Flooring with Form and Function

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Flooring can have a vital role to play in managing how people use a space, by both assisting them to find their way around and helping to define the functions of different areas within a building. Kay Hill takes a closer look at flooring designs that are useful as well as beautiful


With the exception of museums, galleries and some sectors of retail, where people are expected or encouraged to wander and linger, the aim in most public buildings and offices is for pedestrians to make their way smoothly and swiftly to where they are intending to go. Large numbers of confused individuals meandering around atriums and back-tracking along corridors is a risk factor on many levels – from fire and health and safety concerns, to distractions and loss of productivity.

When most buildings used old-fashioned space planning, with rooms off corridors and a multitude of directional signage, confusion wasn’t generally an issue; but with today’s large open-plan public buildings and non-hierarchical multiuse office spaces, architects need to look for more subtle ways to manage pedestrian flow. Michiel Hofman of Amsterdam-based architectural practice HofmanDujardin, sums it up: ‘Of the many tools that we as architects use to define spaces, flooring is a very important one, as it can affect most of our senses. Flooring can make a space not just look different, but also make it feel, sound and even smell different.’

Above Pedestrians need never get lost in the 60 sq m offices of this technology company in Tblisi, Georgia, all they need to do is follow the lines in the floor Client: Silknet Design: Architects of Invention Budget: $50,000 Contractor: Archtrade Flooring: Vinyl Reception desk: SwitchPedestrians need never get lost in the 60 sq m offices of this technology company in Tblisi, Georgia, all they need to do is follow the lines in the floor

Client: Silknet
Design: Architects of Invention
Budget: $50,000
Contractor: Archtrade
Flooring: Vinyl
Reception desk: Switch
Image Credit: Nakani Mamasaxlisi Photo Lab

Holly Hak marketing director and co-owner of flooring company Hakwood, notes that unlike other ways of delineating space, flooring solutions are particularly suited to contemporary spaces: ‘With the more open-plan hotels and offices in particular, there’s a demand to somehow zone areas and tell people where they are within this large open space. By using flooring, designers can do this without breaking up the open visual lines of sight; they can use the floor for zoning and divide up the space without putting up walls.’

Angelle Champkin, design director at GTA Interior, has used flooring in this way in a number of recent projects: ‘We commonly change flooring between circulation routes, collaborative areas, breakout spaces etc to zone, delineate and create order. In workplace design, we grab the opportunity to give particular zones a completely different look from the rest of the open-plan office to define the function and activity – and of course add some fun. Some of our clients like to create team neighbourhoods or highlight different departments, and this can be easily achieved by changing the flooring finish.’

Flooring design was an essential feature in Russian bank Sberbank’s new four-storey, 24,000 sq m open-plan offices in Moscow. Different patterns and textures help staff to find the right environment to work in, while clearly defined pedestrian pathways avoid disruption to those working quietly Client: Sberbank of Russia Design: Evolution Design Flooring: Milliken Artistic Liberties, Colour Compositions, Dissident 2.0, Laylines and Per Contra carpet tilesFlooring design was an essential feature in Russian bank Sberbank’s new four-storey, 24,000 sq m open-plan offices in Moscow. Different patterns and textures help staff to find the right environment to work in, while clearly defined pedestrian pathways avoid disruption to those working quietly

Client: Sberbank of Russia
Design: Evolution Design
Flooring: Milliken Artistic Liberties, Colour Compositions, Dissident 2.0, Laylines and Per Contra carpet tiles
Image Credit: Evgeny Luchin and Leonid Somov

Improvements in flooring technology, from laser cutting to on-site resin pouring, have meant that it is easier than ever before to mix and match different types and textures of floor to help with zoning and wayfinding. ‘From a flooring manufacturer’s point of view,’ says Hak, ‘there’s a giant move towards personalisation and customisation, and technology now means you can match different materials so much more easily, which has opened up an array of design possibilities.’ At GTA Interior, Champkin often makes the most of these opportunities, although she advises ‘It is important to have threshold-free flooring transitions. This can be achieved by simply changing the colour of the flooring in the same product range, or if a change of flooring type is desired, flooring of similar thicknesses should be specified or the sub-floor built-up in thickness to make up the difference.’

