From play schoolers to college students, a pleasing school environment is a plus that can add up to superior performance. Over the past several decades, school design has been widely recognised as a factor in creating a good learning environment that strongly affects student achievement, social development and attendance, as well as teacher retention and satisfaction. In a 2001 study by the Atlanta-based research firm, Beth Schapiro & Associates, more than 92 percent of teachers surveyed believe general classroom design has a strong impact on students' learning and achievement. In the same study, teachers identified the top five design elements that promote the best learning environment: comfort, safety, lighting, temperature control and good acoustics.
Carpet helps achieve several of these design goals, and is a factor in the creation of welcoming, friendly and less institutional classrooms that can contribute to a better educational environment for students, teachers and school personnel. In fact, more than 70 percent of teachers surveyed in the Schapiro study prefer carpet on their classroom floor. This article will cover the safety and health issues related to carpeting in schools, as well as guidelines to selecting the right carpet and keeping it a sustainable choice for the life of the product. The proper way to clean and maintain carpets will be explored, as well.
Benefits of Carpets
Carpet is a foundation for the look and feel of a room. It can provide a casual simplicity to reinforce a soft, livable ambiance or it can lend vibrancy to a room through strong colors and heavier textures. One of the easiest methods of personalising an environment, carpet also offers a host of health and safety benefits.
Because it affords more traction, carpet helps prevent falls. According to the above-mentioned Schapiro study, 77 percent of teachers agree that carpet helps prevent falls and injuries and makes a classroom safer. Not only do fewer slips and falls occur with carpeting, but when they do happen the chances of injury are greatly diminished on a soft floorcovering. Further, carpet provides a non-glare surface that reduces reflection and eyestrain.
With carpet, less acoustic protection is needed on the ceiling and elsewhere. This provides a better learning atmosphere with fewer distractions. According to the Technical Committee on Architectural Acoustics of the Acoustical Society of America, the speech intelligibility rating is 75 percent or even less in many classrooms, meaning that those with normal hearing can understand only 75 percent of the words read from a list. Research shows that background noise from inside and outside the classroom negatively affects learning. Excessive noise and reverberation interfere with speech audibility, leading to diminished understanding, learning and ability to focus on the lessons at hand. Flooring is a major component of comprehensive noise management. Based on a study by the American Society of Interior Designers, carpet is deemed to be 10 times more efficient in reducing noise compared to other flooring options. When a cushioned backing made with polyurethane technology is added, noise levels can be further reduced.
For teachers and other staff, a cushioned walking and standing surface reduces leg fatigue. Several studies have investigated the influence of floor surfaces on the body during long-term standing, and results show that softer floor materials usually result in less postural discomfort than standing on hard floor surfaces (Redfern & Cham, 2000). According to Rys and Konz (1988), heart rate was higher after two hours of standing on a concrete floor compared to carpet, and perceived comfort was higher when standing on carpet. Similarly, In 1997, Madeleine et al. found that after two hours of standing, the comfort level was greater for a soft surface. Standing on a hard surface increased parameters, such as shank swelling and muscle fatigue. It also detrimentally changed subjects' standing posture.
Better Insulation. Carpet is warmer to sit on or work on, extending the learning areas to space on the floor. Thermal comfort exists because carpet retains inside ambient temperatures for longer periods. Because of its fibrous construction, carpet traps a layer of air close to the floor. Air is an excellent thermal insulator and consequently carpet acts to increase the thermal insulation of a surface. Additionally, a pad beneath carpet can further increase this thermal insulation effect. Research conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Textile Engineering tested the thermal insulation values (R-Values) of carpet and cushion and found that the total R-value was more dependent on the total thickness of the carpet than the type of fiber content. The research indicated that a carpet system comprising carpet and pad can increase the R-value of the floor to somewhere in the range of 2 to 4.
Lower Life-cycle Costs
Carpet that is properly selected, installed and maintained lasts up to 10 years or longer. When product, installation and maintenance supplies and labor costs are considered over a 15- to 20-year period, carpet showed lower life cycle costs than other flooring options. A 2002 report, "Life-cycle Cost Analysis for Floor Covering in School Facilities," prepared by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), found that carpet could be 65 percent less expensive to maintain than hard surface flooring. In the study, buying and installing the hard surface flooring was less expensive than carpet. But when labor, supplies and equipment costs were calculated over a 22-year life cycle, carpet proved to be more cost effective. The life expectancy of the hard surface flooring was 22 years. The cost of replacing carpet after 11 years was factored into the analysis. The study also found that hard surface floors require two and one half times more cleaning than carpet and that hard surface cleaning supplies are about seven times more expensive than supplies for carpeted floors. The carpet industry is working to make carpet even longer lasting in schools by creating more durable fibers and fabrication methods, improving primary and secondary backings and increasing the number of different design and performance options. Modular carpets, the fastest growing segment of the industry, provide the option of replacing parts of a carpeted surface, instead of the entire carpet.
