Facilities Management (Managing Assets)

What's Under Your Feet?

As I was planning this article, the fear struck me that I have much in common with a well-worn carpet. We’re both, well, old. We’re both losing much of our original vitality, and we’re not in as good a shape as we used to be as we have developed bumps and flaws in places previously firm and tight. We’re certainly not as safe as we once were, and we don’t look as good as we used to.

The truth of the matter is that carpeting and other floor coverings present a substantial enigma to a facilities department. The most significant point of contention is the perennial question of when to replace them, coupled with who pays for it. Issues such as this could lead to unfortunate conflicts, since neither Facilities Management nor the academic departments affected usually have budget flexibility for this type of recurring, often unanticipated expense.

The Evolution of Floor Coverings

When I started my college career as an undergraduate (a year before John F. Kennedy’s assassination), most of the floor treatments in our academic buildings were either vinyl-asbestos tile, or a surprising amount of “battleship linoleum.” Especially the latter wore like cast iron—it never seemed to wear out, and it was always functionally ugly.

Over time, institutions like ours started dressing up classrooms with broadloom carpeting, almost always installed over pad. Frequently, we did this because of carpeting’s acoustical qualities, as well as its more soothing appearance. Since we didn’t or couldn’t always change out classroom furniture (or at least their glides), carpets became threadbare or delaminated before they uglied out, creating tripping hazards. We over-shampooed them, further accelerating delamination. In response to the delamination conundrum, we started to glue broadloom directly to the subfloor, thereby compromising the acoustical benefit of carpeted flooring.

Then carpet squares came onto the scene, eventually sporting a durable backing that could survive heavy traffic and coffee spills plus numerous and frequent shampooings. One of the selling points was that we could replace damaged items in high-traffic areas by swapping them with tile removed from low-traffic areas. This is arguably a reasonable solution, except that the result is not very attractive… and very obvious to any casual observer. It must be said that current products enable numerous, often very attractive patterns that conceal wear and dirt, and are thus very stable products.

Today’s Flooring Options

Today, there are many exciting options for floor coverings. As facility managers, we may be inclined to focus on the flooring solution that lasts into infinity and requires little maintenance effort, with little concern about appearance. However, as suggested above, that probably won’t wash with most building occupants. I prefer to think that our restrictive budgets require us to be advocates for the best TCO product for the specific application, while also being sensitive to appearance. It is by how we define “best” that building occupants will potentially accuse us of unjustifiably restricting their options.

Choice Considerations

There are certain points for discussion that must be explored as we debate preferences with donors, designers, and building occupants. There should be no valid justification for a standard, restrictive boiler-plate specification that must be applied to all locations. Besides appearance preferences, discussions should include:

  • How frequently does the floor area in question need to be swept/mopped/shampooed/vacuumed/extracted/buffed? How many labor hours will each one of those activities consume?
  • Who will cover the cost for the required maintenance functions?
  • Are food or drinks routinely allowed in the area? Chemicals? (It is a drastic mistake to install marble floors under urinals, or hardwood in classrooms.)
  • Will in-house staff perform all standard floor maintenance functions? How about repairs or restorations?
  • How important is it that the environment be relatively or totally free of bacteria or other contagious critters?
  • What is the preferred/required acoustical quality?
  • What kind of chairs, etc. will be used in the space? Is there an abundance of fixed furniture?
  • …and don’t forget about fire codes or clean air standards…

The ultimate questions: What is the required life expectancy, and of course, how will the replacement be funded? After all, Total Cost of Ownership must be recognized as a primary consideration, for everyone’s sake!

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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