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The art of making a good investment

Richard Aylen talks about rising prices and why you should be concerned about the longevity of your flooring.

I’VE talked in previous editions of this column about the sustainability and environmental aspects of floorcoverings. A large part of this discussion has been about the fundamental connection between the lifespan of the floor finish and its sustainability.

To briefly recap the environmental points, the main benefits of having a floor finish in service for a long time are that there is less demand upon raw materials and energy for manufacture and transport. For partially or non-recyclable products the burden upon landfill will be reduced. If the floor is made from fully recyclable, sustainable carbon neutral materials then, combined with a long life you’re looking at a floor with very good sustainability indeed.

During the past year or so we’ve seen some exceptional increases in materials and energy costs. One solution is for the client simply to choose a cheaper and therefore lower quality floor finish. They accept it will need replacement sooner but will think of that as a problem for another day. It isn’t easy to persuade customers to pay more for their floors based on purchase price alone.

But let’s look at this in another way. It may well make sense for clients to spread the purchase cost over as long a period as possible by choosing a floor with a long life. Most organisations will write off the cost of an asset over a specified number of years. If you’re spending more on a floor that lasts longer than your previous choices then the annual cost could actually be less than before because you are spreading the cost over a longer period of time, even though the purchase cost could have been more.

Some floor finishes will outlast other types by three or four times so this is often a realistic aim if the floor largely does the same job. Furthermore, if the floor offers flexibility of design and the ability to change colour this offers a form of ‘future-proofing’.

We need to investigate ways to achieve cost savings and efficiencies in more ways than simply to buy or sell more cheaply, and I want to look in a little more detail at which factors influence the floor’s lifespan.

If you’re looking for a floor with a longer lifespan, your solution may simply be to find a more durable version of the same floor type, eg, a harder wearing carpet or floor tile. Otherwise changing to a completely different floor type can sometimes produce even better results. We should also consider sustainable choices of course and this can make some options more attractive than others.

You may feel a product with very high embodied carbon levels is acceptable if it lasts for several decades and is recyclable, but all the better if you can find a low carbon or carbon neutral one. At the other end of the scale I believe it no longer makes sense to use floorcoverings with a short lifespan, especially those that have high embodied carbon and cannot be recycled.

For these floors low lifecycle costs are harder to achieve, and this places a high burden upon raw material resources, energy use and disposal.

Use good maintenance to extend the floor’s life
It may sound obvious to say good maintenance is one of the keys to prolonging the life of the floor but my day-to-day experience in our industry shows this is often overlooked. When things go wrong it is often a matter of neglect or the wrong management structure or procedures being put in place. Maintenance costs should be included in any life cycle cost calculation. Some manufacturers offer post-sales schemes where expert maintenance contractors carry out periodic inspections for the client and will help the client to plan their maintenance procedures effectively.

Make a ‘classic’ choice of floor with well-known performance that is always in style
We all like to stand out from the crowd occasionally and some clients choose their floor finishes to do exactly that. For some it’s an important part of their corporate image and style. If they have high profit margins they will usually budget for frequent fashion-led changes of floor finish. If that cutting-edge high-gloss brightly coloured metallic floor finish looks terrible in a few years’ time they may have ample funds to replace it, though the environment is a big loser in this arrangement.

For other clients, where high fashion is a lower priority and a ‘classic’ or traditional image is more appropriate a traditional floor type can have a more predictable and longer lifespan because the qualities of the floor are well known. You may find your ideal long-term floor in the form of hardwood for example, or some other low carbon natural material.

Refurbishment for optimum extended life
Refurbishment is perhaps the most important factor in achieving an extended life span. Wooden floors and terrazzo are two examples that come to mind though terrazzo is known to have high levels of embodied carbon. Often a wooden floor will be sanded at around the same time a ‘sacrificial’ floor such as carpet or vinyl will be replaced. Carpet tiles or modular floating floor types such as LVT can be partially replaced if they wear out in traffic lanes, while those in good condition can be left in place. In the sports floor market manufacturers of polyurethane floors claim their products can be overcoated when the original surface wears out, which will extend the time before replacement is needed.

Again, the final choice of finish will also depend on environmental considerations, and some clients appear to be moving away from floors made predominantly from plastics.

Adapting to fashion trends, restyling, and interior make-overs
Having a floor that can be refurbished means the client may have the opportunity for changing the colour, which is another way of avoiding obsolescence for aesthetic reasons. Again, drawing from my own experience, if you sand off a wooden floor you have a wide choice of coloured primers and oil treatments you can use to completely transform the look of the floor, and timbers such as oak can be textured to widen the choice even more.

Versatility and adaptability – choose a ‘futureproof’ floor that offers opportunities for change of use
Managers of public buildings, community, sports, and leisure facilities will often be faced with the need to adapt all or part of their buildings to accommodate changes of use. Unless the change of use can be predicted with absolute certainty many years in advance it is not possible to choose a floor that will cover all possible outcomes. Choosing a generic floor type that is as adaptable as possible is a good strategy for adapting to change of use or ‘future-proofing’ the building.

Repurposing – when you really don’t need the floor anymore, but someone else might! Or build for disassembly…

As a means of reducing the effects of price increases, choosing a floor that can eventually be reclaimed or repurposed means you have some residual value in the floor at the time when it is taken up and reused. This may happen if the floor is sold to another party or used in another location in one of the client’s own buildings. This also carries some environmental benefits as there will be no need for disposal or additional resources to manufacture a replacement floor.

The idea of repurposing can be developed into the ‘design for disassembly’ approach, where the designer will specify materials and components that can not only be recycled and repurposed but can easily be dismantled. Processes such as welding, bonding, and amalgamating are avoided in favour of discrete components that are bolted or clipped together, or some other reversible method.

It won’t always be possible to prevent the direct impact of price increases on clients, but I hope I’ve shown there are ways the impact can sometimes be reduced or offset for the longer term.
Perhaps with environmental issues and sustainability being at the forefront of our consciousness the case can be made for clients taking a longer-term view, thinking of their expenditure as a long-term investment rather than a one-off short-term payment.
Richard Aylen is technical manager
at Junckers

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