In deciding which floor-finish to use, we often spend more time thinking about the look of a material (or its cost) than its feel. By its feel, I mean not just how a tile or carpet sample feels when we move our hands over it. Rather, I mean how it feels when we stand and walk on it once it is installed.
We all know the pleasures of walking or running on a firm, level piece of lawn. Many of us have struggled with the hard slipperiness of ceramic tiles in apartments. A lucky few cherish memories of the subtle bounce of a sprung wood floor. And in the monsoon, we curse the perverse imagination that puts swanky polished granite inside railway stations: Wet shoes turn entire concourses into slippery accident zones.
When you consider that flooring materials can also emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, or support fungal and other microbial life, both with health ramifications, the actual effect on our health becomes clearer.
Also Read Bodylines Previous Columns
The floor is crucial to our muscle health, as well as safety: Whether we walk or fall often depends, at least partly, on the floor. Standing is actually a pretty amazing act of maintaining balance. Walking is even more complex, being a series of falls averted just in time. But at least our bodies were made to move. On the other hand, when we stand, we have to go against that original design since different muscles and ligaments have to work hard to stiffen the joints made for movement.
Given the complexity of standing and walking, it is not surprising that the firmness, resilience (bounce) and grip of a floor are so crucial to our comfort and safety. A very firm floor (of stone or tile) provides stable support, important when we are walking. Remember how difficult it is to walk on sand which shifts under your feet? Where one tile has sunk lower than its neighbours by as much as an inch, ankles twist easily because the floor has “shifted” lower than we expect.
But firm floors without resilience can be very damaging for people who have to stand for long periods of time. They can be equally bad for those who land on them with great force repeatedly, as dancers, athletes and joggers do: It can damage joints over time.
Those who stand on a hard floor suffer because it doesn’t enable the subtle movement necessary so joints don’t stiffen in an unhealthy fashion. Many bodily processes (including the movement of blood through our veins) work best when we are mobile. Industrial shopfloors in the US often provide resilient mats for workers to stand on. Ideally, these mats are firm enough to provide stable support and bouncy enough to encourage the slight sway and shifting of weight from foot to foot necessary for the health of the leg and back muscles. Too soft or too hard, and they are nearly ineffective.
Slippery when wet?
Anti-skid tiles are fairly common in bathrooms, though shiny ceramic floor tiles in areas that can get wet are still too common. Friction is necessary to give us support during the process of falling forward and landing on a foot—what we call “walking”. But since we are moving slightly even while standing, a slippery surface can strain our leg muscles even then by not allowing muscles to settle comfortably in any posture.
Of course, balance and fatigue are not related only to the floor. Shoes are important too, because they mediate the transfer of load between body and floor. A 2004 study by Antonina R. Orlando and Phyllis M. King of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reported, for instance, that using insoles and mats on hard industrial floors appears to reduce leg fatigue. So even if the permanent flooring cannot be changed, it looks like we can make it friendlier to our bodies by making simple adjustments in our footwear and introducing mats.
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org