Richard Aylen highlights how clients can have very different perceptions of the durability of solid hardwood floors…
Hardwood floors offer one of the longest life spans among the wide variety of floor finishes available to us, with examples lasting 60 years or more given proper maintenance. One of the reasons for this is that they can be refurbished multiple times. The intervals between refurbishments often being equal to the entire life span of other man-made finishes. This also makes wooden floors one of the most sustainable choices.
Consequently, there are many very old hardwood floors in existence, but for some clients it can be difficult to know if the floor can be refurbished or if it has indeed reached the end of its days. I know from experience that the client may believe that a severely worn surface cannot be renovated, but very often the damage will only be superficial. If what lies beneath is basically sound, then refurbishment by sanding and resealing will usually be possible. So how do you know when the floor really has reached the end of its days? Broadly speaking the floor may simply have worn out or its fixings have failed. Sometimes the floor may become obsolete because its performance no longer matches the client’s needs, as can happen with some older types of sports, dance, and activity floors.
If the floor has actually failed there will be visual clues. It may have been repaired multiple times or sanded for the last time. If it is not replaced it could become a trip hazard, slippery, or no longer be capable of taking the loads and wear and tear that it once could. Managers of commercial premises, public buildings and sports and leisure facilities will know the importance of offering a safe, good quality floor to their clients to maintain income levels and bookings.
Let’s talk about some of the other physical signs that may indicate the floor needs to be replaced.
Loss of strength
In the very long term, after the floor has been sanded multiple times the joints between the boards will become weaker because the thickness of the wood above the groove joint will be reduced by sanding. For floors on joists or battens, board damage may occur under heavy load or impact. Solid hardwood floorboards will often have a long life span before this point is reached. A 22mm solid floor can be sanded between eight and ten times. An engineered wood floor with a 3.5mm thick hardwood layer on top can usually be sanded twice.
Bear in mind that some modern sprung wood floor systems last longer than others. Some engineered floorboards can become fatigued after some years of use. These boards may develop ‘dead spots’ resulting in loss of stiffness over time. This can happen if the middle of the board is made from wooden ‘fingers’ or lamellas laid crosswise. Over time and repeated impact the glue between the lamellas can fail and the board will bend too much, leading to progressive deterioration of the floor, including excessive deflection of the surface, poor shock absorption and incorrect ball bounce.
For ‘overlay’ floors in residential or commercial buildings, either laid floating or glued to the base, the same joint failure may be seen, or widespread splits may appear.
Slip resistance is an important consideration for activity floors and for some commercial and public areas where the floor may become contaminated through spillage or water being walked into the building. With a ‘sacrificial’ floor finish, ie, one that cannot be refurbished, if the surface wears smooth the floor needs to be replaced.
Some floors including hardwood can be re-lacquered or oiled periodically and if properly maintained will have a consistent level of slip resistance. Floor lacquers with enhanced levels of slip resistance can be applied to older floors if a change of use requires it.
Obsolescence through changes in technical standards
Shock absorption and sprung floors
The floor’s level of shock absorption is usually a lower priority for commercial premises, residential and public spaces but is a key factor for activity floors. However, the expectations of sports and activity floor users have changed considerably in recent times. Older activity floors may have little ‘sprung’ performance, or even none at all.
Sports and activity floors used to be made from hard, unyielding materials with little thought for the comfort and heath of the people using them. ‘Sprung’ floors that used metal springs were used for some prestigious ballrooms but for the everyday local sports hall painted screed, mastic asphalt or composite tiles were common. Even those made from timber relied only upon the deflection of the floorboards where they spanned joists or sometimes upon rudimentary rubber pads. There were no technical standards to guide designers.
The need for an upgrade to a safer and more comfortable floor is driven in part by changes in design standards but also from increased public awareness on the damage that can be done by exercising on hard floors. Fitness instructors and coaches are especially vulnerable due to the long hours they spend using the floor each day. Today we accept that a sprung floor is more comfortable, safer and reduces injuries compared with a ‘concrete’ surface and an upgrade in performance can often be a simple matter of laying a sprung area elastic overlay system on top of the old floor.
There is usually a strong case for upgrading a hard unyielding activity floor with a modern system, and in fact there are risks in not doing so. The main technical standard for ‘sprung’ floors is EN 14904. Although this is not a mandatory requirement for designers, if a client sustains an injury and the floor does not comply with EN 14904 the owner will find it more difficult to defend the claim than if the floor complied. The floor is arguably the most important element in an activity space because it is the surface with which users have the closest interaction. They rely on it for safety and to allow them to perform to the best of their abilities- consistent ball bounce, not too slippery and not too much grip under foot, protection from impact injuries and reducing stress to joints and tendons. A comfortable floor will help athletes to achieve their best performance and sustain fewer injuries.
Technical performance issues are not just confined to activity floors. In commercial premises, where a wooden floor is often chosen for aesthetic reasons the floor may also need to bear high loads and heavy foot traffic, have a minimum slip resistance and of course be easy to maintain. Down-time for maintenance and replacement is expensive and changing to a floor that is long lasting and can be refurbished will minimise losses.
Trends and changing client expectations
Buildings and spaces are often adapted for new purposes due to changing trends and market conditions.
A recent development is the need for flexible spaces. Showrooms may double up as offices, what used to be a simple sports hall may now need to function as classrooms, a theatre, a venue for local community activities, trade shows and other similar events. The floor finish needs to take on all these challenges.
A good example is to be found in multi-purpose spaces in the education sector. The use of retractable seating systems is increasing due to the need to create more flexible spaces in schools.
Few older sprung floor systems will be suitable for use with retractable seating unless they are strengthened at the time of installation. Synthetic surfaces often suffer from ‘wheel tracking’ and the surface protection offered by floor manufacturers is usually impractical. Other floor types such as lacquered hardwood are usually very simple to strengthen during installation and the surface will not become marked by the seating wheels. Some glued-down finishes can de-bond and ruck under rolling loads. Some floor types cannot be strengthened to bear seating loads and so simply will not work with retractable seating units. A further example from the education sector is when their sports hall is used for exams. With synthetic finishes such a vinyl or PU the school will usually lay a temporary protective covering on the floor. There is of course time and cost associated with this, as well as the need for storage space. If the school is looking for truly adaptable spaces they may choose to change the floor for one that not only functions as a ‘sprung’ activity floor but can be used for multiple everyday purposes without special protection.
‘End of life’ for the floor can clearly have different meanings depending upon how the client’s needs have changed over time. The time for replacement may not simply be when the product has completely worn out, and a change of use may present an opportunity to replace the old floor earlier but with a more sustainable material better suited to the client’s needs. Today we have to consider sustainability, the circular economy the impact upon global warming and landfill and of course finances. If the old floor can indeed be adapted then the environment wins, even though sustainability may not have appeared on the designer’s list of priorities many years ago!