As I write this, the economic picture continues to discourage. The U.S. Census Bureau and the National Association of Home Builders report that annual single-family housing starts have declined from a peak of over 2,000,000 in 2006 to way less than 700,000 by the end of 2008, although there has been a slight upward trend in recent months. Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies projects that spending on residential remodeling will decline at an annual rate of about 12.1% by the third quarter of 2009. Perhaps most pertinent to countertop fabricators, the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) reported that cabinet sales declined 19.3 % in 2008.
The challenge that we all face is to control our costs, lower our expectations for a while and adjust our product offerings to respond to a very cautious consumer market. We all know, for example, that many homeowners financed remodeling projects in recent years using home equity lines of credit. Those credit lines may now be depleted or withdrawn, so the cash for a project may no longer be available.
The collapse in housing prices and slow resale of existing homes makes it much more difficult for many families to move to a better home right now. Paradoxically, this may drive demand toward more economical and less luxurious remodeling projects in their existing homes. Some evidence of this may be found in the KCMA report that said stock cabinet sales declined 2.1% less than custom cabinet sales. Perhaps it is time to place a greater emphasis on the basics.
At the same time, the allure of “green home” products remains strong among consumers, and the new Obama administration seems far more committed to protecting the environment than its predecessor. In my ongoing efforts to learn more about green countertop alternatives, I discovered that most of them are quite expensive. I decided to see what sort of countertop could be offered that is both economical and green.
Long-time readers of this column know that I have been an enthusiastic promoter of solid surface materials for a quarter of a century. However, solid surface countertops are not considered economical, although prices have tended to moderate with increased competition and automation. And solid surface materials, which rely on petroleum-based resins, have been criticized by green building advocates. Granite is perceived by many consumers as expensive, and has its own environmental challenges.
My attention turned to an old standby, considered passé in recent years – the plastic laminate countertop. There is no doubt that mass produced, postformed plastic laminate countertops are among the most economical on the market. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, “postformed” refers to the type of fabrication where plastic laminate is heated, and then bent and wrapped around a particleboard core, so the backsplash is coved, and in most cases, the front edge is curved. This fabrication technique lends itself to automated production and the raw materials are relatively inexpensive.
But can a plastic laminate countertop really be considered green? Traditionally, these countertops have been made with a particleboard core material made of wood fibers and particles bonded together using urea-formaldehyde resins, which emit formaldehyde vapors in measurable amounts. The laminate was bonded with solvent-based contact adhesives, which also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Recycling was a concept not associated with this segment of the industry.
However, new product developments in recent years have resulted in a changed environmental picture for plastic laminate countertops. The plastic laminate itself is 1/16″ or thinner, and has always been a safe and stable product composed to a large extent of layers of kraft paper. All major brands of plastic laminate are now available with GREENGUARD certification, which means that an independent, third-party organization has determined that the products will not adversely affect indoor air quality.
New generations of particleboard are now available that are manufactured with no added urea formaldehyde. Water-based contact adhesives now on the market also emit far lower levels of VOCs than older products.
Any capable plastic laminate countertop fabricator can use the kinds of materials I have described here, and the result will be a darned good green countertop. And you can have it in hundreds of colors and patterns, not just the color green. The cost will be somewhat higher than for a run-of-the-mill plastic laminate top, but still far less than other options such as granite, quartz and solid surface.
One of America’s oldest and largest manufacturers of mass-produced plastic laminate countertops, VT Industries, now offers just such a product nationally. VT Industries has been in business for over 50 years, and has manufacturing plants in Oregon, California, Texas, Iowa, Indiana, Georgia and Quebec, Canada. Its green countertop option is EQcountertops, which uses biodegradable, water-based contact adhesives, and laminates from major manufacturers such as Formica, Wilsonart and Nevamar that are GREENGUARD certified.
The particleboard used is Roseberg SkyBlend, which utilizes 100% pre-consumer recycled wood fiber content, and no added urea-formaldehyde resins. The company certifies that formaldehyde emissions from the SkyBlend product do not exceed outdoor ambient air levels. The product also meets the highest levels of performance for particleboard products. In order to ensure that this particular particleboard is used, it is tinted light blue for identification purposes.
Though the cost of EQcountertop blanks is somewhat higher than the equivalent product using conventional materials, the labor cost for assembly and installation should be identical. The bottom line is a very appealing price, and environmental benefits for a broad swath of consumers.
In my opinion, a plastic laminate countertop is a fine product at a reasonable price point that performs well in moderate use when well cared for. Such countertops are not a good choice in demanding situations where they are subject to abuse, such as commercial food service environments, or rental housing. Repair options are limited if they are damaged. However, I’ve seen many plastic laminate countertops that were decades old, and still in good condition.
For many consumers, a reasonably low price trumps maximum durability. The benefit of legitimate environmental credentials just adds luster to the resurgence of this old standby in today’s tough countertop marketplace.