Beauty, warmth, easy maintenance, and improved air quality. Those are just a few reasons to install wood flooring in commercial settings such as offices, bars, restaurants, and retail stores. There are several unique considerations, though. Wood flooring in these environments will receive significantly more foot traffic than in residential applications, and the process of bidding and taking on a commercial job can be quite different from working directly with a homeowner.
The last year has presented unusual challenges for commercial spaces, as office buildings sat vacant while employees worked from home, businesses closed, and projects stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite those obstacles, some say the commercial sector remained strong, while for others, only now are things starting to look up.
In this article, professionals who focus on wood flooring in business settings offer insights on trends and tips for success with these types of projects.
The Current State of Commercial
To some degree, the impact on commercial business during the past 18 months has depended upon where a company was operating. Certain states and municipalities were shut down longer than others due to COVID-19 restrictions, with some just beginning to open on a more-normal level in the early summer of this year. That was the case for PID Floors, a retailer headquartered in New York, New York.
“It’s all about maximum wearability and ease of maintenance in commercial. The key for us has been the ability to take an educational approach with commercial architects and designers and help them do what is in their clients’ best interest.”
— Rick Farrell, Woodwright
“For many, many months, we had a lot of anxiety when it comes to commercial because everything came to a complete halt. COVID really took the wind out from under us, and everything stopped,” recalls Steven Skutelsky, managing director of PID Floors. “Today, things definitely are picking up; there’s no question about it. I’d say we are maybe 50 percent back to where we were pre-COVID when it comes to inquiries and demand for having office and commercial space in Manhattan. I think things will continue picking up as long as things are available for people to come back to, it’s safe, and people feel comfortable.”
On the flip side, Schmidt Custom Floors Inc. in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was deemed essential in their state.
“For us, we actually could do more projects because things were shut down. Last year was a very busy year for us due to the fact that schools, bars, and restaurants were all closed, so a lot of them did some upgrades during those particular times,” says Tom Zarek, commercial manager for Schmidt Custom Floors. “They either remodeled or moved items, and it created an opportunity for us to be involved and get our team busy.”
Like many in the construction industry, one problem Zarek says they have encountered has been the escalating cost of materials and shortage of products.
Charles Couch, president of Oregon Lumber Company in Portland, Oregon, is cautiously optimistic as things are picking up. Projects that were once on hold are now showing signs of life.
“Last year, projects that were out for bid, things you thought were in the pipeline, were not materializing. What you thought was going to come to fruition was placed on hold indefinitely,” says Couch. “We sell all over the country, so geographically, our market’s not just Portland, Oregon. Things have opened up, which means the projects that were on hold have come back, and there’s new dialogue and new business coming in.”
Couch notes that higher costs, lack of product, and global supply chain disruptions can impact the commercial side significantly.
“Site access is the biggest difference, along with transitions from wood to other flooring types that are ADA compliant. Backend logistical support is imperative on commercial projects because of the nuances associated with product delivery and scheduling.”
— Jason Brubaker, Nydree Flooring
“There’s an acronym that aptly describes the current commercial market or market in general: VUCA, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous,” states Couch. “With commercial project planning years in development and a global supply chain of disruptions, we are living in a VUCA world.”
Despite some projects being halted or not happening due to COVID-19, Rick Farrell, architect and design consultant for Woodwright in Dallas, Texas, describes business on the commercial side as very strong.
“Our company, as most in the construction industry, fared well,” notes Farrell. “Backlog dropped significantly, yet the hope of a pending resurgence helped us to remain optimistic. Awards are now coming in with large commercial projects coming back online, which could make for a banner recovery year. 2022 will be huge for sure.”
Trends in Commercial Spaces
Popular choices for wood flooring in commercial spaces seem mostly to be similar to those before COVID-19: lighter and natural.
“We are seeing continued interest in lighter tones and a focus on ‘organic’ color palettes with subtle tones and a nod toward the outdoors and ‘natural’ design elements,” says Jason Brubaker, vice president of sales and marketing for Nydree Flooring in Forest, Virginia. “Designers want to use the real thing (no imitation products).”
According to Farrell, in addition to neutral color palettes, wood stairs, tiered seating, and wood walls continue to be on-trend.
“For many, many months, we had a lot of anxiety when it came to commercial because everything came to a complete halt. COVID really took the wind out from under us, and everything stopped. Today, things definitely are picking up; there’s no question about it.”
— Steven Skutelsky, PID Floors
Zarek is seeing more engineered wood flooring, as well as rustic looks. “They’re using more oils than water-based urethane acrylics,” he notes. “As far as colors, the grays are starting to phase out, and they’re going with deep browns or deep black colors. Then you’ll have the other extreme where it’s going all the way to the natural look.”
“From a commercial product perspective, we are seeing a demand for a smooth face or very light surface features,” says Couch. “Office projects are becoming more influenced by the residential and hospitality sectors.”
In the New York City area, top shelf is the preference. However, as many across the wood flooring industry have experienced this year, demand can outweigh supply.
“There’s a surge of wanting wide plank, clean materials, select and better, rift and quartered, and top-tier clients are really looking for rift only,” says Skutelsky. “Clients want the best of the best; it’s just not available right now. If lead times before used to be three or four weeks, today we’re seeing lead times of six to 10 weeks. As of today, people are going to wait.”
