The UK contract floorcoverings market is currently worth ú905 million and is predicted to carry on growing, reaching ú969 million by 2007. Carpet still dominates the sector, accounting for more than half of all sales. But it is coming under increased pressure from wood and laminates, which now have a 15 per cent market share and are particularly strong in the retail and commercial sectors. Vinyl accounts for 12 per cent of the market, although the high price of oil may have an adverse impact on sales.
Ceramic tiles and resin floors both enjoy a 6 per cent market share, and have shown good levels of growth in recent years. Linoleum, cork and rubber are mainly niche products in applications requiring hardwearing or chemical-resistant flooring.
Aesthetics aside, the key issues driving technical developments in contract flooring are the acoustic performance of buildings, particularly high-rise, multi-occupancy dwellings; the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995; floor hygiene; and the whole issue of sustainability.
Hear no evil The rapid growth of laminate flooring use in the UK, from virtually zero to 50 million m 2 per annum, has not been without its problems. The distinctive 'clack' caused by walking on laminate floors with hard shoes has become a contentious issue, particularly in blocks of flats with concrete frames.
One of the problems has been that while the acoustic requirements of the building regulations are clear, the route to effective specifications to meet these standards is less so. Confusion is caused by the absence of a standardised test regime for underlays.
Robert Clarke of Interfloor, the company behind the Tredaire, Duralay and Timbermate brands, warns against specifiers blindly accepting the claims for the acoustic performance of underlays. Clarke contends that impact sound tests performed to ISO 140-8 or BS 2750 do not measure noise reduction in the room where the laminate is laid. 'It's the transmitted airborne noise from footfall, domestic appliances and other created sounds which reverberates around rooms where wood and laminate is laid, ' he says.
'Many manufacturers claim between 17dB and 27dB, ' says Clarke, 'but these impact tests do not use any laminate on the underlay. The impact test measures the transmitted noise through the sub-floor in a test chamber, so it's only of interest to anyone on the floor.' Clarke insists that an underlay under laminate will only absorb airborne noise if it has sufficient weight and density.
It is for this reason that Interfloor has now moved over to presenting its underlay's performance in Sones. The Sone is a measurement of perceived loudness, scaled for human auditory sensitivities. Drum sound tests carried out for The Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF) between 2002 and 2004, designed to find which materials produced the quietest room conditions, have resulted in what Interfloor is hailing as 'the true and quantifiable method of measuring noise generated by wood and laminate flooring'.
While no underlay has yet achieved the holy grail of a Sone rating of 50 or under, Interfloor has come close with Timbermate Silentfloor Gold at 53 Sones.
The Drum sound tests showed that 'in room' acoustics can actually worsen if inferior or lightweight underlays are used. In effect, putting a lightweight, air-filled cellular product under wood or laminate creates an echo chamber.
Acoustic performance is also an issue with ceramic tiles and natural stone floors.
Manufacturers are just starting to address the problem with tile-specific acoustic underlays, which can reduce impact sound while providing a suitably rigid sub-floor for tiling. Dutch company, Unifloor, has taken the lead in this field with Cera Silence.
This product is being targeted specifically at multi-storey buildings such as office blocks and apartments, where 22dB ãLw impactsound insulation or more is required. The manufacturer claims Cera Silence not only insulates impact sound from adjoining apartments, but also absorbs the airborne sound within the apartment itself.
Leading the way The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which came into force in October, has significant implications for flooring specifiers. The DDA makes it compulsory for employers and service providers to take reasonable steps to make buildings accessible to disabled people. Floors and floor coverings can be a potential barrier: deep piled carpets may give a feeling of luxury but are very difficult to cross in a wheelchair.
Highly reflective surfaces can give a feeling of slipperiness and disorientation.
But floor coverings can also provide information through the use of different textures. For instance, in some stores, hallways are tiled and sales areas are carpeted.
Tactile surfaces and contrasting colours can be useful in buildings to locate staircases, lifts and doors. There are no hard and fast rules set down regarding the use of finishes, but guidance is available in various publications. Useful sources of information include The Centre for Accessible Environments (www. cae. org. uk), the Disability Rights Commission (www. drc-gb. org) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (www. equalityni. org).
