Reconsidering Rubber

By Stephanie L’Estrange & Jamison Delfino | March/April Issue | MCD Magazine

Better design options and sustainable advantages ring renewed relevance.

Flooring alternatives for healthcare facilities, such as liquid linoleum and PVC-free vinyl sheeting, tempt owners and designers with promises of better looks, higher performance, and greener properties. Each of these has its strengths, and each has its place.

In many cases, however, an old reliable flooring product may best meet the needs of the owner, facility, and end users – rubber. This is especially true as priorities shift within healthcare facilities. The following are five main reasons behind rubber’s resurgence as a flooring material in healthcare settings:

Improved design options & flexibility

For all its advantages, rubber has never been the designers’ top choice for aesthetic purposes. In recent years, vendors expanded the rand of color and texture options that can help create warm, comfortable, and attractive environments in healthcare facilities. For example, one vendor teamed with a top paint brand to increase its color palette to include 7- distinct shades and over 200 patterns for designers to choose from.

More, the bolder, options offer flexibility for designers seeking to not only create a look that furthers a project’s goal or an owner’s mission but also for critical functions such as wayfinding and patient recovery. On a recent project, our interior design team tapped into a variety of therapeutic colors and patterns in rubber flooring to customize an exercise area for patients with autism.

Focus on noise reduction

Sound absorption is a major benefit of rubber flooring. While never overlooked, this trait grows in importance as healthcare experts and practitioners recognize the potentially negative impact that loud, chaotic environments can have on patient and provider well-being.

In an article published in August 2023, titled “Hospitals are Noisy, They Don’t Have to Be,” the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote, “Many people with hearing loss or disabilities that heighten sensitivity to sound struggle to hear in the loud, often chaotic environment that is the hospital. Even those without hearing liabilities may differ amid the incessant beeping of monitors, the frequent alarms, and the competing conversations happening all around them.”

Rubber flooring’s sound-absorbing properties help to reduce noise levels from a wide spectrum of sources. The rule of thumb is that rubber reduces noise levels by up to 20 decibels. The resulting quieter, more comfortable environment can lead to better patient outcomes and a happier workforce.

Emphasis on infection control

The COVID-19 pandemic shines a more intense spotlight on infection control, and healthcare providers are redoubling efforts to prevent healthcare-acquired infections. Despite this increasing focus on infection control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered flooring of minor importance in contributing to patient infections. This may soon change.

Recent studies found that facilities should pay more attention to floors in efforts to combat the spread of HAI. Authors of one study wrote, “Evidence of floor contamination with high levels of pathogenic organisms is strong. There is moderate evidence showing that bacteria on floors can be resuspended into the air with the potential of inhalation, swelling, or contamination of surfaces and hands.”

In another example, a survey of five hospitals found that “floors in patient rooms were frequently contaminated with pathogens, and high-touch objects such as blood pressure cuffs and call buttons were often in contact with the floor. Contact with objects on the floor frequently resulted in the transfer of pathogens to hands.”

Recent advancements in rubber flooring include the integration of antimicrobial agents directly into the material. Although failing short of killing the bacteria it encounters, this technology helps to inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms.

Demand for sustainability

As owners and regulatory agencies more frequently require sustainable materials in healthcare projects, medical planners and designers increasingly turn to natural rubber flooring. In addition to its capacity to be recycled and to be manufactured from recycled material, rubber flooring requires less maintenance, is more durable, and lasts longer than some other flooring options.

Because a facility does not need to replace, fix, or maintain rubber flooring as much as some other materials, it uses less energy and reduces waste.

Expectation of value

Rubber flooring typically has a higher-than-average initial cost, but when maintenance, longevity, and quality are factored in, the lifecycle cost tends to deliver a better return on investment. Rubber flooring is also abundantly available, so unlikely to cause project scheduling delays from missed delivery deadlines.

With capital investments strained and cost-effectiveness paramount in the current state of healthcare facility development, spending a bit more upfront could prevent costly headaches later.

Designers are inspired by innovative products and are often drawn to the latest invention or trend. But tried and true materials can evolve, just as rubber floors have. Today, they offer more color choices, installation methods, and sustainable options than they previously did. So when designing a healthcare floor, it is prudent to consider all options, including “old school” methods, such as rubber flooring. What you find may surprise you.

Flooring vendors may also be open to adapting and improving their products to meet a project’s design requirements. It can’t hurt to ask, and they may appreciate the feedback and insight.

About the Authors: Stephanie L’Estrange, IIDA, CID, is a principal and director of interior design at Taylor Design. Jamison Delfino, IIDA, NCIDQ, CHID, is an interior design director at Taylor Design.

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Written by Anne Holden