Soothing butterflies help guide worried parents around the special care baby unit at Glan Clwyd Hospital Client: Glan Clwyd Hospital Design: IBI Group Flooring: Forbo Sphera Element in Mortar, with hand-cut butterflies in Sphera Element Teal, Amber and Yellow Green, installed by Active Flooring

Soothing butterflies help guide worried parents around the special care baby unit at Glan Clwyd Hospital

Client: Glan Clwyd Hospital
Design: IBI Group
Flooring: Forbo Sphera Element in Mortar, with hand-cut butterflies in Sphera Element Teal, Amber and Yellow Green, installed by Active Flooring

Another caveat when mixing different floor materials, is to be aware of their relative durability and cleaning needs. ‘It can be more efficient if you pick harder-wearing materials for higher traffic areas,’ says Hak. ‘The only difficulty comes with cleaning, as you can’t always clean a mix of materials with a standard giant buffer machine, you might need more careful maintenance. The advantage with zoning is that you can get the beauty of a luxury material such as a high-end carpet into your design, but because you are only using it in a small area where it isn’t being walked on all day it won’t be damaged, and you can zone the high traffic areas with tiles instead. You could have a gorgeous natural material to add warmth, or even a carpet with silk in it, but as it rains in London six days out of seven you don’t put it right in the doorway, you work in zones.’

According to Hofman: ‘The way we use flooring depends very much on the type of project and the qualities we want to achieve. In fact, variations in colours, textures and materials can all achieve the same effect of creating different areas with specific atmospheres.’ When the company designed the Rotterdam headquarters of energy company Eneco, he explains: ‘We used a continuous light terrazzo floor as a base layer to enhance the openness and connection between spaces. On top, different flooring like wood, fixed carpets and rugs are used to define different places. The soft textures and contrasting colours work well because they are matched with the loose furniture, creating coherent “islands” Because the colour palettes are defined per floor, the experience is calm and consistent.’

The Hyatt Regency Amsterdam, once a 19th century children’s hospital, uses different colours of herringbone flooring to separate the bar from the seating area in the restaurant, while tiling is used in the places most prone to spills Client: Hyatt Concept, interior and graphic design: Concrete, in association with Jestico+Whiles Flooring: Hakwood Shadow, Harmony and bespoke FSC Rustic engineered European oak wood

The Hyatt Regency Amsterdam, once a 19th century children’s hospital, uses different colours of herringbone flooring to separate the bar from the seating area in the restaurant, while tiling is used in the places most prone to spills 

Client: Hyatt
Concept, interior and graphic design: Concrete, in association with Jestico+Whiles
Flooring: Hakwood Shadow, Harmony and bespoke FSC Rustic engineered European oak wood

Sometimes, the wayfinding and zoning aspects of a flooring design are highly visible – with patterns on the floor literally leading pedestrians through a building. For example, for new Paddington office of data company BSG, May Fawzy, director of MF Design Studio, explains: ‘The cutting-edge design is based around the concept of lines and railway tracks, with wood flooring gently guiding you to different spaces and areas in the office – a nod to the location next to one of Britain’s busiest railway stations.

The contemporary railway track was created by using wooden flooring and recessing high-impact LED lights within. The carpet has a natural colour palette inspired by the surrounding views; hi-tech materials blend with earthy ones to create a calm, warm environment.’

In other cases, it can be much more subtle. ‘If the flooring subconsciously guides occupants then I would say the design is a successful one,’ says Champkin. ‘I always remember a large yellow square applied to the floor at Waterloo station (when Eurostar departed from here).

It was primarily an advertising tool, but the flooring subconsciously guided pedestrians to set down in the square instead of blocking main circulation routes in front of ticket gates. The same idea can be applied in workplace design, and we used a similar approach on our projects for Worldwide Technologies and Asynchrony Labs in the Citi building, Canary Wharf. Here, dynamic partition lines define rooms and demo areas which are enhanced with flowing lines of changing flooring finishes and mirroring ceiling treatments emulating these lines above.’

HoftmanDujardin created working “islands” in the atrium of an energy company’s 25,000 sq m Rotterdam headquarters, using pale terrazzo flooring topped with carpets and rugs to define different areas Client: Eneco Design: HofmanDujardin in association with Fokkema & Partners Lighting: Studio RublekHoftmanDujardin created working “islands” in the atrium of an energy company’s 25,000 sq m Rotterdam headquarters, using pale terrazzo flooring topped with carpets and rugs to define different areas

Client: Eneco
Design: HofmanDujardin in association with Fokkema & Partners
Lighting: Studio Rublek 
Image Credit: Matthijs Van Roon/Hofmandujardin

The use of flooring to direct pedestrian flow can be especially useful for those with disabilities – people with visual impairments or additional learning needs who are unable to read signage rely both consciously and subconsciously on visual cues in the environment. ‘Flooring can help people to find their way, especially those with disabilities,’ says Barbara Dujardin of HofmanDujardin.

‘In public buildings and care environments, this is very useful. Besides visual contrasts, textures and materials, even the way floors feel can influence our behaviour as well. This is because we associate certain floor types with certain qualities. With every step we are (unconsciously) aware of the ground we are walking on.’



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