How to Specify: Climate-Positive Materials

June 24, 2020
Decorative laminates and composite woods are some of the most sustainable choices for materials. Find out what makes them such a great choice in the fight against climate change and how they can impact human health in this discussion with guest Kenn Busch, founder of Material Intelligence. 

Decorative laminates and composite woods are some of the most sustainable choices for materials. Find out what makes them such a great choice in the fight against climate change and how they can impact human health in this discussion with guest Kenn Busch, founder of Material Intelligence. Listen now.

*This podcast was sponsored by Interface Inc.

[Start transcript]

Robert Nieminen: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the I Hear Design podcast. I’m your host, Robert Nieminen, Chief Content Director for interiors+sources. If you’ve been tracking with us, we are continuing our How to Specify series. In this episode, we’re going to be focusing on the materials category. So, stay tuned, because I’ve got a great guest that I’ll introduce you to in a moment, who knows materials and the material world better than just about anybody else I know.

But before I do, just by way of observation, I’ve been hearing a lot about the role that materials will play in terms of keeping people healthy in a post-COVID-19 world, especially as businesses start to reopen and infection and the death toll for COVID have been dropping, thankfully. And here’s hoping that we don’t see another surge in that.

There’s also been a debate as to whether or not antimicrobials will be a big part of the solution, or if it will contribute to the problem—which I don’t really want to get into in this episode, as I think we could do an entire series on that.

But materials do play an important role on both human health as well as make a significant impact on climate change and carbon emissions. And here to talk about this topic is our good friend Kenn Bush, founder of Material Intelligence. Kenn, thanks for being on the podcast today.

Kenn Busch: Yeah, thanks so much, Robert. My pleasure.

Robert: Yeah. Well, for our listeners who may not be aware, Kenn was a regular fixture at our Materials Pavilion booth at NeoCon every year and one of our go to experts when it comes to materials. Kenn, I don’t know about you, but in spite of the usual madness that is NeoCon, I miss not being in Chicago this year. And I think right about now we’d probably be soaking our feet and enjoying a cold beer right about now, right?

Kenn: Exactly. Well, yeah. PTSD, right? Trying to regroup after the whirlwind that is NeoCon and running a show there. It’s crazy.

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. But it is such a great show, and I hope we are all able to attend in person next year. But I know you and I have been talking in preparation for the podcast and topic today, and you had relayed a comment that someone had made to you with regard to cleanable surfaces for interiors. And they had said, “Every project is a healthcare project now,” which I thought was really interesting and a great insight. And that certainly seems to ring true. What do you think they meant by that specifically? And do you agree?

Kenn: I do agree. And there are a couple of facets to that idea. First of all, of course, cleanability and keeping spaces and surfaces clean—very big deal. Of course, it’s always been a big deal in healthcare. But now I’m working closely with a group called Mind Click, who are rethinking specification in the hospitality world. And of course, the hotels are all very concerned about how they’re going to make people feel comfortable when it’s time to return into the greater world.

So, being able to talk about how the materials and their furniture and fixtures are being kept clean, so that’s one part of it. And we may get deeper into that, Robert, I think but the idea is that cleaning regimens are changing. They’re going to get more extreme. They’re going to get more frequent. The surfaces and the products in public spaces and commercial use areas are going to need to be able to stand up to that.

The other side of that though, is the idea that there’s a psychological effect—clean design, areas that don’t look like they have a ton of nooks and crannies where the we-beasties can hide. One thing I’ve been in conversations with is furniture that’s easy to move and clean around and under. So, yeah, the healthcare space, it’s clinical, right? That used to be a bad term. Of course, healthcare design is changing and getting less “clinical,” but all other environments that people are going to be spending time in now have to be healthy on that front—cleanable and psychologically soothing.

Robert: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And just to make that point of clarification, clinical and institutional, I think would be two different things. I think they can be cleanable and healthy, but they can still be beautiful, right? I mean using some of the materials like decorative laminates, they can still be cleanable and yet have the warmth of wood looks, let’s say.

Kenn: Exactly, exactly.

Robert: Okay. Well, as I mentioned in my introduction, Kenn, you know this better than anybody, material product choices do have a direct impact on climate change and human health. And so, for our listeners out there, can you maybe elaborate a little bit on how those two are interrelated? Because I’m not sure everybody always makes that connection.

Kenn: There’s a lot of conversations now about how the compounds that people are using to try and clean their environments, whether it’s constantly spraying alcohol on your hands and on the shopping cart, handles and whatnot. That is obviously a great way to take every precaution.

But the idea that we are now surrounding ourselves with these pretty extreme compounds, and everybody’s talking as well about chemicals of concern. And that’s not just what’s built into products, it’s what we use to clean and maintain them. The idea that perhaps we can start using more materials applied on more surfaces that can be just cleaned with a very simple soap and water or vinegar, rather than Butadiene or some of these higher defense grid cleaning compounds.

