With the variety of floor coverings continually widening - wood floors, flaws and fauxs competing to convince - the specifier's decision can be an increasingly difficult one
When is a wood not a wood? Alongside the headache of specifying a floor covering that complies with the ever-mounting list of standards and requirements, designers are increasingly faced with the choice of whether or not to 'go faux'. It's an arduous task. Vinyl resembles timber, resins are cunningly disguised to look like stone, and even good old reliable carpet seems to be aspiring to be something distinctly 'other'. The performance, say manufacturers, is there in black and white (or any other colour you want) but without the cost, risk of damage, or tricky installation. Plus they've taken care of those little concerns over Document L, the amendments to the DDA, provision for the visually impaired, life-cycle costs, health and safety, acoustic performance, 'sustainability' and so on. The warm look of wood, for example, can now be recreated in hospitals and health centres by using non-bacteria harbouring sheet vinyl. If you listen to the hype, you might hear whispers that the vast range of resilient flooring products now available competes convincingly with the real thing. So what are the choices open to specifiers of floor coverings?
Treading a fine line Materials that emulate the look and even the texture of wood, granite and stone appear to be infiltrating all sectors. In schools and healthcare buildings, the organic look may be desirable but definitely requires an alternative. But even the more lucrative commercial sector is enjoying a creative dabble. At Vauxhall's new Brand Centre in Luton, project architect Iain Johnston of Bisset Adams specified Armstrong's Timberline product, a PU-coated vinyl floor covering whose promotional blurb promises 'a realistic wood grain visual that mimics the natural appearance of wood'. Asked about using vinyl plank rather than hardwood, Johnston said he was 'confident in getting the same result'. And while acknowledging that cost was certainly a decisive factor, it wasn't the sole consideration. In situations where designers cannot control the curing of the concrete substrate, the use of timber floors can result in irrevocable damage, as moisture can cause timber boards to warp. But is the end product convincing? 'Of course it feels different, but the look is very good, ' says Johnston, 'and it will be very easy to maintain.' In the event of any damage, the use of plank rather than sheet vinyl allows individual sections to be replaced rather than the whole floor, resulting in less waste and lower costs.
With so much pressure on floor-covering manufacturers to present competitive life-cycle costs, ease of maintenance is of paramount importance. The real timber flooring so integral to the original design of restaurant and coffee bar chain Caffe Uno was recently made redundant in three projects for its difficulty of maintenance, and replaced with Stratica's eco-polymeric Oak stripwood. Specified by The Broadbent Partnership, Stratica products have a chlorine-free surface-wear layer, based on a polymer called Surlyn, which, its manufacturers claim, minimises any maintenance requirements. And the comment on the final aesthetic? 'The wood-look more than satisfies for visual appeal, ' says senior designer Barney Broadbent. So exciting is this prospect that all the key players have jumped on the 'go faux' bandwagon.
Marley Floors' X Floors range has four new 'woods': Clear Oak White, Hard Maple, Tender Maple and Alt Ash, as well as new Marble, Stone and Kojimo Slate collections. Made from chlorine-free vinyl, they offer scuff, stain and abrasion resistance 'so the product will look good for the whole of its life'. Burmafloors International's resilient floor covering is intriguing. A quick call to the technical team establishes that it is actually a heavy-duty vinyl emulating a laminate that looks very much like natural wood plank, or marble/granite tile.
For wood looks in leisure facilities, swimming pools and bathrooms, Aikona has a vinyl composite with a non-slip, waterresilient surface that, again, requires very little maintenance.
With PFI projects on the up, a low lifecycle cost is just one of the many concerns in selecting the most suitable floor covering.
The £95 million Worcestershire Royal Hospital, a PFI-funded project from Catalyst Healthcare Consortium, has a wide range of floor coverings by Tarket Sommer. A combination of IQ 'no-polish' Optima, Granit and Acczent Wood vinyls has enhanced an environment where one could never conceive of using natural materials, while saving on costly maintenance. Acczent Wood, which comes in eight colours varying from light to dark species and can easily be mixed and matched to existing timber features, was also used on Ilkeston Hospital in Derbyshire to highlight the nurses' stations.
