This commercial hardwood flooring features solid character grade white oak plank. The installation is by Franklin Hardwood Floors in Woodbury, Conn.  Photo courtesy of National Wood Flooring Association.

Specifying the correct product for the location is critical in successfully selling hardwood and laminate flooring for commercial use. Selecting or mis-specifying a lower quality product can cause an expensive claim.

Frequently, a specification comes about because a designer is looking for that little something extra to round out the design package. Rather than use carpet or tile, Brazilian cherry hardwood and an area rug is used for a conference room or lobby entrance, or a great looking laminate that looks like ceramic might be used in lieu of the real thing.

The key to commercial is to review how the site space will be used and how the product will likely perform. For example, a beautiful laminate is probably going to disappoint the client when used in the bank’s teller line, whereas ceramic might be perfect. Likewise, a gorgeous laminate or engineered hardwood would be perfect for elevators for the executive suite that have moderate use.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen made is a lack of understanding of the traffic ratings. Most commercial areas can be rated according to usage such as light or moderate, medium, heavy, or extra heavy. This is typically calculated by the number of foot traffics per day (which relate to the pounding the floor will take as well as the amount of dirt, grit or other contamination). Likewise, many products are rated in a similar manner; however, the definition may apply to residential, not commercial, so read the fine print.  

With laminate (strip or tile), most products click or snap together rather than use glued joints. For commercial projects, if you have a choice, use glue. Although Wilsonart Flooring exited the segment, their method of edge gluing the top and bottom provided one of the best performing products available, in my opinion.

The biggest enemy of most laminate is moisture which will cause distortion and bowing within the composite wood backing. Excessive dirt or grit will scratch the finish and cause a dulled appearance, especially within pivot points. There are similar cautions for hardwood. Although most hardwood can be refinished on-site, it is a messy, time-consuming, expensive proposition.

The next time you have an opportunity to specify or sell laminate or hardwood for a commercial setting, here are five tips to keep you out of trouble and your client happy:

Educate your client on the particular characteristics of the laminate or hardwood to set their expectations properly. Highlight the pros and cons of each. Mention the “hollow sound” that may accompany the laminate or the potential for denting with some wood products. Whenever possible, show a large sample or samples for final selection purposes. What might look terrific in a small scale on a design board may not translate well into several hundred square feet.  

Clients will select based upon visual appeal and price, and absolutely blast you when it’s installed with, “You didn’t tell me it would look like this,” or, “I cannot stand the noise or tapping sound.” It is one thing to use laminate in a small customer waiting room, but a different thing to use in an auto showroom.

Make best value an integral part of your selection and offer more than one option. Perhaps a good, better, best approach with hardwood and laminate in some combination is ideal. When you are presenting a laminate or hardwood that will be about equal in delivered price, review the strengths and weaknesses of each to help the client in making a choice.

Be positive about both products, but present fairly. You will be asked your opinion. With your flooring knowledge, the price parameters, and the project itself, you should tell the client your opinion. It doesn’t mean he has to accept it, but you have to give it to remain the flooring professional.  

Match the laminate or the hardwood selection to the overall use of the area. Is the area selected going to be for moderate or heavy use? Will it be all foot traffic, or will there be some rolling traffic? Does the area have exterior door access? What about directional traffic and tracking of debris?

Most hardwood or laminate will be used in moderate foot traffic areas. When you are putting your samples together, think about the rest of the flooring package. If you are specifying a high-end woven product for a law office, hardwood is more likely going to be acceptable than laminate. If you are working on an independent retail space with carpet tile, then laminate selections to define product areas might be more appropriate.

Make sure the substrate is appropriate in terms of flatness and moisture emissions. It is critical that the substrate have the specified degree of “flatness” required by the product manufacturer. If not, you WILL have challenges during and after installation; at a minimum, you should figure in some floor prep (skim-coating) and light sanding to remove ridges.  

Nothing is worse than edge peaking or hollow spots from an uneven floor. I once missed part of a commercial specification for a TV studio when the floor needed to be laser leveled when using a poured cementitious underlayment prior to the flooring installation. It cost me thousands of dollars to learn that flat was not the same as level.

A key component with the successful laminate and hardwood project is to know the amount of moisture emissions given off by the substrate. Each product manufacturer will give you these guidelines. Too high a MVER will cause warping, glue failure, mold and other nasty things. Document the info and put it in your project file.  

If you ever have a failure, most clients will assume it is your fault and not theirs. One client insisted that he had been sold a defective product until we proved that his janitors were regularly flooding the floor with water, overusing detergent, and then haphazardly mopping up the residue. In short order the floor was ruined from excessive moisture.

Discuss the required methods of maintenance, frequency, expected results and required appearance level of the product.  

Vacuuming or dust and debris removal is critical; buffing and damp mopping is not typically done. Frequency is important to discuss; what would be permissible each month might not be a good idea each week. Does the hardwood or laminate need to reflect a soft patina or have a high gloss?

While I urge caution in specifying laminate or hardwood for commercial projects, you may just end up being a hero by offering the right selection and distance yourself from the competition. Perhaps the client is looking for something different, off-beat, unusual or a particular effect to complete a design. Just make sure you know how the space is being used, the amount of traffic and how it will be maintained.