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Giving flooring a sustainable foundation

Jason McWilliams looks at how sustainable flooring can help reduce a building’s environmental impact.

PEOPLE have lived in cob houses, made of mud and clay mixed with straw, for thousands of years. Even today, some modern designs incorporate mud bricks, a sustainable building material that costs little to produce and reduces energy usage. Sustainability is also increasingly popular in commercial and industrial spaces.

Here I’ll explain how increasing use of sustainable materials impacts floor preparation.

In commercial or industrial settings, floors must withstand heavy equipment, high traffic or contact with chemicals. To give these spaces cost-effective but durable flooring solutions, the flooring industry introduced tough materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is reliable but contains dioxins that can harm the environment.

Traditionally, these floorcoverings met the key requirements of a project to gain a high-quality finish delivered on-time and to budget. Of course, these three requirements are still crucial today, but there’s now an increasingly important fourth to consider: sustainability.

Sustainable surfaces
Sustainable floorcoverings such as cork, bamboo, or carpet made from ocean plastic are growing in popularity in residential spaces. However, some of these coverings lack the durability essential to commercial applications. Soft materials like cork, for example, aren’t as durable or robust as other flooring materials and are susceptible to many forms of damage when heavy equipment is driven over it.

Polished concrete is a sustainable alternative to traditional floorcoverings in industrial and commercial settings like warehouses and airports. Polished concrete requires little to no additional flooring materials and once prepared is relatively low maintenance, making it suitable for larger spaces. Its reflective properties can also reduce overall energy usage.

Managing expectations
If a customer desires a polished concrete floor, it’s important to check the substrate’s condition before work commences. In a renovated factory, for example, past oil, chemical or organic material spills may have permanently stained the concrete.

If contractors find these issues in advance, they can manage client expectations and discuss how imperfections could impact the final floor.

In circumstances where aesthetics are less important, like warehouses, the client might be indifferent to stains or other imperfections. Alternatively in luxury spaces, such as a hotel lobby, contractors should work closely with clients to achieve the desired finish. This might involve another type of covering or an additional, thicker concrete coating on the substrate before polishing.

Concrete preparation
When examining the substrate, contractors should ascertain concrete hardness, which varies according to geographical location. Testing hardness helps a contractor choose the appropriate tooling — for example, where hardness is above 5,000 to 6,000 pounds per square inch (PSI), a medium bond diamond will likely skate over the surface instead of breaking into it. With medium to harder concrete, it’s good practice to start work with coarser diamonds and finish with increasingly finer diamond resin pads.

Each level of grit will remove progressively smaller marks on the surface until the surface becomes less porous, smoother, and as a direct result, harder and more reflective.

If customers want a mirror like finish, contractors must go over the space multiple times, which naturally increases the size of the job. To combat this on large projects such as supermarket floors, the surface can be polished up to around 400 grit and then covered with a guard. This gives enough of a shine to reduce costs without such significant investment of time.

The client will ultimately decide which sustainable covering works best for their project – contractors then determine how to achieve this. Irrespective of the covering chosen, taking the time to prepare in advance and following surface preparation best practice will help reduce the project’s overall energy and material usage and its environmental impact.

Mud floors may be suitable for some spaces, but they stand up poorly to heavy duty applications. Polished concrete, however, might be the better choice for a durable, sustainable commercial environment.
Jason McWilliams is regional sales manager at surface preparation expert National Flooring Equipment

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