The properties of ceramic tiles make them particularly appropriate where tactile flooring is required. For instance, Shackerley's ceramic granite All Weather Tactile Tiles are now reinforced with corundum, making them four times more hardwearing than concrete. The anti-slip properties of the material also mean that the tiles won't become a hazard in wet weather conditions. They conform to specifications developed by the Mobility & Inclusion Unit of the Department for Transport and the Joint Mobility Unit of RNIB/GDBA which prescribe load-bearing capacity, wear performance, 'anti-slip' properties, and the height and configuration of the raised surfaces. Guidance on the use of this type of tactile flooring is enshrined in BS 7997:2003 (Annex C - Guide to the application of tactile surfaces).
Shackerley has recently supplied the tiles to improve safety standards and access for the visually disabled at the central offices of Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS). During phase 1 of the programme, around 350 Shackerley tactile tiles were installed at the top and bottom of the building's wide entrance steps. The 'corduroy' surface design provides a form of 'foot Braille' and transmits the message to visually impaired people that they are approaching a step, staircase or ramp.
Aesthetic appearance was also important says Andrew Lynes, CIS' property services manager: 'The CIS building is Grade II listed and subject to restrictions. Our tactile flooring had to complement the granite steps in order to acquire building consent and, at the same time, provide a visual contrast to the surrounding area in order to meet RNIB guidelines. We specified tiles in Anthracite meeting both requirements perfectly.' Another solution to the problem comes from Takpave Tactile Surface Tiles, produced by Rediweld. Made from hard-wearing rubber elastomer, Takpave tiles come in three neutral colours and in four different patterns: corduroy for hazard warnings such as steps, stairs and ramps; pedestrian dot for pedestrian crossings; platform dot for platform edges; and dash for guidance paths.
Takpave tiles can be glued to most existing floor surfaces, or cut into tiled or carpeted surfaces, and surface-mounted for most external applications. Useful information on this subject is contained in the new edition of Designing for Accessibility. It includes extensive plans and dimensional data illustrating internal and external features that often need attention in public buildings.
Published by CAE, more details are available at www. cae. org. uk.
Time for technology Technology is enabling manufacturers of carpet tiles to develop designs that exploit textural differences in the surface of the tile as much as colour contrasts, in order to deliver visual interest to the floor space.
Richard Sotheran, sales director at Tessera (formerly Gaskell Carpet Tiles and Modulus Flooring Systems) says that one of the most influential advances behind a new wave of commercial carpet tiles has been the advent of the Full Repeat Scroll (FRS) machine.
'Many of Tessera's most successful and commercially attractive carpet tile ranges have been manufactured using FRS technology.
As yarns can be individually controlled and stitched very precisely at different heights, this allows innovative patterns to be sculpted into the surface and sophisticated designs to be developed.' Etch, for example, is a versatile cut-andloop pile tile which relies entirely upon its multi-height tufts and loops to create a gentle patterned effect. Helix, part of Tessera's G2 collection, also relies on FRS technology to provide its multi-height loops and understated linear design. Helix also benefits from one of the latest high-lustre metallic yarns from Antron, which gives the tile a subtle reflective quality.
One of the strongest design trends is towards floor coverings which mimic floorscapes of the natural world. Laminate, ceramic tile and carpet manufacturers are all exploring this theme. A typical approach is Interface's response to the question 'how would nature design a floor?' Floors in nature are modular but they are also non-directional and unique, with no two leaves or pebbles ever looking the same.
With flooring, the concept of biomimicry is in its infancy, but already Interface is introducing random leaf motifs and other organic patterns. In future such patterns may become more random, with no two floors ever needing to be alike.
In laminate flooring the latest trend is for embossing in register - quite simply the surface texture that replicates wood grain or a natural stone like slate, now matches exactly the photographic foil that provides the image. All of the leading manufacturers like Quick Step (Unilin), Berry, Pergo, Tarkett, Grundorf and Kronospan, now offer embossed designs.