Choosing Wood Flooring
As is the case with residential projects, there are a variety of flooring types that can be used in a commercial space. It is important to understand there are nuances to the benefits of wood flooring in a commercial setting in order to have the floors perform to a client’s expectations.
“Being a wood person, it’s hard to think of where wood would not be the preferred choice,” says Couch. “In general, corporate offices, retail stores, hospitality, museums, concert halls, and universities are all good options for wood flooring. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s long-lasting, and it can be cost-effective.”
Farrell notes that it is all about maximum wearability and ease of maintenance in commercial.
“The key for us has been the ability to take an educational approach with commercial architects and designers and help them do what is in their clients’ best interest,” explains Farrell. “Talking them out of walnut for commercial floors is an ongoing battle, but necessary. Harder open grain species like oak or pecan are the mainstay in commercial floors. I often encourage texture and low sheens to diffuse light and minimize reflection, which ultimately increases wearability.”
“Last year was a very busy year for us due to the fact that schools, bars, and restaurants were all closed, so a lot of them did some upgrades during those particular times.” -Tom Zarek, Schmidt Custom Floors Inc.
Finding the right floor and providing clients with the right information is key to Skutelsky.
“We really focus on making sure the client receives a very high-quality, durable product. I would never tell them it will not scratch or dent,” says Skutelsky. “For commercial, we typically go with light-color floors, like oak. Usually it’s going to have a matte finish, and many times, it’s going to have a wire-brushed effect, so even if it does scratch or dent, you’re going to see a light color underneath. We talk about the fact that it could be rescreened many times, and we try to put a good 4mm wear layer on it so if new tenants come in and they don’t like the color, they can go ahead and sand it down.”
Finally, clients will need to be provided with a recommended maintenance routine to keep the floors beautiful and functioning within the high demands of a commercial space. Tips from the NWFA include avoiding using water to clean wood floors, sweeping and dust mopping the floor regularly, and using a professional cleaning product recommended by the flooring manufacturer as needed. Spills should be cleaned up immediately to avoid dulling the finish or possibly damaging the wood.
Though there are not many places the experts we spoke with would not recommend installing wood flooring, they would exercise caution installing wood flooring in areas with extreme wetness (such as a spa) and buildings without humidity control.
Commercial flooring projects are not simply residential projects on a larger scale. From specifying a product to accessing the jobsite, there are particulars to pay attention to before approaching this type of work. Farrell suggests thinking like a commercial general contractor, rather than a homebuilder.
“You’ll need comprehensive professional estimates that outline your entire scope of work and automatically include everything required by NWFA standards, such as moisture testing and proper floor prep,” explains Farrell. “Include breakouts and add prices for moisture barriers in the event they will be needed and encourage them to carry this cost as a contingency so a change order will not surprise them. You’ll need an outlet to get your bid invites through and a program that allows you to do professional looking takeoffs, bids, change orders, and invoices.”
“Safety programs and OSHA certifications for the employees on-site are often required as well as on-site training and attending mandatory coordination meetings,” he continues. “On larger commercial projects, you might need the ability to be bonded and increase your general liability insurance to meet the requirements. Shop drawings and submittals are standard items in our commercial bids, whereas these may rarely be needed in most residential projects.”
Skutelsky adds that there typically are several more parties involved in a commercial project.
“There are different conversations with different people, but it all has to do with the same job. So you’re stretched among four different conversations, usually at the same time. Everyone has their thing they need to check off and make sure it complies,” says Skutelsky.
Once the work is secured, there will be jobsite logistics to iron out. “Site access is the biggest difference, along with transitions from wood to other flooring types that are ADA compliant,” notes Brubaker. “Backend logistical support is imperative on commercial projects because of the nuances associated with product delivery and scheduling.”
According to Farrell, having an attorney (experienced in negotiating commercial construction) review a general contractor’s contract is a good practice. After a contract is in place, he says the chain of command is very important.
“You shouldn’t communicate with the architect or designer or provide any samples without the general contactor’s consent and involvement,” says Farrell. “LEED and sustainable projects can be a huge difference. Providing the required documentation on the VOC limits of the stains, adhesives, and other products can take lots of time. There is a much larger amount of documentation on commercial projects, and it can become problematic to order materials on a verbal before you have written approval of your submittals.”
All of the professionals we spoke with agreed that relationships are a key component to success. Couch reiterates that pursuing projects in the commercial market requires building those relationships with architects and interior designers who generate the product specifications.
“Being a wood person, it’s hard to think of where wood would not be the preferred choice. In general, corporate offices, retail stores, hospitality, museums, concert halls, and universities are all good options for wood flooring.”
— Charles Couch, Oregon Lumber Company
“Providing the architects and designers with unique, cost-effective product samples is a way to secure a future in the commercial business,” says Couch. “It’s very important because the architect is specifying your product, so they’re going to bat for you, and you want to make sure you perform for them. To get to that point, they’ve got to trust you, and you have to have that relationship.”
Be a resource, Zarek says, as they want to have someone on the job who can make sure moisture testing is done properly, as well as variables such as how the floor is going to be used and maintained.
“It’s not always about being the cheapest person out there. It’s about doing the right thing for the right job,” advises Zarek. “Make sure your team can do what you’re selling, the end-user of that particular floor is going to maintain it properly, and that the project is done and set up for the future and not just the next three or four months.”
Libby White Johnston is the publisher of Hardwood Floors magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.