VLK Architects

Good for the Environment and Good for the Client

Plastic Laminate. We use and see it every day whether we realize it or not, but still the name Plastic Laminate can make you wrinkle your nose in disgust. But why?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Arborite factory facility in beautiful Montreal! I loved the experience and learned a ton, but I think the most important thing I learned is that using Plastic Laminate and other man-made or “fake” materials isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing for a number of reasons. Arborite’s historian and materials expert, Grace Jeffers, gave a very enlightening presentation entitled, Man-made Natural; the Truth about Fake Materials. The presentation basically boiled down to when you should use a “fake” or man-made material vs. the “real” or natural thing.

The name plastic in these days of the Green movement holds a negative connotation. You say plastic and most automatically think toxic and harmful for the environment, but one of the original definitions of plastic according to dictionary.com was “solid substance that can be molded”. Plastic laminate itself is actually mostly made up of thick craft paper pressed together with a print film and a top sheet that is coated with melamine resin. In fact, when plastic laminate was first introduced, the manufacturing process produced toxic emissions. Today, manufactures are working to reduce toxic emissions and create a more sustainable and low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) product, which as a designer is very important! Interior Design isn’t just making the rooms look pretty. It’s about making spaces that function well for the client, and are also safe and healthy. Products with high VOC emissions can actually make you feel sick. So, if a product has low VOCs and is good for the environment even better!

So what does all this mean for us as interior designers and architects? Research, Research, Research! As Grace Jeffers pointed out in her presentation, as designers should be conscientious of the products we use and which situations the products are being used. For example, is it better to use wood paneling or a wood grain plastic laminate? You might assume just from the names, wood vs. plastic, that the wood paneling would be the more sustainable and environmentally friendly choice, but as an interior designer, we should ask what kind of wood is being used? Is it from an endangered rain forest? Was it illegally harvested from a protected forest? Is it from a tree farm that was planted by cutting down a regions indigenous forest to create a “fake” forest consisting of tree foreign to that environment? Did this “fake” forest displace a region’s indigenous animals? These are all questions to ask when researching wood products. So the next question is wouldn’t it be better to use the plastic, and “fake” product to protect the real thing?

The same questions could be applied to a variety of natural vs. man-made products. Another great example would be stone. The earth only produced so much of its natural, real stones like granite and marble. Once these are mined that is it and quarries aren’t exactly great for the environments. So, couldn’t it be better to use a man-made stone, especially if it is manufactured in an environmentally friendly way and is safe for your client.

Personally, I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but I have a responsibility not only as a designer, but to our clients. Researching how products are made and where they come from is a very important part of design. Not just for the health and welfare of our clients, but also for everyone as a whole because what is good for the environment will also be good for your client.