Through-bodied porcelain tiles, where the colour and pattern runs right through the tile rather than being just a surface glaze, are also popular. These are ideal for reproducing the veining of marble, the texture of a riven slate or the subtle tonal variations of natural limestone. This technology is now being applied to other simulations, such as polished concrete, or in fresh interpretations of natural materials, like polished teak, in a ceramic context.
Material benefits The range of choice available to flooring specifiers has never been greater. Familiar materials, like aluminium and glass, are now being engineered for flooring applications.
Aluminium floor modules from Alu-Floor, for instance, can bring industrial minimalism to interiors.
Similarly, a glass floor may sound impractical but is actually strong enough for structural applications as well as providing a striking appearance. Optima Architectural Glass produced a laminated glass floor for the Faith Zone at The Millennium Dome, where low-energy lighting beneath each panel lit up the lattice sand-blasted design and created an ethereal effect.
While vinyl has not always had a good press, there are now some exciting designs on the market. Leading the new wave is Harvey Maria, founded in 1995 to offer vibrant flooring tiles. Designs such as bubbles, corks, feathers, gerberas, grass, stones and sand, are bold and humorous additions to the designer's palette.
Rubber has long been popular in airports, stations and other public areas, but is now being used in more intimate spaces. Soft, durable, warm and tactile, rubber is offered in an enormous choice of colours and finishes. Dalsouple, for instance, has around 70 different colours and more than 30 different textures, as well as effects like terrazzo .
Cork flooring has fallen from favour over the past decade, but Wicanders-Amorim is endeavouring to launch a sustained cork revival with its New Colour Collections.
This takes a fresh approach to cork to produce a comprehensive portfolio of elegant and practical cork floors, that add a sophisticated design edge to cork's accepted virtues:
environmental soundness, silence, warmth and comfort.
At the luxury end of the market, another bold option is leather. The variation in the look of leather, the blemishes and occasional brand marks are all part of the appeal, and leather tiles not only soften sound but also create a warm atmosphere. Typical applications include hotel reception areas and restaurants. Alma offers high quality leather floors at ú275/m 2. Other suppliers include Clayton of Chesterfield, which produces everything from buffalo hide, thought to be the hardest wearing leather in this field, to cattle hide. Clayton offers three ranges starting at 3mm thick, with prices starting at around ú118/m 2. Leading leather goods producer, Bill Amberg, offers a bespoke service for leather flooring and surface coverings, using leather specially developed in the UK for flooring. Prices start at ú350/m 2.
Clicking into place One of the most startling developments in the flooring marketplace has been the speed with which click-fix laminates have taken over from traditional glue-and-tap systems. Two systems, Unilin's 'clic' and Berry/V-linge's 'loc', dominate the market, although they are still fighting it out in courts around the globe to determine who, if anyone, holds enforceable patents for the technology. Meanwhile, development engineers have been busy on the next generation of joints - the results should increase laminate's penetration of the contract market.
Two systems in particular should appeal to specifiers. Kronospan's Flex Deck opens up new commercial applications for laminate flooring, particularly in large, heavily-trafficked, areas. A special FlexStrip laying system allows large runs of flooring to be laid without any expansion joints. Silicon rubber strips are fitted between each plank, creating a ship's deck effect, while at the same time producing a seamless surface with watertight joints.
FlexStrips, which come in four colours, not only serve as a design element, but also compensate for any expansion of the floor.
The other significant innovation is Berry Floor's Chateau: a laminate parquet concept.
The three colour-coded joint options allow the short, narrow planks (504mm x 84mm and 1,290mm x 84mm) to be laid in a wide variety of patterns, such as double or triple herringbone, ladder and ship's deck. This system is currently being developed to allow the joints to accommodate thermal movement. Like all click systems, these floors are demountable, which simplifies the removal and replacement of damaged planks.
Glueless joint technology has already spread to engineered wooden floors - multilayer laminate floors with a solid wood wear layer. Now they are starting to appear in solid wood floors, traditionally a T&G nailed or glued-down market. Whether solid hardwood click systems will have the same impact as glueless laminates, they offer further proof that even the most traditional of floorings is not immune to the relentless progress of technology.