In the lead-up to January’s Domotex trade show in Hanover, Germany, Rasa Weber of the Berlin-based architecture collective They Feed Off Buildings was asked if she thought it was possible to design for the built environment in a sustainable yet modern way. Her response was telling. ‘I certainly think that as a designer you can be sustainable on the one hand and develop contemporary concepts at the same time – and it is very important to break new ground,’ she said. ‘So “sustainable” doesn’t have to look “eco”. It can be completely different today.’
Those themes – of sustainable design and building practices that still meet the client’s practical requirements, and that don’t look like you’re desperately trying to earn a Green Star rating – ran throughout the event. Domotex, which attracted in excess of 1 400 exhibitors from more than 60 countries, is like so many modern trade shows of its ilk. Wherever you go and wherever you build, clients and customers will ask about the ‘green’ aspect of the building materials, while demanding that their space remains usable, comfortable and beautiful. The question is, can you have both?
As Weber said, you can – and that’s why products such as laminate flooring are enjoying so much attention right now. Ecologically produced without any added pesticides, organic chlorine compounds or hazardous heavy metals, laminate flooring has all the positive environmental impact of wood products; but because it uses wood waste in its production, it has a far lower environmental impact. It can also be finished to look like virtually any kind of wood – which, its proponents will tell you, further reduces the strain on the world’s forests.
In Hanover – as in other recent Domotex events in Turkey, Mexico and across the world – the flooring market is undergoing a radical change. ‘Customers today have new and very individual requirements,’ according to the Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF). ‘They want a modern type of floor covering that corresponds exactly to their usage requirements. And this is where European laminate floor coverings can make good use of their advantages and impressive selling points: they are technically advanced after decades of development work; their design quality is superb; and they represent very good value for money.’
Then comes the kicker. ‘European laminate is produced sustainably,’ says the EPLF. ‘It is eco-friendly because it uses renewable resources, economically efficient because it is produced in large quantities using advanced technologies, and it is socially responsible due to fair and regulated working conditions and employment relationships.’
The days, then, of early laminates’ association with noxious fumes and water-damaged DIY nightmares are long gone. But do customers really care about laminate flooring’s new ‘green’ credentials? Absolutely, says Pasi Muzvidziwa, chairman of the Southern African Wood, Laminate & Flooring Association (SAWLFA). ‘It is quite a concern,’ he says. ‘When the original laminates came out about 40 years ago, it seemed no-one could be bothered about what they were made of. Today, clients are a lot more sensitive about “going green” – and that’s both the corporates and the residential clients. They have become a lot more conscious about what’s going into the product.’
So what is going into the product? Laminate floors are mostly made of wood pulp and wood fibres – in other words, paper. Much of the wood that is used – from the decorative paper overlay, through the compressed fibreboard of the core, to the stabilising layer at the bottom – is sourced from sustainably managed forests. Yes, the argument goes, you’re still chopping down trees, but it’s fewer trees. Bodies such as the SAWLFA and EPLF are very quick to point out that the production process doesn’t only use logs but also wood waste from the sawmill industry. So laminate floors are already a partially recycled product.
US laminate flooring manufacturer Mohawk says: ‘Laminate is an environmentally friendly flooring option, often made with recycled materials and requiring no harvesting of rare trees. Laminate floors are exceptionally durable and resistant to both staining and fading, providing worry-free assurance that the floor you love won’t lose its looks.’ Mohawk claims that its laminates contain a minimum of 74% preconsumer recycled content, which the firm says keeps 300 million kilograms of material out of landfills. ‘As a product, laminate flooring has evolved to the point where we now also have vinyl, which is an even further improvement on the traditional laminates in terms of their environmental friendliness and their environmental impact,’ says Muzvidziwa. ‘Some of the vinyls we have on the market in South Africa are made of 80% to 90% recyclable materials.’
Since it first entered the market in the late 1970s, laminate flooring’s selling point has been that it looks like a real wooden floor, but costs far less and is far easier for DIYers to install. Through innovative texturing processes, laminates can now look almost exactly like hardwood flooring. Flooring manufacturer Pergo, for example, offers more than 150 imitation wood finishes, from Australian eucalyptus to Brazilian cherry. Mohawk, meanwhile, creates laminates that mimic stone (among other natural materials), while other manufacturers are dabbling in marble, travertine and even metallic effects. ‘With some of the top-end laminates we have now, you would really struggle to tell the difference between laminate flooring and traditional wooden flooring,’ says Muzvidziwa. ‘You would need to go down and feel it with your hands to know that it’s not a “real” wood finish. The technology has definitely improved, even from where it was 10 years back, where you had some really plasticky-looking stuff. Now we have finishes that are as close to real wood as you’ll ever get.’
The resemblance to real wood doesn’t end at appearances. Of laminate flooring’s noxious gas content (specifically cancer-causing formaldehyde), the EPLF states: ‘Formaldehyde is found naturally in wood and is also found in melamine resin [the wear-resistant material used in the flooring’s upper layer]. So laminate floors, as any other product made of solid wood, do contain formaldehyde. But there is no risk to health, because the formaldehyde in the melamine resin is permanently locked into the resin structure during hardening, so it cannot be released into the air.’
The EPLF goes on to add that several documented measurements of laminate flooring have yielded emission values that correspond to the formaldehyde emissions limit for wood in its natural state – which, it says, are far below the legally defined limits. In other words, the EPLF concludes, ‘laminate floors do not pollute the air inside a building with odorous or harmful substances any more than ordinary wood’.
This means that laminate is not classified as ‘special waste’, so it’s relatively easy to unclick, remove, replace and recycle the product – or to break it down for use as a growing medium in agriculture. ‘Laminate is bulky waste and can be used for material or thermal recycling,’ says the EPLF. ‘Because used laminate flooring is not graded as special waste, there is no expensive disposal involved. On the contrary, in theory you can even burn laminate flooring yourself as it is mostly made of wood and does not give off any harmful substances.’
Muzvidziwa, who runs his own flooring company, has noticed a shift towards laminate flooring in SA’s new builds. ‘Interestingly, business is showing more interest in this than individual clients,’ he says. ‘I think that’s a result of the general move towards green buildings, where businesses earn points for sustainable buildings. That has pushed the designers who are working with corporates to incorporate more sustainable designs and materials into their projects. You may have noticed that when you walk into most new corporate buildings, they’ll have either vinyl flooring, bamboo flooring or laminate flooring. You won’t see a lot of the real wood stuff in the new corporate buildings that are coming up.’
Not that you’d know it, at first glance. You could be walking across the marbled floors of a large multinational corporation, the tiled bathroom of a shopping mall, the oak floors of a new hotel, or the smooth pine floors of a trendy startup … and, without realising it, you’d be strolling across a fake, sustainable, eco-friendly laminate surface.