ovens for 14 to 21 days. Some manufacturers apply a high-performance coating to the surface to improve the floor's ability to resist stains and scratches, and to make cleaning easier. The resulting floor is then rolled onto cores and is ready for installation, with a cost similar to sheet vinyl. Like vinyl, linoleum can be made in virtually any color of the rainbow or printed to emulate other materials.

Why should you choose linoleum? Because:

  • It contains renewable resources.
  • Special coatings help it resist scuffs and scratches.
  • With polish, a high degree of shine can be attained.

Rubber. With waterproof and slip-resistant properties that make it ideal for harsh environments or spaces where slips and falls might occur, rubber flooring is commonly used in industrial and education settings. The flooring often comes with a texture (studs or ribbing) to enhance its slip resistance.

While most of today's rubber flooring contains synthetic materials, manufacturers still use some natural rubber to create their products. Natural rubber is a renewable raw material extracted from the sap of the tropical rubber plant.

In the past, rubber floors were definitely appreciated for function over beauty, but today's rubber flooring can be as dazzling as any other type of resilient flooring choice.

Why should you choose rubber? Because:

  • It has an incredibly long life.
  • It's ideal for wet or hazardous spaces, or spaces that require frequent, harsh cleaning.
  • It can now fit in with any aesthetic.

Cork. With natural sound-deadening and insulation characteristics, cork flooring comes in many colors and is available in planks and tiles. Made from a renewable resource (the bark of cork oak trees), cork floors can be glued down and/or floated over a variety of subfloors, including wood, concrete slabs, and some existing floors. Some cork flooring can even be installed in interlocking, snap-in-place pieces.

Comprised of more than 50-percent air, cork flooring is lightweight, too. It's also less likely to show dents or grooves. And, because it's made from bark, cork flooring feels warm underfoot and is easily maintained after a sealant is applied. Because of its porous nature, even sealed cork flooring should not be used in extremely wet environments. "Building owners need to check with the flooring manufacturer to determine the best product for a particular application," says Freeman. Do research and talk to your vendors to see where cork flooring fits best in your building.

Some manufacturers offer cork/rubber flooring—a choice that presents the best of both worlds. The rubber provides water resistance while the cork keeps the flooring comfortable and sound absorbent.

Why should you choose cork? Because:

  • Natural cushion makes it a quiet flooring choice.
  • Cork oak is a naturally renewable resource.
  • It provides the feel of wood without scratches and dents.

Laminate. Not considered a true type of resilient flooring, laminate is still a good choice for durable, easy-to-maintain flooring. Made up of layers, laminate can be printed to look exactly like hardwood, bamboo, stone, and anything in between. Not to be confused with laminate wood floors (which are really engineered wood floors), laminate floors typically consist of some type of fiber core body with a print layer and a top coating of melamine. For commercial applications, HPL (high-pressure laminate) is commonly used. DPL (direct-pressure laminate) is less expensive, but it's typically used in residential applications. According to Armstrong Commercial Flooring, HPL is more expensive, but less likely to gouge if items are dropped from above countertop height. But, it's also harder to emboss than DPL, so it doesn't look as realistic.

"The production is much more involved for high-pressure laminate floors than for a residential direct-pressure product," says Anthony Riggi, flooring product manager for Englewood, NJ-based ABET Laminati. He cautions that building owners must "be certain that the material and the supplier are focused on the commercial market. Too often, residential materials are sold into commercial installation and fail." Look closely at product warranties and manufacturer specifications before installing any type of flooring.

Laminate flooring is floated on top of the subfloor, not glued down. "Floated installations are good in retrofit situations where you can go over pre-existing materials," says Riggi. "Floated floors are more resistant to hydrostatic pressure problems, and they're not affected by settlement cracks and minor subfloor irregularities."

Why should you choose laminate? Because:

  • It can look like anything, but maintain its resiliency.
  • Its floating installation is good for retrofits.
  • Maintenance is as easy as using a damp mop.

Know Your Space
With so many positive aspects to each type of flooring, how can you choose the right one for your building? "The key is not so much the building," says Rice, "but the applications within the building. Most commercial facilities will have a range of different spaces and uses for those spaces."

If you own or operate a healthcare facility, for example, think about sheet vinyl with heat-welded seams to keep operating and patient rooms hygienic. In the children's wing, consider brightly colored rubber flooring. For hospitality facilities, resilient flooring might be a secondary flooring choice; however, where durability is a key concern, resilient flooring might be a good option. If you manage a retail facility, you might already have one of these types of flooring, but have you considered updating your look with something fresh? (See Know Your Needs for questions to ask before you shop around.) Think about each part of your building and how it's used—and then match the product to your budget, your maintenance requirements, and the aesthetic you want to achieve.

A Rundown on Durable Flooring


Average Cost Per Square Foot
Environmental Friendliness
Care and Maintenance
Special Features


VCT: $1.50 to $3

Sheet Vinyl: $3.50 to $6

Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT): $4 to $5

The production of vinyl uses nonrenewable resources (petroleum), but many manufacturers are now using recycled content as well.

Adhesive bonds
product to the
subfloor; subfloor preparation is

Check manufacturer specifications;
generally, sweeping and damp mopping will do the trick.

For shine, use polish.


Moisture resistant.

Scratch and scuff

Long life (7 to 10 years in retail, 15 to 20 years in healthcare).


$3.50 to $6

Made with natural materials.

Adhesive bonds
product to the
subfloor; subfloor preparation is

Check manufacturer specifications; generally, sweeping and damp mopping will do the trick.

For shine, use polish.

Durable and long lasting.

Resists tears and gouging.

Moisture and stain resistant.


$4 to $9

While today's rubber floors are made of more than just natural rubber, their long life-cycle equals energy savings in the end.

Adhesive bonds product to the subfloor; subfloor preparation is required.

Rubber floors can stand up under harsh chemical cleaning, but damp mopping is good routine

Extreme moisture and slip resistance.

Great for conditions that require more grip.

Extremely durable and gouge resistant.


$3 to $7

Cork flooring is made from a quick-renewing source: cork oak bark.

Cork flooring can be adhered to the
subfloor or floated on top.

Sealant protects the cork flooring from moisture, but check manufacturer specifications for any cleaning that goes beyond sweeping.

The temperature of the cork provides a warm feel underfoot.

Made from renewable resources.

Can be mixed with rubber for increased slip resistance.


$4.50 to $6

While most laminate floors contain some synthetic components, renewable and recycled materials are also used.

Laminate floors can be snapped together and float above the subfloor.

Check manufacturer specifications; an ammonia or vinegar/
water mixture on a damp mop works well.

Print technology gives the realistic look of wood, metal, stone, etc.

Floated installation is easy for retrofits.

Stain and chemical resistant.

Jenna M. Aker ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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