Modular Mania

by Melissa McGuire

There are very few certainties in life, death and taxes among them. But a third has been the growth of carpet tile — or modular tile to which it is often referred — over the past 20 years.

In fact, many industry insiders believe carpet tile has eclipsed broadloom’s market share in some segments. As well, some mills say carpet tile represents about 50% of their total business. Corporate, education and government are the largest end-use segments, but healthcare is rapidly becoming more interested.

“There are certain applications and styles that lend themselves to broadloom and there are certain styles that lend themselves to carpet tiles,” said John Woodward, regional vice president, Atlas Carpet Mills. “Carpet tiles will never completely replace broadloom, but there is certainly a paradigm shift toward carpet tile preference.”

It all begs the question: “Why?” The short answer is long-term value, minimal waste, ease of installation, selective replacement and sustainability.

“Tile is the fastest growing segment, even though it is more expensive per square foot,” noted Frank Hurd, COO of the Carpet & Rug Institute. “The commercial sector has realized that carpet tile has a very good life cycle analysis story so in the long run the expense goes down. You can replace just one tile and not the whole floor.”

Because a relatively small portion of an installation often receives the bulk of traffic and wear, the ability to rotate carpet tiles between high traffic and low traffic areas and to selectively replace worn tiles can significantly increase the average life and cost efficiency of the floor covering.

In addition, carpet tile facilitates access to subfloor air delivery systems and telephone, electrical, computer and other wiring by lessening disruption of operations. It also eliminates the cumulative damage and unsightly appearance commonly associated with frequent cutting of conventional carpet.

“We see continued demand and preference for carpet tile because it’s a smarter and more sustainable solution,” said Steve Arbaugh, vice president of brand marketing, alignment and experience of Interface Americas, the world’s largest supplier of carpet tile. “This is a great time for carpet tile as many companies and end users are focused on sustainability and the environment.”

Brenda Knowles, vice president of marketing for Shaw’s commercial division, echoed his sentiments. “Carpet tile continues to take share from broadloom. Innovation in design and construction technology allows for broader offerings in all price categories. We see carpet tile growing across market segments, including the traditional corporate environment but also in healthcare, education and retail. As business in general is becoming more global, carpet tile is following suit. Tile is easy to palletize and more efficient to ship across the globe.”

And, according to industry insiders, it is the current and potential growth in the healthcare and education sectors that are leading the charge when it comes to the growth of the carpet tile sector. “There are sustainability initiatives on every college campus and K-12,” Arbaugh said, “and our products contribute to LEED points as well as other sustainable attributes within our product materials and processes. Healthcare is using carpet tile because they help reduce slip and fall injuries and also improve indoor air quality as they emit low VOCs.”

Mark Oliver, senior director of product management for Mohawk, also predicts these segments will generate growth. “The K-12 market is gaining comfort with the platform as they begin to realize the benefits of tile, particularly the ease of installation and maintenance. We are designing into new trends, as schools are embracing “non-traditional K-12” patterns in their facilities.

“The corporate market has always been our stronghold, and new entry-priced tile for value corporate has seen the largest growth. As tile pricing has come down through time, the installed cost gap of tile versus broadloom has narrowed. This closing gap, coupled with tile’s increased design innovation, has truly driven market growth. Lastly, the healthcare market has adopted tile as a preferred flooring product. The ease of install combined with the benefits of noise control and softness underfoot has been the large driver.” The What Moves You? collection has been a big success for Mohawk in healthcare with patterns more hospitality driven. “It helps the end user move away from some of the cold, loud environments of the past and creates a more comfortable environment for the patient.”

 

Style

As for style trends, InterfaceFLOR’s Arbaugh told FCNews nothing seems to be off limits. “We’re seeing interest in all sorts of colors, patterns and textures. We’re manufacturing and selling a new shape called Planks — carpet tile that has the appearance and pattern capabilities of wood but provide the comfort and other related benefits of carpet.”

Anthony Minite, president, Bentley Prince Street, is seeing a movement toward more monolithic looks. “When carpet tile first came out many years ago, the customers said they wanted the flexibility of carpet tiles, but they wanted it to look like broadloom. Then everyone started introducing different looks and sizes. Today, our clients are again asking for the monolithic aesthetic. They want to go back to the broadloom look.”

In addition, Mohawk’s Oliver said designers are using carpet tile to give their clients the ability to customize. The company is gearing up to launch products that can help with the need to create something unique. “Recently, we have seen designers who are interested in using tile to create their own flooring aesthetic. Tile allows the designer to think of the floor in different terms and create easily customizable floorscapes.”

 

Sustainability

While manufacturers have differing opinions on how well or poor the various segments of the commercial market are doing, they all agree the green movement continues to be a driving force in the growth of carpet tile. Companies are making sure to not only offer sustainable products, but sustainable solutions as well.

“An increasing percentage of commercial projects require flooring manufacturers to address green issues,” said Tim Baucom, Shaw’s vice president of commercial marketing and sales. “As more projects seek to be LEED certified, pressure is building for flooring manufacturers to increase recycled content without raising cost, lowering performance or compromising design. The end user wants sustainability without sacrifice.”

The two biggest carpet tile players, InterfaceFLOR and Shaw, have extensive programs for the recapture and reuse of the backings and face fibers of all their carpet tile, and most carpet tile manufacturers have reclamation programs.

“Sustainable solutions continue to be an important consideration in the overall commercial market,” Shaw’s Knowles said. “Traditional characteristics such as recycled content remain important, as do end-of-life solutions and material transparency. For example, she said Shaw’s Eco Solution Q fiber combined with EcoWorx backing offer a cradle-to-cradle solution with an environmental guarantee. Shaw will collect and recycle any EcoWorx product into new EcoWorx backing, anywhere in the world, at no charge.

In addition, both Oliver and Arbaugh explained their companies are committed to sustainability — from Mohawk’s launch of the bio-based SmartStrand Contract fiber to the Interface Mission Zero plan — in part by reducing their dependency on oil.

Although it seems as if the segment will see steady growth during the next few years, there are an array of challenges in the carpet tile category, from figuring out ways to make products more sustainable to getting more industries to accept what carpet tiles have to offer. “Tile has yet to be fully embraced by the hospitality segment, although we do believe there is opportunity there,” Oliver said. “Comfort underfoot continues to be the key need in this market, and the additional cost of cushion tile drives most of the products out of the sweet spot.  We’re constantly working through R&D to address this and are confident we have a great solution for this market.”

 

Installation

Carpet tile generates much less waste than its broadloom counterpart. But new installation systems reduce the need for adhesives that facilitate installation, clean-up and eventual removal. As an example, InterfaceFLOR’s TacTiles are glue-free adhesive squares that adhere tiles to one another to create a floating floor.

In addition, manufacturers have designed their carpet tiles to make single-tile replacement much easier. In the old days, certain designs and installation patterns did not lend themselves to replacement because the new tile could stand out. However, new design refinements, like the bio-mimicry pioneered by InterfaceFLOR, create irregular, randomized effects that hide tile edges and seamlessly absorb swapped-out tiles.

 

Pricing

Shaw’s Knowles explained that pricing is starting to become an issue as well. “As carpet tile pushes more into the entry-level category, we see increased efforts to reach lower face weights to participate in sectors where budgets may not be as flexible. Meeting the performance requirements and design flexibility requirements of this area of the market provides opportunity for innovation.

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