Floor - Subfloor Construction

Subfloor Construction

Floors may be built on beams or joists or use structures like prefabricated hollow core slabs. The subfloor builds on those and attaches by various means particular to the support structure but the support and subfloor together always provides the strength of a floor one can sense underfoot. Nowadays, subfloors are generally made from at least two layers of moisture resistant ('AC' grade, one side finished and sanded flat) plywood or composite sheeting, jointly also termed Underlayments on floor joists of 2x8, 2x10, or 2x12's (dimensional lumber) spaced generally on 16-inch (40.6 cm) centers, in the United States and Canada. Some flooring components used solely on concrete slabs consist of a dimpled rubberized or plastic layer much like bubble wrap that provide little tiny pillars for the one-half-inch (12.7 mm) sheet material above. These are manufactured in 2 ft × 2 ft (61 cm × 61 cm) squares and the edges fit together like a mortise and tenon joint. Like a floor on joists not on concrete, a second sheeting underlayment layer is added with staggered joints to disperse forces that would open a joint under the stress of live loads like a person walking.

Three layers are common only in high end highest quality construction. The two layers in high quality construction will both be thick 3⁄4 inches (19.1 mm) sheets (as will the third when present), but the two layers may achieve a combined thickness of only half-that in cheaper construction — 1⁄2 in (12.7 mm) panel overlaid by 1⁄4 in (6.4 mm) plywood subflooring. At the highest end, or in select rooms of the building there might well be three sheeting layers, and such stiff subflooring is necessary to prevent the cracking of large floor tiles of 9–10 inches (22.9–25.4 cm) or more on a side, and the structure under such a floor will frequently also have extra 'bracing' and 'blocking' joist-to-joist intended spread the weight to have as little sagging on any joist as possible when there is a live load on the floor above.

In Europe and North America only a few rare floors will be seen to have no separate floor covering on top, and those are normally because of a temporary condition pending sales or occupancy; in semi-custom new construction and some rental markets, such floors are provided for the new home buyer (renter) to select their own preferred floor coverings usually a wall to wall carpet, or one piece vinyl floor covering. Wood clad ('Hardwood') and tile covered finished floors generally will require a stiffer higher quality subfloor, especially for the later class. Since the wall base and flooring interact forming a joint, such later added semi-custom floors will generally not be hardwood for that joint construction would be in the wrong order unless the wall base trim was also delayed pending the choosing.

The subfloor may also provide underfloor heating and if floor radiant heating is not used, will certainly suffer puncture openings to be put through for forced air ducts for both heating and air conditioning, or pipe holes for forced hot water or steam heating transport piping conveying the heat from furnace to the to local room's heat exchangers (radiators).

Some sub-floors are inset below the top surface level of surrounding flooring's joists and such subfloors and a normal height joist are joined to make a plywood box both molding and containing at least two inches (5 cm) of concrete (A 'Mud Floor' in builders parlance). Alternatively, only a slightly inset floor topped by a fibrous mesh and concrete building composite floor cladding is used for smaller high quality tile floors—these 'concrete' subfloors have a good thermal match with ceramic tiles and so are popular with builders constructing kitchen, laundry and especially both common and high end bathrooms and any other room where large expanses of well supported ceramic tile will be used as a finished floor. Floors using small (4.5 in/11.4 cm and smaller) ceramic tiles generally use only an additional 1⁄4-inch (6.4 mm) layer of plywood (if that) and substitute adhesive and substrate materials making do with both a flexible joints and semi-flexible mounting compounds and so are designed to withstand the greater flexing which large tiles cannot tolerate without breaking.

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