Subject to scrupulous health and safety standards, hospitals demand seamless, easy-to-clean floors to help combat bacteria (like the killer MRSA bug). But at the same time, hospital design can use naturaleffect vinyl in a departure from that forbidding institutional look that fills so many of us with dread.
Spot the difference 'Laminate has not really taken off in the commercial sector for architects, ' says John Gommersall, sales manager for Kronoplus, 'until now perhaps.' Manufacturers may have addressed concerns over performance and longevity with high-pressure laminates, like those offered by Abet, but if installation is your bugbear, the more recent developments may help. Kronospan claims that its Flex Deck system is the first product of its kind that can be installed from wall to wall without expansion profiles. Silicone rubber interlocking flex strips expand and contract to adjust to changes in climate and weight, and the 12mm high-density coreboard offers greater stability than more conventional 7-9mm sizes.
Available in either a Stone or Wood range, which includes Oak, Cherry, Maple and Birch, your immovable floor can follow the trend for 'natural authenticity'. Alloc's no-glue quickclick locking system promises easy installation, compared to natural stone and wood, in almost any commercial or domestic environment. Whatever you may think of the material, manufacturers of laminate flooring are piling a huge effort into making natural-replica products even more authentic. In terms of wood, the European Producers of Laminate Flooring informs specifiers that 'perfect reproduction of the wood grain is coming closer and closer to its natural inspiration' and for slate, 'laminate flooring convinces with its absolutely authentic tile structure'.
Developments by companies such as International Decorative Surfaces reinforce that this is more than just puff PR. Its palette of five slate and limestone designs is finished with a Living Surfaces texture, which, it claims, gives the look and feel of the natural product without the complex curing and installation process. Alloc believes that only a highly trained eye can see the difference between its StoneStructure product and the real thing. Paver joints have been machined into the surface of Alloc's travertine, granite and slate versions to create a natural appearance reminiscent of cement joints.
Only natural Unsurprisingly, timber manufacturers in particular have been quick to respond to the pressure. Tony Miles, sales director at International Timber, admits that the 'rise of imitation woodgrains? have all at times played their part in detracting from the use of real timber', but is adamant that timber's use has 'never been as widespread as it is right now'. The great volumes of product literature published alongside promotions like the Wood. for good campaign bear testimony to the fact that there is little complacency here.
Wood. for good, for example, challenges the conception that timber floors are difficult to maintain. A spokesperson for the company says that 'the latest products are purposefully manufactured to create a durable and aesthetically finished floor that requires no further covering'. Solid hardwood floors such as oak, walnut and especially maple are luxury, high-price items, but offer high abrasion resistance and are tough enough to remain untreated. Even softwood timbers can be hardened using compression techniques or coatings to make them more resistant.
Natural Building Technologies has an ecologically friendly range of oils and waxes to protect and enhance wood. Anti-static, it protects against dust and allows wood to breathe. Unlike laminate, solid flooring from International Timber can be re-sanded and re-treated with different stains in response to changing fashion trends in commercial and leisure applications. Recent product literature from hardwood flooring manufacturer Junckers takes a hefty swipe at synthetic lookalikes. Its latest offering is a lacquered finish called Ultra Matt, which gives floors a natural matt look, until now only available in an oiled finish. Product literature reminds us, however, that Junckers floors are not suitable for bathrooms and shower rooms, which is where those synthetic lookalikes may come in handy after all.
Laminate, vinyl and resilient floor coverings have made leaps and bounds towards producing arguably cheaper, easier to install and highly convincing alternatives to natural products. Life-cycle cost is more of a conundrum. Replicas may last, but risk looking dated; timber floors are highly durable, but may require more maintenance and initial costs are generally higher. Given free rein, however, many specifiers would still rather have a real timber floor than a replica.