Improved Indoor Air Quality
Allergies are usually affected by airborne particles. Carpet traps allergens in its fiber and does not allow them to circulate in the air, even with the activity of children. The allergens trapped in the carpet then can be easily removed by adhering to a regular cleaning and maintenance schedule that includes vacuuming and periodic extraction cleaning using Seal of Approval-certified products. Studies have compared the distribution of airborne dust associated with normal activities on hard and soft flooring surfaces. In 2002, research by G. Asbury titled, "Cleaning and Foot Traffic Emissions Analysis," for the Professional Testing Laboratory, Inc., in Dalton, Georgia, showed that walking on hard surfaces disturbed more particles.
These particles became airborne and entered the breathing zone. In contrast, carpeted surfaces trapped more particles so that walking disturbed fewer particles. The result was less dust in the breathing zone over carpeted floors. In a government study in Sweden, when carpet was banned from public buildings and replaced with smooth surfaces, the allergic reactions of people actually increased as carpet use decreased. There were intensive discussions and reports in Sweden in the 1970s claiming that carpet was the source of harmful contaminants, resulting in allergic reactions. As a result, Swedish consumers and public building officials severely reduced their use of carpet. Carpet's share of the total floorcovering market in Sweden dropped from 40 percent in the mid-70s to only 2 percent in 1992. Based on historical figures published by the Swedish Statistical Central Bureau in the early nineties, Professors Roshan L. Shishoo and Alf Bsson, Swedish Institute of Fibre and Polymer Research, published an article for Carpet & Floorcovering Review, pointing out that while the use of carpet in Sweden had steadily decreased since 1975, the occurrences of allergic reactions in the general population had increased. Professors Shishoo and Bsson contend that the removal and decline of carpet usage did not mean improved conditions for allergic patients, who in fact missed the advantages of carpet such as comfort, insulation, and noise reduction.
Another indoor air quality issue is that of carpet and mould. Clean carpet does not support mould growth even at prolonged and elevated temperatures. However, left unresolved, leaks and spills, heavy condensation and localized flooding, especially when followed by prolonged high humidity, can lead to mold growth in many areas of a school. For mould to grow, it needs water, oxygen, a warm temperature and something that contains nutrients to feed on, such as dirt, wood or paper. Moisture trapped below a carpet can result in mold growth and the release of mould spores and mould metabolic products (microbial VOCs or MVOCs) into indoor air. Effective moisture control is critical to protect all building systems from the potential for mould growth. That said, studies have shown that the biggest source of mould spores is actually an improperly operated and maintained HVAC system. Shutting the HVAC system off at night or during downtime creates the perfect incubator for mould spores, which are then flushed into the breathing zone.
Selecting the Right Carpet
In many instances, new schools have incorporated a mix of floor coverings, with carpet in entrances and corridors to minimize dirt brought in and spread throughoutthe facility. Carpeting in these areas also provides extra traction for school children entering the building, particularly when it's wet or snowy outside. In elementary school classrooms carpeting is increasingly being used around teachers' and students' desks, with smooth surfaces reserved for around sinks and water fountains and in bathrooms and cafeterias.
Choosing the right carpet to stand up to the heavy traffic expected in a school is critical. Industry guidelines are geared to choosing an appropriate carpet for any area, from corridor to classroom to school office, classifying carpet's use according to expected traffic, determining the performance required for the location and for determining the carpet's desired physical characteristics. Compromising any specification recommendation can dramatically affect the way a carpet looks and its ease of cleaning. Experience has taught that a low profile, densely tufted, tight loop construction is very functional in a school. Color selection is a prime factor in long-term appearance retention and facility managers and maintenance supervisors who understand this can increase the longevity of the carpet and save on future capital replacement. While a light color cut pile can make rooms and hallways look brighter, they are a poor choice in heavy traffic areas and can make successful maintenance more difficult. A darker color loop pile will retain its appearance longer and is a better choice in heavy traffic areas. Tweeds or patterns in the carpet are also a good choice as they add interest to the floor and hide soil.