Merits of Installing Carpet or Hard-Surface Flooring

Many administrators of private universities may be unaware that the carpet-manufacturing industry took a major hit forty years ago when school administrators in Sweden decided, incorrectly, that because carpet collects dust and debris within its fibers, it can cause respiratory problems and should be removed from all schools. As a result, hardsurface floors such as a vinyl composite tile (VCT) were installed.

A Critical Impact on Carpeting Industry

But that’s not the end of the story. Other school districts around the world saw what Sweden was doing, believed their conclusions about carpet were likely true, and followed suit, removing carpet from schools across the globe. And then it spread further. Owners and managers of government and commercial office buildings, now believing carpet posed a potential health hazard for building users, started pulling up their carpet as well.

Because this decision in Sweden had such an impact on the carpet-manufacturing industry, the Carpet and Rug Institute, which represents the carpet industry, decided to test Sweden’s conclusion. What their tests found, and what is now generally accepted as fact, is that carpet has what they call “holding characteristics.” While it is true that dust, debris, and contaminants collect within carpet fibers, and can be pounded deeper into carpet fibers with foot traffic, in most cases, they stay there. Additionally, because they stay in the carpet, they do not become airborne, and without becoming airborne they cannot impact indoor air quality.

Holding Characteristics of Carpet

The CRI study concluded the following: “The holding characteristics of carpet, as opposed to a smooth surface floor covering, benefit residents of the home or office by keeping particles of dust from being continually blown around and made airborne by foot traffic and air circulation. Only if particles are airborne might they affect the allergic person.”

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

A report released by the Swedish Institute of Fiber and Polymer Research found that in 1973 there were more than 15 million square meters of carpeting sold in Sweden, and the number of people reportedly suffering allergy problems in the country amounted to about 1 million. By 1990, nearly 30 years later, only about 5 million square meters of carpeting were being sold in the country, yet the number of people reporting allergy problems had jumped to nearly 3.5 million.

In time, this and other studies repudiated the conclusion of school administrators in Sweden who had claimed carpet contributes to allergic reactions and related respiratory problems. However, it opened a new door. School administrators realized that both carpet and hard-surface floors have their pros and cons. In some situations, one type of floor covering may prove more beneficial than the other. It is these advantages and disadvantages that we will now explore.

Carpet Analyzed

The carpet-manufacturing industry has made some big advances in the years since Sweden’s experiment removing carpeting from schools. Particularly in the past 30 years, the industry has become much more sensitive to green considerations, sustainability factors, and environmental issues related to carpet.

Manufacturers have managed to reduce the amount of water necessary to make carpet by nearly fifty percent. Far more recycled materials are used to make carpet today, and more carpet is made to be recycled, so it does not clog landfills. What is most important to protecting indoor air quality, off-gassing-the fumes released by freshly installed carpet that can cause a host of respiratory problems-has been reduced significantly. These steps have been taken voluntarily by the industry in order to be more green and sustainable.

There are several benefits to installing carpet in your university. First, in most cases, carpet protects and improves indoor air quality by trapping contaminants in carpet fibers. Secondly, carpet provides thermal resistance, otherwise known as R-value. In facility areas with cement floors, which can become quite cold during the winter months, the R-value of carpet can act like insulation, keeping the cold at bay. Next, although slips and falls can happen with both carpet and hard-surface floors, they tend to be reduced with carpet. Of major importance in academic institutions, carpet helps reduce noise levels; this effect can be increased with the installation of padding under the carpet. Finally, studies indicate that it can cost less to keep carpet clean compared to most hard-surface floors because there is less labor involved.

Most of these attributes indicate that carpet would likely be a very good option for installation in a library, heavily trafficked walkways, busy (and noisy) cafeterias, and areas that need additional floor insulation. However, some points that argue against installing carpet include the following. First, cost is a consideration. Depending on what type is selected, carpet is generally more expensive than the traditional hard-surface floors installed in schools. Another issue is life span: a commercial carpet typically lasts from three to seven years, based on the carpet selected, padding, and foot traffic; some hard-surface floors can last many more years, even decades. Finally, there is the concern of daily upkeep.While “spotters” are available to help remove most types of spots, in many cases the carpet will need to be professionally cleaned and extracted to thoroughly remove spots.

Hard Floor Analyzed

Many types of hard-surface floors can be found in private universities, including stone (marble/ granite), VCT, and terrazzo, as well as “green floors” such as bamboo and even cement. Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) flooring is the fastest-growing type of hard-surface floor in the market today. Contrary to what the name suggests, these are not luxury floors but are designed to mimic floors such as marble, granite, and hardwood.

Because more schools will likely consider or install LVT floors, or already have VCT and terrazzo floors, as opposed to other materials, our discussion will focus on these floors. HCT and LVT are less expensive than carpet, much easier and faster to install, and can last far longer than carpet, making them exceptionally cost effective. While there is more involved with terrazzo and it can cost more to install, terrazzo lasts not only for decades, but for centuries in some cases, again making it very cost effective.

Hard-surface floors may also be less costly to clean and maintain than carpet, especially if they are not finished (waxed). Many schools now do not apply a finish to floors for a variety of reasons including cost and environmental considerations. While a finish can help protect the floor, if it is not applied, all that needs to be done is dusting and damp mopping, while cleaning larger areas with an automatic scrubber. This reduces the cost of floor maintenance considerably.

Making a Decision

We have discussed the objective differences between carpet and hard-surface floors that must be considered when choosing a floor cover. However, some subjective features of carpet and hard-surface flooring also factor into the selection process. For example, hard-surface floor manufacturers have developed a number of designs and can customize their floors to help personalize a university’s appearance. Architects and designers frequently take advantage of this opportunity, choosing to make the floor a more permanent design feature for the facility.

Conversely, some administrators may also believe that carpet adds an elegance to their facility that is not possible with a hard-surface floor. The reality is, there is no one “right” answer. Each university has different priorities, budgets, and preferences that will guide the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the facts presented here will help administrators make an informed decision.

About the Author
Ron Segura is president of Segura Associates. His company works with large organizations, colleges and universities as well as contract cleaning companies, to streamline their cleaning and building operations so that they function more effectively and efficiently. He can be reached through