'Architects are purists, ' says Dexter Moren of Moren Greenhalgh. It becomes an issue of keeping the integrity of individual materials rather than performance. 'If I use vinyl I want it to look like vinyl, not something else.'
Sounds about right In considering how sound moves through a building, the new approved Document E has set specifiers (rather confusing) parameters.
Bill Powell, technical support manager at Polyflor, emphasises how important it is for architects to get the right information from different component manufacturers.
Performance standards apply more to the entire space between floors than to the superficial floor covering. Stramit Industries has, for example, launched ElecoFloor, a composite building system designed to outperform the requirements of Part E relating to sound insulation for separating floors in dwellings.
To meet the revised regulations, a typical built-up flooring system would require a 25mm-thick layer of mineral floor slab, two layers of 19mm gypsum board and 18mm of tongue and groove chipboard - a total of 81mm. ElecoFloor claims to achieve the same sound insulation performance with a 36mm composite floor panel, saving on height and installation time. The system comprises an 18mm layer of moisture-resistant tongue-and-groove chipboard, a soundabsorbing membrane, a 9mm layer of MDF and a bottom layer of acoustic felt. The 36mm thickness provides 57dB airborne and 58dB impact sound insulation, while the 40mm thickness provides 59dB airborne and 56dB impact sound insulation.
Vinyl floors and tiles require a soft underlay to prevent the problem of impact noise.
Marleytred, from Marley Floors, is a resilient sheet underlay designed for use in schools, hospitals and shared living accommodation.
It is made from granulated recycled rubber and cork granules and, used in conjunction with a 2mm vinyl floor covering, provides an impact sound reduction of around 17dB.
Alloc claims its Silent System soundabsorbent underlay reduces impact noise by over 50 per cent. Kronospan makes similar claims for its Flex Deck system, in which a sound-absorption sheet is bonded onto each panel to reduce noise by half.
Timber may not necessarily be recognised for its sound attenuation properties, but once again this is down to the working of the substructure. According to senior acoustic technician Andrew Parkin of RW Gregory & Partners, a hardwood floor will perform adequately if it is laid properly on timber floorboards and the specifiers avoid 'cheap' systems. Wood. for good reports on innovations that may help. The greater rigidity and density of timber flooring cassettes allows them to incorporate large amounts of insulating material such as compressed mineral wool. Alternatively, designers can opt for a rubber floor covering. The Noppe Stud Tile from Polyflor has been designed specifically for high-traffic areas in commercial and leisure buildings and promises 'excellent sound reduction properties'. Altro's Mondo Slate rubber flooring was used extensively at the University of York for an interesting finish with good sound absorbency.
That just about covers it? Carpet manufacturers are, quite literally, getting a carpeting. Accusations of excessive wear and tear, waste, questions over performance, and a link with allergy aggravation and the harbouring of dust mites are leading some commentators to claim that carpet's days are numbered. But the carpet industry is taking on the challenge. Bonar Floors has teamed up with Allergy UK to offer training sessions on 'Creating a Healthy Environment'. Its Flotex product was apparently the first textile floor covering to be awarded the British Allergy Foundation's Seal of Approval in 2000. Interface continues to develop its zero ecological footprint strategy with such successes as the Entropy 'repair, adapt and re-use' range. And some manufacturers are even buying into the faux trend with startling and often eye-catching results. Modulus Flooring Systems' Plank carpet tile has a wood-grain effect and organic colourways to give it the appearance of hewn timber floorboards. The tiles measure 1m x 20cm to enhance the effect, and can be laid in a herringbone pattern to mimic parquet. And MFS is quick to establish Plank as more than just a pretty face: the durable yarn is Antron Excel SC from Dupont and offers colour fastness and stain resistance. Providing a long life cycle is Interface's Transformation carpet tile range, inspired by marble, rock and veneer. Similar funky finishes are also possible with the Tec and Net ranges of woven metallic-looking yarns from Carpet Concept.