That is a great way to reduce the amount of chemistry you are subjecting your human organism to when you’re in a space. So, the idea—and I hate to draw this analogy, but there are some parallels to the agricultural industry creating plant hybrids that are more resistant to pesticides. We aren’t getting quite that far. That’s like the far end of the extreme, but there are materials that are being developed to be cleaned as well as they can be cleaned by anything with the use of very simple solutions...

Robert: Without the use of a hazmat suit for the cleaning.

Kenn: Right, we don’t need a breathing apparatus or have to go into quarantine after hosing down our desktops.

Robert: Right, gotcha. Okay. So, one of the terms I’ve heard you talk about in your webinar that you did a couple weeks ago for us is carbon positive. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how that fits into the materials category specifically?

Kenn: Sure. Actually, it’s climate positive.

Robert: Oh, right. Right. Sorry.

Kenn: I neglected to correct you on that, Robert. I saw that in an email. Climate positive—it’s basically a more consumer friendly way to say carbon negative basic ideas. Is that this product or process pulls more carbon out of the atmosphere than is released in its production and use, right?

So, carbon negative is a little bit of a confusing term. It’s got the word negative in it. I personally have sort of surveyed family members and friends who are not immersed in this stuff from the design world day-in-and-day-out, and they have to stop a beat and think about that. I was actually preparing a CEU on healthy materials and I stumbled across the term climate positive. IKEA wants to be climate-positive by 2030. Other big brands out there—international and global brands—are on a path to being climate-positive.

But they’re doing that by slowly eliminating processes or ingredients in the process that are too hard on the environment, that require too much carbon to produce and don’t really take anything back out of the atmosphere.

I’ve been working a lot with the wooden panels industry and the natural properties of wood. It is one of nature’s best carbon sinks naturally. So, climate-positive is a term that sort of applies naturally some materials, other materials and products in the industry, they’re buying carbon offset credits and writing checks to the rainforest fund to claim to be climate-positive.

Robert: Yeah, exactly. If you can do it with the actual building materials that you’re using, that’s going to be more of an ideal approach, right?

Kenn: Exactly. I think there’s going to be a shift toward doing it. What naturally or organically or intrinsically, without having to play the shell game of, ‘Oh, but we bought offset credits.’

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Robert: Right, right. Yeah. Organically was the word I was looking for, so thanks for that. I mentioned your webinar that you did for us a couple weeks ago. During that presentation, someone from the audience asked a really good question that I want you to respond here as well. And they said something to the effect of, “Given the sustainable nature of natural wood, can’t you make the same argument for using solid wood? Or that it’s even better than going with wood composites?” Like, what’s the difference?

Kenn: Yeah. So, there’s a million variables in that idea. I wish I’d had a better answer when that was actually asked. And I’ve actually been querying the industry a bit, and there’s so many variables that it’s hard to give us a succinct satisfying answer to that. But first of all, composite wood—MDF and particle board—are made up of wood fiber that is packed very, very densely. The amount of wood fiber that’s in a panel of MDF is a lot greater than the amount of wood fiber that would be in a natural piece of lumber of the same volume. So, that’s one way to look at it.

The sequestration of that fiber then wood—trees are 50% carbon, right? So, as they grow through photosynthesis, they store all this carbon. The density of the panel is one way to look at it, but solid wood - where are we going with that? Is it pine? Is it Bubinga? Right? The idea that you can make a blanket statement about wood versus composite wood, we need more information to kind of quantify that.

The wood that goes into construction lumber, it’s the same wood that goes into composite panels, that’s fast growth. Those trees basically mature completely within 40 or 50 years. We’re talking about the kind of wood that you would use in fine furniture or commercial furniture as solid wood. That’s old growth. That’s hard wood. That’s at least 80 years old. There are some quantifiable things that we can measure, the basic carbon absorption and the oxygen production.

And then there’s some quantify—a lot of things we can’t quantify, like, how long would it last in an application? Composite wood generally has a very durable surface on it—laminate surface. That will outlast in a hotel elevator, let’s say, that will outlast solid wood by a good seven or ten years. You have to look at the longevity of the installation as well. There is no simple answer. I really wish there was. You’ll be the first to know if I find one.

Robert: All right, great. I’ll hold you to that, Kenn. You talked a little bit about the different types of wood, hardwoods versus others. For some of the listeners out there who might cringe at the thought of specifying wood products that contribute to deforestation, can you talk more about sustainably managed forests and the difference between construction lumber and fiber for composite wood versus forests that that provide hardwoods and exotic species that you touched on?

Kenn: Yeah, this was an eye opener for me. I completed a CEU for a company called Uniboard last fall. They’re a big producer of composite panels and TFL decorative panels in Canada. The way I do CEUs is I’ll do several interviews, deep diving into different aspects of a company’s production or handling of the resources, etc. Their FSC chain of custody specialist is a certified forester and a passion for being in the forest. And he had all these really great things to say about what FSC Forestry Management means in the real world.

