Rubber Flooring Helping Universities Meet Sustainability Goals

From its natural origins to its sturdy longevity, premium rubber flooring has a record of sustainability few building materials can match.

No wonder so many colleges and universities have picked it as their flooring of choice, enabling them to meet their sustainability goals and have long-lasting, low-maintenance, visually stunning floor coverings as well. The following factors clearly demonstrate the impact natural rubber flooring can have on environmental impact, indoor air quality, maintenance costs and long-term budget.

Use of a Natural Material

High-quality rubber flooring materials usually include both natural rubber (made from the sap of a tropical rubber plant) and industrial rubber. The rubber is then supplemented by raw mineral materials extracted from natural deposits and by environmentally compatible color pigments. The best rubber floor manufacturers generally use suppliers that are ISO 14001- and 9001- certified.

Improvement of Indoor Air Quality

Most rubber floor coverings do not contain any polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizers (phthalate) or halogens (e.g., chlorine). Because rubber flooring does not contain PVC, it does not generate any hydrochloric acid, dioxins or furans, contributing to healthy indoor air quality for students and staff. Some rubber floors are, in fact, GREENGUARD Gold Certified for low VOC emissions (formerly GREENGUARD Children & Schools). This high-level certification offers stringent criteria to meet the strict emissions levels as presented by UL Environment, which focuses on healthy indoor environments.

It offers strict certification criteria in compliance with CA 01350, accounting for sensitive individuals (such as children and the elderly), and ensures that a product is acceptable for use in environments such as educational institutions. GREENGUARD Gold is broadly recognized and accepted by sustainable building programs and building codes around the world. In the U.S., it is referenced by both The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Building Rating System. In addition, rubber floor coverings are installed with solvent-free, environmentally-friendly acrylic adhesives that are low emitting and meet the requirements of the South Coast Air Quality Management (SCAQMD), District Rule 1168 required by LEED.

Ease of Installation

Thanks to its resilient material, industry-recommended tile sizes, solvent-free adhesives and extended life cycles, rubber flooring is designed to be installed efficiently and to stay down for decades without replacement, all of which benefit the environment. In addition, rubber floor coverings are dimensionally stable, meaning they will not shrink or expand, eliminating the need for welding, which saves time and money.

Low Maintenance Requirements

Because rubber is a non-porous and nonabsorbent material, routine maintenance with water and a damp mop is often all that is required. This feature is important to McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario “Our custodial staff likes the rubber flooring, because they only need to use water and a scrubber to keep it clean,” says Craig MacDonald, director, maintenance and facility services. “It’s environmentally friendly, easy to care for and sustainable, and it provides good slip resistance,” adding later, “You don’t need to strip and wax the floors. As long as you clean them with water, they look good.”

Bill Duquin, construction manager, Niagara University, in Lewistown, New York, agrees. “The use of chemicals and cleaners has definitely been reduced,” he says. “Damp mopping takes care of everything.” Rubber flooring’s dense surface helps repel bacteria, making the floor naturally resistant to bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms. This important feature also promotes health and safety in classrooms. Additionally, large areas do not need to be closed for an extended period of time while floors are cleaned and finishes are applied and allowed to dry. In addition, the floor resists staining, which is an especially important benefit in university cafeterias and laboratories.

Tad Koch, Ph.D., professor emeritus at The University of Colorado Boulder, explains why rubber flooring was selected when the laboratories in the school’s venerable Ekeley Sciences Building were modernized. “Chemicals that may get spilled in the course of a day include acetone, which the students use to rinse glassware, as well as acids and bases,” Koch says. “Our lab director tested rubber flooring to see how resistant it was to the things that we commonly use in the organic lab, and it held up quite well.”

Because rubber floor coverings are scuff-resistant and do not require coating or polishing, the surface does not have the type of gloss that can cause slipperiness or create a visual perception of slipperiness, which in itself can be a hazard. It offers slip resistance in compliance with OSHA regulations. The absence of coating or a high-gloss finish also mitigates glare, improving visibility and reducing eyestrain and headaches. Eighty percent of costs generally associated with floor coverings come from maintenance. And independent studies have shown that life cycle costs of premium rubber floors are far lower than other resilient floors.

Durability and Long Life

The dense, no-wax surface of sustainable rubber floor coverings is extremely tough and hard wearing, resulting in a life expectancy far above the average of other resilient floor coverings, even in high-traffic areas like busy entrances, lobbies and hallways. That long-lasting durability means there’s less need to renew, replace or dispose of rubber floors, further conserving resources, both in flooring products and in accessories required to install them. As a result, natural rubber flooring supports sustainability goals even as it works with tight budgets by assuring administrators the investment they make today will not need to be replaced for several decades.

At Capilano University, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Susan Doig, director of facilities, wanted a sustainable flooring with exceptional wear benefits. “I did extensive research and solicited peer recommendations,” she says. “We eventually tested rubber flooring in a couple of washrooms in our Cedar Building three years ago. After experiencing the floor’s benefits, we made rubber flooring the standard resilient flooring for campus renovations.”  Larry Hill, project manager at the university, agrees. “We were spending a lot of money, and we knew it might be another 30 years before we could renovate again. So, we wanted it to last; we wanted it to be durable.”

Ability to Recycle

Rubber flooring can be recycled by specialty firms for use as landing mats, industrial or stable mats and coverings for sports areas. They can also be used as substitute fuel instead of gas or oil in thermal power stations, where the energy contained in the combustible material is recovered. They can even be used as landscaping mulch.

Since many brands of rubber flooring contain no toxic substances, rubber floors can be disposed in landfills. They can also be incinerated, reusing the energy contained in the material. Additionally, production scraps such as die-cut trim and sanding dust from rubber floor coverings can be returned to the production process, being granulated and becoming part of the raw material base of new rubber flooring products as high-quality fillers and decorative color speckles.

Offering Environmental Certifications

Many colleges and universities have selected natural rubber flooring to help them achieve certifications like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) designation awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. At Niagara University, LEED Gold certification was the target when planners designed a 50,000-square-foot integrated sciences facility, where resistance to chemicals was also an important factor. Similarly, at Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon, the floor’s ability to help the university achieve LEED certification was one of the main selection criteria.  “Willamette has a strong commitment to sustainability and anticipates receiving LEED certification for the Sparks Center,”  David Rigsby, director of athletics, says. “The sustainable properties of rubber flooring definitely played into our decision to use the floor covering. Its ease of maintenance, only requiring water, was another key factor.”

Providing Other Benefits

Natural rubber flooring enhances the human environment as well. It is known for offering comfort underfoot. That’s an important consideration for anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet, as researchers and professors do. At the University of Colorado, the rubber floor’s added cushioning quickly impressed students and staff accustomed to the hard concrete floor in the old labs. “The new flooring seems a lot more forgiving on the knees,” says Jacqueline Richardson, Ph.D., director of the organic chemistry teaching labs. Project Manager Larry Hill mirrors her observation, adding, “I think it’s much more comfortable, especially for users when they have long periods of lab use.”

Of course, the flooring also contributes to the quiet, comforting atmosphere so important in education. “Acoustics were particularly important, because the labs are naturally noisy from the fume hoods,” adds Koch from the University of Colorado. “Rubber flooring met that need better than anything else we looked at.”

About the Author
Tasha Hughes is a public relations and marketing specialist for nora systems, Inc., an international rubber flooring manufacturer dedicated to developing premium flooring solutions for a variety of commercial markets, including healthcare, education, industry and life science labs and public buildings.