The Evolution of Access Flooring

Oct. 30, 2003
Forty Years of Development Has Lowered Cost, Environmental Impact, and Construction Time
Following is a greatly expanded version of the column that ran in the November 2003 issue of Buildings, page 24.The access floor industry, sometimes referred to as raised flooring, was born in the early ’60s in response to special environmental concerns within large mainframe computer rooms. In addition, the massive amount of cooling and air-conditioning required by supercomputers created the need for a flooring system that allowed air circulation, wire management, and load-bearing support for the heavy equipment. The early versions of raised/access flooring used simple steel plates supported by structural steel suspended over the existing floor. Soon the industry adopted the two-foot by two-foot panel format with adjustable pedestal and lateral understructure support, still used today. Until the late ’70s, industry growth was fueled by the use of computers in both government and industry.  The late ’80s would see Wall Street explode and bring with it a demand for additional and larger trading operations and the infrastructure needed to support them. At the same time, the personal computer drove access flooring into general office buildings. Computers occupied nearly every desktop, requiring Intra and Internet access and e-mail and fax machine capability. Open office architecture, free of walls or power poles, improved the work environment and thus productivity. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, on Jul., 9, 2003, more and more building designers were turning to raised flooring to give the constantly complaining, overheated, and shivering office masses control over personal climates. Raised-floor ventilation delivered conditioned air through adjustable vents in each workspace.  To address the rising need of quieter environments in the workplace, the panels were filled with concrete to dampen the noise. With critical services located under a continuous floor system, an office could be reconfigured in minutes rather than days, thus lowering building life-cycle costs.The ’90s saw a boom in the telecommunications industry overall with the exponential growth of Internet-related services. Web farms were being built literally around the clock, driving access floor manufacturing to new heights. In addition, high-tech environments, clean rooms, biomedical, microelectronic, pharmaceutical, and laboratory facilities fueled the need for greater flexibility in electrical and HVAC system access and design. The advanced flooring systems that were manufactured used several different components, giving a building owner a choice among concrete-filled or hollow-steel panels, metal-clad wood-core panels, or, in some instances, complete die-cast aluminum components. This Bear market of the 2000s would bring downturns in all industries. The focus has turned inward to cost savings and ever-increasing environmental concerns. Building owners and facilities managers are looking for ways to refurbish their facilities rather than relocate or replace them. In a recent research report by Buildings magazine (“Modernization in the Buildings Market,” March 2003), 83.1 percent of survey respondents are currently involved in modernization projects, while only 64.8 percent are involved in new construction projects. Topping the list of products to be purchased for modernization projects are carpet at 81 percent, and hard-surface floors at 50.6 percent.  Greener/smarter buildings, and the business world’s obsession with budget constraints, have spurred a new evolution in the access flooring industry. Advances in adhesives and equipment have enabled a new on-site rejuvenation process. While the access floor infrastructure endures, the finishes and wear surfaces applied to the panels do not. In a stand-alone mobile unit delivered to the site, building owners can now reuse existing floor panels by removing, refinishing, and reinstalling them over a period of days rather than weeks or months. By refinishing on-site, handling and transportation costs and the cost of a new understructure and its installation are eliminated. In addition, there is no worker downtime or complaint or environmental hazard from airborne contaminants, particulates, or out-gassing. Recycling panels also uses less energy, fewer raw materials, and minimizes accumulation in landfills. From a fiscal and environmental standpoint, clearly it makes sense to reuse and refinish at the source.Dotti L. Campbell is director of sales and marketing at Access Floors OnSite (, Charleston, SC.

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