AIA: Commercial Flooring

Laying the foundation for good design.

The colorful ribboned flooring at Toronto’s Corus Quay mimics the iconic corkscr
The colorful ribboned flooring at Toronto’s Corus Quay mimics the iconic corkscrew slide and draws attention to visible pathways on the main floor in this interior, designed by local firm Quadrangle Architects.
April 03, 2012

Discussions of commercial flooring tend to focus on the floor covering or finish material. This is hardly surprising, since the covering is the part of the floor that stakeholders see, interact with, and care about most. The lion’s share of information from commercial flooring contractors and product manufacturers focuses on surface material, revealing little about what’s going on below the surface. For every rare discussion of structure, subfloor, and underlayment, there are dozens about what should be chosen to place on top of the flooring base.

The uninitiated might conclude that the only important choice to make is the specification of the flooring material and the means to adhere it.

Savvy Building Teams are careful not to fall into this trap. The finish material for a commercial or institutional floor system interacts in important ways with a number of other building systems. For that reason, the effective selection and specification of materials, adhesives, underlayments, leveling treatments, electrical systems, cable management, and raised floors must take into account a complete picture of both building design and intended use.

Beyond that, architects and structural engineers must consider how the interiors team will craft the space to meet end-user needs before making all the decisions concerning subfloor materials and structure. Even operations and maintenance (O&M) considerations, such as cleaning and future renovations, are vital to the design of assemblies and choices of products.

After reading this article, you should be able to:
+ DISCUSS the main criteria, notably environmental, health, and safety issues, for selecting and specifying floor materials and systems.
+ DESCRIBE the structural factors for flooring and floor underlayments, including raised-floor systems for improved indoor air quality (IAQ).
+ LIST considerations for entry areas, building transitions, and other special areas that require flooring accessories, with particular attention to safety, occupant welfare, cleanliness, and benefit to the indoor environment.
+ COMPARE and contrast flooring materials and finishes based on cost, sustainability, health and safety concerns, and O&M requirements.

A floor designed from too narrow a perspective can be underperforming, even disastrous, as field experience proves.


Experienced Building Teams know that design success and client satisfaction may hinge upon a “top-down” view of the floor systems, starting with a careful assessment of the needs implied for a properly specified and installed finish surface.

“Flooring is often the interior finish that represents the largest surface area in a project,” says Layng Pew, AIA, managing principal with the planning and design firm WXY Architecture + Urban Design (, New York, N.Y. “It is also the finish that every occupant will touch—that is, walk on—daily, and there are many considerations that factor into the choice.” These include:

  • Client needs, requirements, and desired aesthetic
  • Subfloor composition and structure
  • How occupants will use spaces
  • O&M practices and preferences

At least three of those design and construction topics relate directly to the needs and wants of the client, says Pew, a 25-year veteran of building design and project management. “It is essential to include the client in the decision-making process, because each has unique needs and expectations,” he says. Communication in the planning phase reveals important information about how the space will be utilized—information that is crucial to choosing a floor design. Continuing the dialogue through construction and into operation phases will prepare the client to make the best use of the floor.


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