Swelling confidence and bulging order books have seen flooring designers and specifiers look beyond price as the driver for choice. Paul Thompson reports.

Floor (2)Activity on all types of  schemes and projects is on the up but in contrast to the recent years of the recession, construction activity is not purely centred on London and the South East. The geographical spread of schemes is far  more even with specialist suppliers and contractors in all districts reporting hiked levels  of demand.

The flooring sector is no different. According to Richard Catt, chief executive officer at sector body the Contract Flooring Association, the rebound from the recession is being felt countrywide.

“There are some fantastic growth figures out there for the construction industry and those are reflected into our market place. There doesn’t seem to be any regional bias or variation, which is good news too,” he said.

Mr Catt believes that of all the business sectors it is retail that still has some way to go before demand returns to its pre-recession levels. But with many of the big supermarket chains revising the way they go about their business – shifting from large out-of-town superstores to smaller, more local units – the focus for flooring specialists will shift from the huge open square metreage previously associated with supermarkets.

“The larger retailers are changing tack and looking at developing a larger number of smaller, local supermarkets. There are definitely more opportunities forthcoming in the retail sector,” Mr Catt continued.

On the back of this hike in workflow and increased confidence in the economy, the specification of flooring systems has started to change. In recent years price has been king with architects and designers demanding real value from their floor finishes, seldom looking beyond £/sq m when specifying.

Now though the market has started to shape up to such an extent that customers are not quite so price focused. They still need value for their money but are prepared to look beyond the initial cost to make sure they get it.

“It has been a price-driven market in recent years,” explained Mark Grocock from Bespoke Drywall, adding, “But now we are starting to see some real changes. Increasingly there is demand for more decorative finishings and a focus on greater quality.”

Even in the notoriously tight world of retail and shop fitting, designers are looking beyond price at impact and working life. Mark Shaw is director at Yorkshire-based designers and project managers Retail Project Associates.

“In the retail sector the focus is on designing to drive sales performance. Everything has to help the client meet that goal. Visual impact is key but price is important and of course there are the more practical considerations such as longevity too,” he commented. Lisa Tomlin, managing director at flooring distributors Carpet & Flooring, said: “Customers are looking for the complete package when choosing products.  Priorities vary of course, but flooring solutions increasingly need to tick all the boxes in terms of environmental credentials, ease and speed of installation, safety, durability and of course, aesthetics.”

Matthew Farmer is sales director for flooring at building materials supplier CCF. He too has witnessed a greater degree of flexibility in flooring specification since the economy has started its turnaround.

“Price is such an ingrained issue in the minds of specifiers, but we have noticed that it is starting to change. A little more heed is taken to other factors which are helping make decisions. Speed of installation and a sustainability or ‘green’ element are also proving to be part of the process,” he said.

Indeed the environmental impact of flooring processes and finishes is an area that is being addressed by most manufacturers and installers. They are paying attention to the call from specifiers and developing more and more products that boast a recycled content, have a reduced harmful chemical content, or that can be reused or help reduce wastage.

“There are plenty of products out there that can help reduce the environmental impact of a flooring project,” highlighted Mr Farmer, adding, “They can also benefit the efficiency of the whole scheme.”

He points to a dry-screed board system developed by Knauf. Its Brio flooring board  is proving popular in city  centre commercial schemes as well as hotels and student halls of residence.

The system is effectively a pre-chamfered panel of engineered gypsum with a 60 per cent recycled content. It is easily and quickly installed providing a solid, robust floor without the need for any time-consuming wet trades.

“It speeds up the whole process. It isn’t the right solution for every installation, but it is proving popular where installation time is a high priority,” explained Mr Farmer, adding that high thermal and acoustic insulation properties are similarly highly sought.

In applications where vinyl products – either sheet or tiles – dominate, such as non-slip flooring behind bars and in restaurant kitchens, the onus has always been on the delivery of safe systems. In an increasingly litigious society, that focus has not shifted. If anything, more clients are looking for them.

“Non-slip safety flooring is a massive market for sheet vinyl systems,” said Mr Catt. “Demand is high for systems that might offer clients some level of litigation protection as well as surpassing safety legislation requirements.”

Schools and community projects are key consumers of these sheet and tile vinyl flooring systems, but liquid systems such as Sika’s ComfortFloor are also perfect for tricky installations. During the refurbishment of Castle Hill High School in Stockport, Cheshire, the design team realised that the vinyl floor initially specified would not be compatible with the existing differing types of substrate. Instead the team opted for the ComfortFloor system, which was installed and ready for use within three days.

But in the commercial sector where raised access flooring systems rule the roost there is an increasing focus on the use of surfacing methods that can be easily switched and relaid at the end of a lease.

“Short-let tenants will be expected to return an office at the same quality as it was let. In many cases that could mean renewing the carpet tiles. But access floors can be left tacky with residue glue once the tiles are removed and often the whole raised floor is scrapped and renewed,” explained Joe Cilia, technical manager at FIS. He wants to see greater emphasis on the re-use of raised access flooring rather than its wholesale destruction, even if it is destined for recycling.

“There are systems out there, such as the TacTile system from Interface, that enable carpet tiles to be quickly and easily removed without leaving behind a residue that often leads to landlords insisting on a new floor being installed at the end of a lease. The ability to reuse an existing floor has to be a better option than relaying and recycling every time there is a change in tenancy,” Mr Cilia concluded.