Facilities (Campus Spaces

Friendly Flooring

ADA flooring example

PHOTO © JOSH PARTEE

When Oregon State University extensively renovated its Strand Agricultural Hall recently, the process included, among many other things, new flooring and ramps in what the project architect, Hennebery Eddy of Portland, OR, describes as a way to make the century-old building into a thoughtfully designed facility for all.

It’s a notable example among others. Decision makers and designers dealing with renovation and new construction projects on campuses and elsewhere have been working with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for decades, and flooring is a key part of the equation.

Where to Begin

The U.S. Access Board, a coordinating federal agency for accessibility that sets criteria for related design, provides detailed, helpful guidance of ADA requirements, including for floors, describing points about slip resistance, carpeting, clearances and wheelchair turning spaces and much more. Take carpeting, for example. The guide cites not only a half-inch maximum pile height but also the requirements for exposed edges and transitions between carpets and tile.

There’s a lot to the flooring component, indeed. And expanding on the point, J+J Flooring Group’s Bob Bethel, director of Business Development for Education, notes that “trends that began in 1990s with the first ADA regulations continue, with ongoing emphasis on specifying flooring with high coefficients of friction to prevent slip/fall injuries. There is growing recognition of the dynamic coefficient of friction (DCOF) as the more accurate measure of traction. The requirements for transitions between flooring surfaces to reduce trip/fall potential are more explicitly defined, and flooring that eases rolling mobility is of key importance, particularly for accessible ramps.”

ADA flooring examples

PHOTO © JOSH PARTEE

ON THE SURFACE. Accessible floor surfaces must be slip resistant to minimize hazards to people with disabilities, especially those who are ambulatory or semi-ambulatory or who use canes, crutches and other walking aids. However, no minimum level of slip resistance (coefficient of friction) exists in ADA standards because a consensus method for rating slip resistance has not been established. Some flooring products are labeled with a slip resistance rating based on a laboratory test procedure.

Taking a step back for a moment, the process of envisioning, designing and implementing accessible buildings starts with the building users. That is, the designer of a floor system and overall space “should have a strong grasp on the use needs of the building occupants,” explains architect Douglas Reimer of Hennebery Eddy.

Attaining that grasp requires plenty of communication. And in fact, “more and more, our conversations with college and university clients go beyond ADA compliance and focus on universal access on campus. For universal access, we employ an ‘all users-first’ approach to how a space will be used.”

Considering flooring is part of that approach. Hennebery Eddy’s experience at Strand is telling: The architect conducted an interior grading survey to assess sloping 100-year-old floors as a first step toward regrading them to meet slope limitations. Then there is the flooring itself. “In both new build and renovation projects, the flooring materials we recommend and ultimately specify are commercial grade. Mainstream, commercially available hard surfaces are typically slip resistant, though there aren’t minimum standards specified by ADA. We also always consider carpet pile height, texture, carpet backing, how the material is installed and how it will wear over time.”

Making Transitions

He continues: “Transitions of all types also need to be easily navigable, so ensuring that thresholds, changes in material type and level changes are well within ADA standards is essential. Visual cues that low-vision individuals can navigate are another significant consideration. Sometimes a consistent flooring material may be used, but a color change can indicate a different purpose of a space in a way that is more easily navigable than switching from a hard to a soft surface, or over a raised threshold between two like surfaces.”

Entry flooring on campus

PHOTO © SCOTT BERMAN

Reimer explains that for the Strand project the steps to accessibility started at the exterior. “We made accessible paths mainstream by integrating walkways and ramps into the natural traffic flow of the building,” he explains. The design smoothly changed what was underfoot. As Reimer continues, “For instance, the original interior of the building featured sets of stairs that connected the entry doors to the first floor level…interior ramps were placed at three of the four accessible entries. These gentle ramps were provided within new collaboration/art gallery rooms as a way of integrating the level changes into an everyperson amenity of the building.”

The flooring aesthetic played a key role as well. “Differing flooring colors in the lounge spaces also provide a nice contrast between the circulation path flooring and the lounge flooring. This isn’t required by the ADA, but it helps differentiate spaces for individuals who are low-vision,” says Reimer, adding, “For renovations specifically, it’s important to note that accessibility upgrades, if done sensitively, can improve the experience of all building users while not diminishing the historic or architectural integrity of the building.”

flooring pattern example

PHOTOS © J+J FLOORING GROUP/KINETEX

A SOLID FOUNDATION. Carpet that is thick, cushiony or loose impairs accessibility, particularly wheelchair maneuvering. ADA standards specify the maximum pile height (one-half-inch measured to the backing, cushion or pad) and texture (level or textured loop, level cut pile or level cut/uncut pile). Firm backing is also required. Cushions or pads also must be firm or can be avoided to ensure greater firmness. Carpeting must be securely attached so that it does not shift or buckle against wheeled traffic.

Attention to Details

It’s all in the details. And the fact that there are many such details speaks to the great variety of building types and needs across campuses. This presents issues as well as options. Meeting a variety of access needs isn’t easy, but on the other hand, a variety of flooring systems and materials, if compliant, kept dry and well maintained, can be marshalled to meet needs, as pointed out by Jim Terry, CEO of Evan Terry Associates, a Birmingham, AL-based architectural design and ADA compliance firm. Terry’s firm has designed university projects such as the Library for Science and Engineering at the University of Alabama, and One Waterfront Place, a 170,000-square-foot office building for West Virginia University.

Terry is active in ADA-related matters. He is on the board of directors at the National Association of ADA Coordinators, and Evan Terry Associates itself, aside from offering www.corada.com, which is a database for ADA information, focuses on ADA and universal design, an approach researched and propagated by North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design. That approach focuses on making built environments, among other things, “more usable by as many people as possible,” according to the Center, and “benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

From the Outside In

Terry explains that ADA considerations don’t just start once a person is already inside a campus building, for example. The condition and level of sidewalks in the proximity need to be monitored for uneven slab joints caused by movement — a situation that can be handled by removing and replacing slabs or with angled saw cutting or grinding to remove uneven joints. Compliant entryways and ramps are crucial and are encountered each time a person with ability differences enters and leaves a building, of course. Once inside, transitions on floors must be compliant, starting with recessed walk-off mats, grates and grilles flush with and secure to the surface of the floor.

ADA flooring space transition

PHOTOS © J+J FLOORING GROUP/KINETEX

There are various approaches and materials. For example, Matts Inc., a flooring and matting vendor, describes an ADAcompliant foot grille system manufactured from PVC that it supplied to Northeastern University in Boston. And Stony Brook University in New York is one of many institutions that utilize fine, recessed metal grille systems in entryways.

There are many choices for flooring farther within a building. Bethel of J+J Flooring, for instance, points out that his company has rolled out a textile composite flooring product, Kinetex, that responds to a number of ADA factors, including a high level of slip resistance and a low profile with “minimal rolling resistance.”

Elsewhere throughout any given building, as mentioned earlier, low-pile carpeting and a variety of colors across flooring material types can be helpful on a typical higher education campus, Terry says. Polished stone is an option as well, he adds, recommending that it be micro-pitted to reduce the potential for slippage.

There’s a lot to the process of selecting, installing and maintaining flooring. And there’s more yet: Flooring is a key part of making campus buildings as safe and accessible as possible for all as well as an opportunity for excellent design. As such, there’s a lot that inspires as well.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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