As shopping centers upgrade their image, seeking a sense of elegance and warmth for common areas, hardwood is growing in popularity. Today's engineered hardwood products offer superior durability along with the beauty of real wood.

At Grapevine Mills in Grapevine, Texas, for instance, the common area walkways are hardwood. At Northbrook Court Mall in Northbrook, Ill., 70,000 sq. ft. of common area is hardwood. Similarly, Cumberland Mall in Atlanta uses hardwood floors in its common areas.

Hardwood is also popular in retail stores and restaurants. At The Diamond Club, a 500-seat, 18,000 sq. ft. restaurant located at the Texas Rangers baseball stadium, 5,000 sq. ft. of WearMaster by Bruce Hardwood Floors was installed when the restaurant was built in 1994.

The hardwood, which has been specially treated to offer superior durability, was chosen because the owners were looking for strength as well as a classic appearance.

"The restaurant has a lot of cherry wood, along with dark green wool carpets with the Rangers logo. The hardwood floor, in Dark Walnut, further enhances this traditional look," says Doug Martin, food and beverage director at The Diamond Club.

He notes that in addition to heavy traffic on the 82 nights per year when games are held at the park (the restaurant averages 1,500 people on game nights), many parties, weddings, receptions and bar mitzvahs are held at The Diamond Club. The popular buffet is built-in, enclosed with wood paneling that matches the hardwood floor.

Bruce debuts new commercial line Addison, Texas-based Bruce Hardwood Floors - a division of Dallas-based Triangle Pacific Corp. and a subsidiary of Lancaster, Pa.-based Armstrong World Industries - recently introduced a new product line meant to be specified for commercial applications. The new line, Bruce Commercial Hardwood Floors, includes the 8-year-old WearMaster line of highly durable, acrylic-impregnated flooring but now contains solid wood products as well.

"The new line is appropriate for retail store chains within shopping centers, as well as smaller common areas of centers," says Maureen King, brand manager for Bruce Hardwood Floors.

The line comes in different species and colors, enabling shopping centers to coordinate the decor of large common areas with retail stores, restaurants and smaller common areas. The result is a total design approach that can add significantly to a center's visual appeal.

WearMaster flooring, with planks 3" wide by 3/8" thick, employs a cross-plied, three-layered engineered technology. It comes in four hardwood species - oak, maple, basswood and hickory - and 14 different stains. Colors include Golden Wheat, Mocha Glaze, Maize, Classic Cocoa, Berry, Midnight, Empire, Sierra Brown, Rustic Wood and Violet Mist.

The new hardwood flooring products in the Bruce commercial line feature the company's Permion finishing system, designed for extreme durability specifically for the commercial market. The products are separated into two performance levels: the Mainstreet Collection and the Mezzanine Collection.

The Mainstreet Collection comprises WearMaster, Pattern-Plus and Pattern-Plus 500 acrylic impregnated products.

Products in the Mezzanine Collection are made from oak, pecan or maple and come in both solid and engineered constructions. Solid products are 2 1/4" wide, and 5/16" or 3/4" thick. Engineered products are available in widths of 2 1/4", 3" or 5", and are 3/8" thick. Colors include Cinnabar, Garnet, Cherry, Autumn, Butterscotch, Sable, Gunstock and Mellow.

How WearMaster is engineered WearMaster's engineered hardwood is comparable in durability to marble and ceramic tile, says King. Similarly, installation costs of hardwood flooring are comparable to that of tile, and possibly less, since hardwood doesn't have to be grouted, adds Phil Cutts, contract/commercial sales manager for the Triangle Pacific Flooring Group.

In comparing WearMaster to marble and stone, the cost of the product itself is less expensive, and installation costs are probably comparable, Cutts adds.

WearMaster's durability stems not only from the acrylic-impregnation process but also from its structure. "We take three layers of wood veneer (thin layers of actual wood) and cross-ply them with the grain going in different directions," Cutts explains. "The bottom layer goes in one direction, the middle opposite that, the top opposite the middle. Wood has a tendency to expand and contract, and this layered structure prevents that from occurring the way a solid piece might."

Each layer is up to 1/8" thick, so together, the three layers are up to 3/8" in thickness. The layers are glued together, then go through a milling process in which a groove is applied to one side and a tongue to the other so that each piece interlocks.

Proper installation and care In shopping centers, hardwood is almost always installed over concrete, and the skill with which it is installed is critical. It is imperative, Cutts says, that a qualified hardwood flooring contractor be used, one with an established track record and a permanent address.

"The No. 1 problem we face in the industry today is that hardwood floors are sometimes installed over improperly cured concrete," he says. "With today's fast-track construction deadlines, contractors don't always give the concrete the time it needs to cure. If it is not properly cured, moisture will evaporate to the top side of the concrete and vaporous gases will escape when they hit the adhesive between the concrete and the flooring. If the liquid penetrates, it can cause the flooring to cup."

An average of 28 days is recommended for concrete to cure.

Flatness of the sub-floor is another important criteria for successful installation. "The floor must be flat within 3/16" over 10 feet," Cutts says. This means that if a 10-foot board were put down, it would have to touch the sub-floor all along the edge or at least rise no more than 3/16" above it at any point.

The company recommends that its cleaner, Permion Commercial Cleaner, be used to clean the floors.

Doug Martin, of The Diamond Club, makes sure that the restaurant's hardwood floors are cleaned daily. WearMaster floor care products are used.

Hardwood flooring in The Diamond Club is located in areas with heavy traffic: the buffet area, main entrance and main walkway to the bar.

"It has held up beautifully," Martin says. "It still has a great shine. It's very visible during the dinner service, with the reflection from the lights. We get comments all the time about how good the floor looks."