More colors, better designs and increased comfort lead to healthy sales

As part of a renovation of Medical Center East in Birmingham, Ala., Freudenberg Building Systems' nora rubber flooring was used in the nurses' stations for added comfort underfoot.

Here's the challenge: Come up with flooring that can stand up to the heaviest traffic, be subjected to the worst kind of spills, prevent slips, cushion falls and offer a compelling yet soothing aesthetic. The commercial grade flooring should also be engineered with anti-bacterial properties, be easy to maintain, environmentally friendly and, of course, cost effective.

It's a tall order, but there is a lot riding on it.

With its slip resistant and antimicrobial properties, Roppe's SafeTcork Vinyl Tile is designed for use in healthcare facilities.
Such floors are increasingly in demand by hospitals and other healthcare facilities where the standards could not be higher. For their part, manufacturers accustomed to competing in other commercial environments have found that flooring suitable for the most crowded concert hall or the busiest restaurant will not cut it in the OR. Flooring made to meet the exacting specifications of healthcare facilities has grown to become a core segment for many manufacturers.

Those that produce commercial-grade rubber and vinyl product generally describe such flooring as "healthy products." They note that any demand made by other commercial specifiers is usually going to be amplified by those working in medical fields. And while it is seldom apparent to health care providers or their patients, the category has evolved dramatically over the years.

The roots of the flooring developed specifically for healthcare facilities dates back to the late '50s and early '60s, when rubber and vinyl products began gaining popularity in the U.S. Back then, the priorities were durability and maintenance. Now the list has grown. For example, considerable emphasis is now placed on materials that can help prevent the spread of microbes and other bacteria. In addition, the flooring should help create a comforting environment for both patients and the healthcare staff. The challenges have prompted some companies to step up their efforts and embrace healthy products as a core competency.

Jeff Katz, business manager for Tarkett Commercial, says the area is "one of our core businesses." He adds that the company's healthcare division, Tarkett Specialty, accounts for "more than half of our overall business." While Tarkett has enjoyed considerable success in the category, Katz assures that the challenge to find new solutions is ongoing.

As such, Tarkett has launched two new products that it believes represent the future of the segment: Square and Acczent Comfort. Square is a cushioned loose-lay vinyl tile which can be installed over old subfloors. Acczent Comfort is a cushioned sheet vinyl product with seams that can be heat-welded for seamless visuals. Katz says both products take into consideration "the ergonomics of flooring."

"If we can produce a floor that has more shock absorption, more energy return and better acoustics and sound insulation, we're creating a better environment for the people that use the product," Katz says. "More cushioning provides more energy return, which means the floor will quickly rebound underfoot. This is better ergonomically, as it helps employees who have been walking on the floor all day feel less fatigued during the seventh and eighth hours of their shifts."

Tarkett recently purchased rubber flooring maker Johnsonite. According to Rachel Tipton, a Johnsonite representative, the acquisition has yielded benefits for both sides. "We're both learning a lot from each other," she says.

Tarkett's Square product is a loose-lay tile designed for easy installation, rotation and removal, according to the company. Square tiles are also recyclable and can be installed without the use of adhesives, which contributes to indoor air quality in healthcare environments, the company says.
Johnsonite works to differentiate itself in the segment by focusing on aesthetic sensibilities. It offers such products as the Wheeled Traffic Transition accessory, which is designed specifically for use in healthcare environments. All of Johnsonite's flooring and accessory pieces are designed to be mixed and matched to assure greater design flexibility, Tipton says.

"We offer over 130 colors to choose from for our products," she notes. "Healthcare facility managers find the color selection extremely helpful. If they're going to add a wing onto a hospital, for example, they want to know that they have a wide range of color options, and that the flooring and wall base colors will match throughout."

Forbo Flooring, which makes Marmoleum linoleum flooring, also offers a wide range of colors in its flooring. Along with a color palette of close to 200 colors, the flooring features multicolor welds to ensure seams are less visible. The company's latest program, Marmoleum Comfort, features the same choice of colors as its regular flooring but also includes attached cushion backing.

"Nurses especially like the Marmoleum Comfort products, for a couple of reasons," says Denny Darragh, general manager of North American operations for Forbo. "Linoleum is a comfortable product to start with, and a very quiet floor. Additionally, the attached backing brings added comfort to tired feet. We usually see Marmoleum Comfort put in at nurses stations and other high-traffic areas for just these reasons."

Darragh says the healthcare segment is undergoing a boom in construction and renovation that is comparable to what the residential market has been experiencing. While the surge of new homes and residential renovation projects has been fueled mostly by record-low interest rates, Darragh notes that the healthcare boom is being driven by a number of factors. For example, many nonprofit care centers are being replaced by for-profit HMOs, he says. Originally, the move to for-profit slowed the healthcare market, as facility managers adjusted to the change by tightening the purse strings. But now, the money is flowing again.

"We're seeing a bit of a recoil boom," Darragh says. "With the switch to for-profit, big facility groups control tremendous amounts of facilities. They're putting the necessary money back into their buildings."

A chunk of that revenue goes back to flooring makers' research and development departments, where greater advances and innovations can potentially be unearthed. Darragh predicts that in 10 years' time, healthcare flooring will evolve into more than just a surface covering.

"There is work being done by numerous manufacturers who are going to dramatically change the landscape of healthcare flooring," Darragh says. "In specialized areas, flooring will be able to improve patient care and the patient environment. There is a tremendous amount of potential to use flooring to help track and identify patients, for example. These and other advances could potentially alter the role of healthcare flooring."

Roppe Corp. currently offers a full line of vinyl and rubber flooring suitable for the healthcare industry. According to Roppe's Dee Dee Brickner the products are also designed with an eye toward presenting comforting visuals.

"We offer designs and styles in commercial-grade flooring products that can endure the heavy rolling traffic that healthcare facilities endure, without looking industrial. Healthcare interiors should be designed to promote healing and aid in the comfort of patients."

Roppe's newest entries for the segment include the North Coast collections of Wood Naturals and Terra Naturals solid vinyl tiles. Wood Naturals offers an authentic looking hardwood visual in a commercial-grade floor. Terra Naturals showcases the looks of granite, stone and marble for heavy-duty commercial use. Brickner says both products have been designed to offer "the comforts of home in a commercial setting."

Roppe's sister company, Flexco, also offers design-savvy products for healthcare environments. The recently launched Health Design Vinyl Tile was brought to market "to give architects new color choices and designers more colors to use in projects," says Melissa Quick, a representative for the company.

At the NeoCon meeting in Chicago this month, Flexco plans to introduce Evolving Styles, a new line of rubber tile in 20 colors, two gauges and multiple sizes for the healthcare segment.

"This product will be great for leg fatigue and will be able to take lots of punishment from large hospital beds with large casters," she says. "The floor will help with sound absorption as well."

The company also carries grit strips and ribbed tread inserts that meet ADA requirements and provide slip resistance for stairways.