A global event like the COVID-19 pandemic has a way of forcing people to adapt, without notice or exception. Trends in healthcare facilities that were in high demand just a few short months ago will now take a backseat as the industry reprioritizes around one goal: Limit the spread of infectious disease. One design element that has the potential to make critical impacts in this fight is flooring.

No other design feature requires as much focus on the marriage of form and function as flooring. It has the potential to make a dramatic aesthetic statement; it tests the limits of durability with daily wear and tear; it carries tremendous weight in enhancing safety; and it’s one of the most used, most soiled surfaces of a facility.

As healthcare facilities rally around cleaning protocols and new technologies that curb infectious disease, designers play an important role in offering a forward-looking approach to flooring. Here are three principles that will help lead to successful flooring design and implementation.

1. Prioritize the cleaning program above all else

Before recommending a flooring product, it’s important to consider the existing cleaning practices of each facility. Designers are tailoring flooring options to enhance each facility, but doing so without a sound understanding of current cleaning practices can result in unrealistic designs that aren’t aligned with the practicalities of each facility’s operations. For example, a new, technologically advanced system that requires specific cleaning and maintenance would not be appropriate for a client who is unwilling or unable (e.g., a clinic that is part of a larger healthcare system with standardized practices) to change its maintenance programs.

To avoid this scenario, designers should gather input regarding what products are used, who is responsible for cleaning (whether it is part of in-house maintenance or outsourced to a housekeeping agency) and with what frequency the floors are cleaned, among other variables. Designers should also listen to the perspective of those in operations to understand the client’s needs. Taking time up front in the process to learn about floor maintenance programs and meeting clients where they are can ensure flooring design enhances not only the aesthetic but also the functionality of the facility.

2. Think beyond shiny and white

Healthcare interiors have come a long way from the days of long white hallways and waxed, super shiny floors. Historically, this look was preferred because it demonstrated how clean facilities were; however, the stark design contributed to an institutionalized aesthetic and was retired in favor of homelike or spa-like design, which research confirms is a more effective aid in the healing process.

Flooring that enhances the healing characteristics of a space without sacrificing cleanliness will continue to drive design trends. There are numerous products on the market to create a more visually friendly look while supporting goals for cleanliness and infection control. Popular products vary widely in their aesthetic, from wood and varnished concrete to linen looks with inherent antimicrobial properties in the surfaces of the materials. Variance in modeling and accents can work well to break up wood-look flooring, while providing visual wayfinding. Finding appropriate contrast between flooring products can also help create visual interest.

3. Embrace innovations in product design

In a post-COVID-19 world, designers are already imagining how changes in the patient experience may impact design and material selection, particularly for flooring. As spaces are retrofitted to accommodate distancing and quicker triage, we may see a need for flooring to indicate proper distancing and aid in path of travel designation for entering and exiting of the medical facility.

Other innovations in products that are likely to continue growing in popularity include matte-based, non-wax products and scuff-resistant surfacing. A growing body of evidence suggests that finishes that look more like a home environment make people feel more comfortable than high-gloss options and contribute to a healing experience for patients, particularly for older patients who might experience an increased risk for falls on glossy floors. We can also anticipate more interest from healthcare facilities in the antimicrobial coatings available in flooring products, with more questions about care to ensure the coatings are maintained.

Where we go from here

Every industry is facing uncertainty right now, which makes it a difficult period to predict trends. Healthcare is undoubtedly one of the most affected industries, facing so many unknowns. While we continue to wait and see, it’s in our best interests as designers to invest time and energy into partnerships with clients. This engagement will yield insights to advance trends when the time comes and, in the interim, keep the lines of communication open, which has the potential to help elevate care for the communities that clients serve.

Sarah Jenk is a senior interior designer for The Neenan Company (Fort Collins, Colo.). She can be reached at sarah.jenk@neenan.com.