Material Mondays: Thermoset plastics APRIL

Thermoset Plastics: Vacuum forming and nanotech creating new surfaces and solutions

Laminates and melamine are both durable, easy to clean surfaces. The colors, graphics, grains and sheen options available are now innumerable. 

So what are the next generation products doing differently? 3D laminates are becoming commonplace, produced by putting a thermoplastic sheet into a cast former, heating it and then vacuum forming it into a unique, three-dimensional tile or sheet. 3D laminates are light weight, flexible, yet rigid when installed. They can be designed with a built in overlap to make seams invisible. They offer moisture, scratch and fire resistance. They are mold- and mildew-free and used on walls and ceilings. 

Some furniture makers, like Werzalit, are using the same 3D process to create finished products like table tops, windsills and window shutters to produce high tech composites preformed as a solid material (not laminated). The product will not splinter or shatter, can withstand extremes of moisture, weather and scratch abrasion. They do not harbor bacteria or mildew. They can remain outdoors all year round. Paints do not adhere well on these thermal resins. For outdoor and and high wear areas these products offer a wider range of design choices, including custom graphics (there are limited options in terms of shapes).

Another new material, Fenix, addresses some of the common complaints people have about laminates and melamine: fingerprints, build up of dirt/stains over time and scratches. Fenix is an acrylic resin that is hardened and fixed with an electron beam curing process. It uses nanotechnology to heat set the plastic. The result is a surface that has very low light reflectivity, is anti fingerprint and has a very pleasant soft touch. While other resins and laminates may feel plastic-like, Fenix has a silky, suede like feel, a natural "skin". Most importantly superficial scratches can heal - either by rubbing (where the heat generated cures the scratch) or by using a hair dryer or heat gun. The nano surface also withstands impacts, acid-based solvents and household reagents. The surface is hygienic, easy to clean, liquid repellant and mold proof. The smooth surface also makes the material a number one choice where acoustics and light need to be managed. Colors and finishes are still limited but as this new product evolves we expect to see many new designs and options. Wherever a matte, solid color is desired, Fenix is an optimal solution. 

Down to the Fibers

We are called as experts in our field to know more. It is no longer enough to understand space, layout, color, light, texture, structure, dimensions, germ control, use or even how to brand space. Now we look at products beyond their outside appearance. We are getting deep! Between the call for high performance products, healthy product declarations, green manufacturing and the constant introduction of new materials, designers and industry professionals are taking it down to the fiber, the micro fiber, even the nano! Few of us are chemists but we are talking about petrochemical products and their impact on our decision making, layered textiles and which one is best, lifespan of one chair mesh over another, stainless versus chrome, and it goes on and on. One material is rapidly renewable but too expensive to be practical, stains easily and does not last long; but color saturated and wonderful to touch. Another is a synthetic polymer, petro based, inexpensive, waterproof, fast drying, resistant to mold and sunlight, strong tough and durable. Somehow I feel like I am arguing over who is the better superhero, Superman or Spiderman!


Balance is the key but how do we create the formula that prioritizes the most important factors? Often the client does it by price but as the products improve, price is becoming a thinner line, and all of us realize that the choice between renewable and not, between natural and man made is multifaceted. There is one value that has not changed but one that is not fashionable among many of the tech superstars. Familiar with constantly changing technology and viewing the world as something that should remain in a state of change, they expect their environments to change frequently as well. So change they do, long before products have reached their life span. Maybe the green solution would be to move workers to new offices to keep them in fresh environments, or to swap the office furniture between locations every other year. But keep the stuff until it finishes working! That one value - how long something will last and still look new and fresh - is synonymous with quality. It is not directly related to price. If we want to keep things out of the landfill the first question should be how long does it last? The second should be how easy is it to maintain, keep clean? And then the third should focus on how to recycle it. My favorite product: one that when I am finished using it I can call up the supplier and say, "Hey, all done. Come pick it up." And they come pick it up, bring it back to the factory and make it into new product. Sounds like scifi? Yes, for some products that have multiple components that is a long way off. But for some materials it is happening already. Really? Maybe it should be the start of every design discussion! 

The Level Playing Field

My mother, the teacher, used to ask her class what they thought the biggest problem their generation would have to face. The replies were often, "Poverty, war, disease." My mother's favorite answer was "Garbage!" which left the students laughing hysterically and wondering how they got stuck with such a strange teacher. But we had a farm we visited each summer and trips to the dump were part of country living. Seeing mounds of garbage and abandoned products has a strong impact, and when pollutants from those mounds starting seeping into the water tables, we all understood what my mother already knew. Products can be beautiful but how do we balance our desire for good things with our needs for a good planet? And who should become the gate keepers for how we make things, how we use our resources and what we can recycle? 

LEED, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design was the first answer, a solution put into place by US Green Buildings Council. The idea was to measure building efficiency and environmental impact and award buildings for reaching certain benchmarks. It has evolved beyond new building construction into building operations and management, interiors, and even neighborhood development. But furniture points, while they can affect the overall ratings, are not specifically indicative of how green that furniture is or even if the furniture supplier is following green production practices.

And thus BIFMA introduced level, a third party certification program for the furniture industry. Level attempts to go beyond LEED which considers the impact on the environment of the built space and embrace the entire concept of sustainability. LEED did not give credit to product that was designed to last longer, to be upgradable and easily maintained - LEVEL does. LEVEL also looks at the manufacturer and rewards the manufacturer on several levels - not just wise use of materials, but how a manufacturer's social actions, energy usage, and human and ecosystem health impacts the planet. Forget green scrubbing, where manufacturers can buy cheap components from dirty sources but get points because their factory is green, LEVEL goes down the supplier chain as well. There are also no rewards for flip flop products, products that break quickly and end up at the dump, discarded easily because they are cheap. Sustainable also means quality, product that will be well loved for years, product we do not WANT to part with. If we design with that idea in mind, everything changes. AH, the old Shaker rocker that only got better as it aged, you will never see that chair at the dump!


Thinking Made Visual

Saul Bass said it best, "Design is thinking made visual." When we design, when we make choices about how our spaces will look and feel, we are thinking outloud. We are having an unspoken conversation with everyone who enters that space. The architect/designer is the translator - they take the message and convey into three dimensional form. The hardest of these spaces is the outdoor space.

Outdoor spaces present a great challenge and a great opportunity. We have to contend with wind, sun, water, mold, mildew, bugs, birds - the list goes on. These dynamic spaces require vigilance and obedience to all those factors, to ensure that the space remains safe, functional and pleasing. So the magic is more about turning overpowering wind into a gentle breeze that brings in smells and recollections, bending direct sun into a warm atmosphere that relaxes and yet provides views that excites the eyes. It allows us to connect to nature - and our blood pressure goes down, we relax. Outdoor spaces remind us that we can conquer our environment and it can conquer us. It is about planning - picking the right materials, the best colors, textures and forms and intertwining our indoor story with the experience and power of nature. When I visit my sister in the summer in Rhode Island, a large granite boulder in her front yard becomes my work space. I perch myself on that rock, cell phone, laptop and pad of paper in hand. The shade is just the right amount, the breeze quite perfect. I must look very odd to her neighbors but it is a wonderful outdoor space and I am able to generate a lot of work from that tranquil spot. I finish my work with a great deal of energy left.  And I think that is what an outdoor space is, a chance to find balance.