Composite Wood Panels: The Big Green Picture

Changes in LEED v4 credit requirements are important, but only part of the story

04/01/2015 By Kenn Busch

Few materials on earth are as perfect for their purpose as wood. Trees grow essentially by building themselves, efficiently manufacturing their own construction materials as needed. These materials—a composite of high-tensile cellulose fibers embedded in a matrix of compression-resistant lignin—give wood properties that can’t be duplicated by any other manufactured building product.

No matter the form a finished product takes—from solid wood furniture to hardwood plywood wall panels or composite panel-based commercial fixtures—the inherent strength and resilience of wood fiber delivers strength, workability, performance, and value.

The basic nature of this material makes composite wood panels one of the best environmental choices you can make for furniture, fixtures, and interiors. Consider this crash course of facts:

  • Wood is one of the planet’s most easily renewed resources. Annually, U.S. forests generate more wood than is harvested. In 2006 there was 72% more net growth than total removals.
  • Composite wood panels utilize wood fiber left over from other manufacturing processes. The material would otherwise be destined for landfills or incinerators.
  • These panels are structurally more stable than solid wood, and may be engineered for specific applications and performance characteristics. These properties ensure a longer useful life by requiring less frequent replacement.
  • Composite wood panels were shown to be “better than climate neutral” in a recent lifecycle inventory analysis. The wood in composite panels acts as a carbon sink, sequestering more carbon than is expended in their production, transportation, and installation.
  • Rare and endangered wood species are spared by decorative composite wood panels. High-definition printed and textured decorative surfaces offer the beauty of any wood type, but with better design consistency and durability.

Throughout this article, you’ll explore each of these factors as well as changes in LEED credit requirements.

responsible resource managementLogging is part of North America’s industrial heritage and remains the heart of many rural communities, but many lumber companies have gone out of business while others have sold out to larger conglomerates, producing adverse effects on the towns that once thrived around them.

Now, few and far between are family-run companies that nurture their communities and maintain their own forests for the long-term health of the environment. Luckily a few do remain, and they drive the industry with a deeper commitment to the future of their resources, the stability of their workforces, and true product innovation.

Intelligent forest management isn’t only common sense—it’s good business. Not planting trees after their harvest will deplete them. But the industry knows it can’t wait 100-200 years for its seedlings to reach mature size, so it employs responsible resource management. Changes in construction methods and consumption trends play an important role as well.

As the post-WWII population and housing boom erupted, it became glaringly clear that traditional reliance on solid wood for construction would soon decimate our forests. Smart mill owners quickly saw a mass market for a material that had once been a niche product: plywood.

Plywood panels were strong, flexible, workable, and made use of low-quality timber that was otherwise considered waste. It was far more resistant than solid wood to cracking, shrinkage, twisting, and warping—and less expensive to manufacture. Laid up with waterproof adhesives, plywood soon found footing in the military, used for everything from troop barracks to fighter planes.

The spike in demand for baby-boomer housing drove plywood mills into high gear. They streamlined the production process and began to refine multi-ply panels for greater and more specific applications.

By the 1970s larger old-growth logs were mostly gone and the economy was starting to stumble, so forward-thinking manufacturers began refitting their mills for smaller logs. They also diversified, particularly into particleboard and MDF production, which utilize waste produced by sawmills and plywood plants that would have been landfilled or burned.

Over time, wood fiber recovered from discarded furniture and other wood products were incorporated into composite panel production. The small amount of fiber left over is then used as biofuel to cogenerate power for production, reducing the need for fossil fuels and reducing landfill waste to nearly zero.

Engineers soon realized that composite panels could be used as cores for plywood panels, acting as an even more efficient use of wood fiber.

composite wood, decorative surfacesParticleboard and MDF panels are manufactured by mixing the wood particles or fibers with resin, paraffin wax, and other additives, forming the panel, consolidating and curing it under pressure and heat, and then sanding and sawing to desired dimensions.

Composite panels are highly stable, dimensionally consistent, and can be engineered for special performance properties:

  • Moisture resistance
  • Fire resistance
  • Specific indoor air quality goals
  • Density/screw-holding power
  • Lightweight
  • Different thicknesses and dimensions

For most design specifications, composite panels carry decorative surfaces, ranging from veneer to high-pressure laminate. One of the most common of these options is thermally fused laminate (TFL). TFL is the most efficiently manufactured decorative panel. A printed or solid-color decorative paper is saturated with melamine resin and fused to the composite panel core under heat and pressure, creating a decorative panel in less time than it takes to produce a sheet of HPL.

In most cases TFL is pressed in the same facility that produces the composite panel, eliminating costly transportation, handling, and potential for damage. This means the panel leaves the factory with decorative surfaces on both faces, ready to be made into finished products or installed as decorative millwork. HPL, on the other hand, must be glued to the panel in an extra production step, adding time and cost. After the fabricator adds an edge treatment, it’s ready for office desks, bistro tables, retail fixtures, night stands, and more.

The inherent value of TFL, as well as the wide range of designs and textures available, makes it an increasingly popular choice in commercial design projects. As advantageous as TFL panels are for so many uses, producers realize that other materials also have value. As such, TFL suppliers share decor papers and design files with HPL, 3D-laminate, lightweight paper, and edgebanding suppliers for exact surface matches, while offering specifiers cross-reference charts to match or complement colors and structures.

better than carbon neutral Particleboard and MDF panels are nothing new. Or are they? Thanks to California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards, board producers have stepped up and modified their products accordingly. Composite panels produced in North America now meet and usually exceed established indoor air quality goals.

Producers have also invested in further research about the true impact of materials and operations. Through a recent lifecycle impact assessment (LCIA), they discovered something extraordinary—that their materials are actually better than climate-neutral.

One major factor in this finding involves the traditional makeup of the panels, as opposed to recent modifications.

Particleboard is made up of small wood particles. In MDF, the wood chips are further refined down to cellulosic fibers, producing a panel with a smooth surface and homogenous core. Together they represent the highest level of evolution in maximizing the use of wood fiber left over by other manufacturing processes, including waste and recycled post-consumer urban wood.

North American composite panel producers commissioned an LCIA of particleboard and MDF that takes into account all inputs and outputs required to manufacture these products, conducted by the College of Forestry, Wood Science, and Engineering at Oregon State University.

The analysis began with the generation of the forest through harvesting, examining, delivery, product manufacture, use, and disposal. Inputs measured included electricity, fuels, chemicals, and materials use across the resource’s lifespan of extraction, delivery, and manufacture. Outputs measured include product, co-product, and emissions to air, water, and soil. Here is a summary of the findings:

Use of wood resource Particleboard % MDF %
Wood residue into panel 95.7 84.8
Wood fuel use in mill 3.5 14.9
Wood residue sold 0.74 0.01
Wood particulate emissions 0.03 0.05
Wood waste to landfill 0.06 0.28

Wood is one of the planet’s most easily renewable resources, and it’s carefully regulated for sustainable management. To ensure wood is from specific sustainable sources, producers pursue certification from third-party groups like the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

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