Of course, yes, you are responsibly harvesting lumber from a managed forest. But the way FSC dictates how we manage boreal forests, which are the northern forests where construction and siding and flooring lumber comes from, after those products, there’s 50% of the left on the forest floor, that’s what gets turned into particleboard, MDF and RSB. So, the way those forests are managed is they are doing their best to replicate the natural rhythms of those ecosystems, which mankind has disrupted by moving in with our Saara cabins and building communities and parks and recreational trails and whatnot.

We are putting out fires and killing insects that are actually part of the natural system that is designed to regenerate these forests every 40 or 50 years or so. So, there’s no such thing as an old growth Douglas Fir. After about 40 or 50 years, those trees stop absorbing carbon, they stopped producing oxygen and they become tender, right?

So, in nature’s perfect system, that part of the forest would burn and regenerate the next spring with saplings and new growth and younger wildlife. It’s a system of constant destruction of rebirth section by section. So, what FSC Forestry has done is they take stands of trees that have reached maximum maturity, harvest them and pull them out of the forest, leaving a metal which regenerates into new growth.

One of the coolest things I learned was we only have to replant one out of every eight trees that we take out of a forest like that because they just naturally regenerate. And again, this is not clear cutting many square kilometers of forest at a time. This is taking out stands of trees that have reached their peak maturity. So, this keeps the entire ecosystem young, absorbing more carbon and producing more oxygen and actually providing a friendlier environment for wildlife.

FSC Forestry Management also dictates that you have to be doing right by local committee and indigenous peoples and local economies. So, it’s not just pointing out which trees you’re allowed to harvest. It’s making sure that sustainability goes beyond just the forest to the local communities and the sort of society as well as the ecology in those areas.

Robert: Yeah, it’s that people-planet-profit, right? I mean, it says that people component to it as well. Yeah, that’s really important. I’m glad you pointed that out. All right. I guess the last question I have for you, Kenn, before I let you go is, what other considerations should designers keep in mind when they’re specifying decorative laminates, such as HPLs, TFLs and 3DLs?

Kenn: One thing I think that a lot of people still haven’t been informed about is the fact that these materials all have a place depending on what you need for durability, what you are looking for as far as design flexibility—meaning the shape of the surface, the texture of the surface, etc.—and all of these companies are working together to share design files essentially, right? You can get the same colors, the same patterns and textures in four or five different materials now. So, depending on if you’ve got a hotel check-in desk, you’re going to want something that’s fairly durable.

If you’ve got then behind that a feature wall that you want to blend or match, you don’t need the same durability. So, you can specify a much lighter weight material, save some money, save some resources, but still not have to compromise your design vision. So, that’s something that I think a lot of people are still figuring out.

And the fact that they’ve done a lot of development of the textures and let’s face it, right, we love wood. We’re talking about forest. We’re talking about solid wood. Over 90% of all these decorative laminates, these printed and engineered materials, imitate wood. It’s because we as a species have basically evolved along with wood. Our use of wood is part of the reason we’ve gotten so far. For better or worse.

Robert: Yeah. It’s part of that whole biophilia thing too, right? We want to see it, whether it’s natural or manufactured.

Kenn: Yeah. Great point. Exactly. Yeah. So, what these materials suppliers have done is worked very, very hard at recreating everything that you get emotionally from wood. And in the last 10 years or so, a lot of those developments have been in the texture side. High-fidelity Printing has been a given for quite some time. Now you’ve got textures that are so good.

Man, I tell you, I picked up a one of these pieces the other day—you could get a raw wood finish, which you could never use in real life, but because it’s an engineered surface, it’s as durable as your grandma’s Formica countertop, right? It was so realistic that I felt like I had to rub sawdust off of my fingertips after handling it.

Yeah, the development in these materials has been fantastic. And in the end, you’re getting all of the emotional satisfaction out of it with none of the guilt.

Robert: That’s a win-win, right? I mean, who doesn’t want that? Yeah, that’s good stuff, man. I appreciate it, Kenn. Thanks for sharing those insights with our listeners today. It’s always great catching up with you, my friend.

Kenn: Same here, Robert, I appreciate it.

Robert: Okay, great. Well for our listeners, if you want to watch the on-demand version of Kenn’s recent presentation, “How to Specify Climate Positive Materials,” head on over to You can also learn more about materials at Kenn’s website

And I also want to give a big thanks to our sponsor Interface for making this podcast possible. Thanks again for tuning in everyone, and as always be well.

[End transcript]

About our guest:

Kenn Busch, founder, Material Intelligence

Kenn Busch is a journalist and architectural photographer, covering interior design and furniture since 1990. For the last 20 years Kenn has been creating certified educational content for A&D specifiers, organizing and speaking at industry events about materials and sustainability, and creating design and materials exhibits like the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon. He also regularly explores and reports on the Cologne Furniture Fair, Milan Design Week, Heimtextil and other international design events. 

Experience other How to Specify topics:

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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