Designing with Purpose: The Sustainable Advantage of High Pressure Laminate Surfaces

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Sponsored by Wilsonart
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Green Building Contributions Of HPL

Beyond product testing and certification, architects and designers are focused on creating entire buildings that are green and sustainable. Hence, the products and materials in those buildings become part of that effort as coordinated by the designer following the requirements of the green building standard being used. The leading standards are LEED v. 4.1 as proffered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the WELL Building System. Some of the most common ways that HPL can contribute to these certifications are as follows.

LEED Materials and Resources (MR) Credits – Building Product Disclosure and Optimization

There are several opportunities in this category.

  • Environmental Product Declarations: Under option 1 of this credit, the designer must select a designated number of products that meets the disclosure criteria, which can include an Industry-Wide Type III EPD or an independently certified EPD specific to a manufacturer. This is defined as “Products with third-party certification (Type III), including external verification, in which the manufacturer is explicitly recognized as a participant by the program operator.”

    EPD's for specific HPL products are very useful when specifying sustainable materials. However, it should be noted that HPL is a decorative surface that is bonded to a substrate to provide structural support before being fabricated or converted into a finished article by skilled fabricators. The final product will typically include the substrate, an adhesive, and other component such as edge banding, drawer slides, door handles, or door cores, composite wood face sheets, etc. HPL all by itself does not qualify for this credit in the format produced by HPL manufacturers. For manufactures of finished articles, an industry-average EPD is available for use in preparing an EPD of the finished articles.

  • Responsible Sourcing of Raw Materials – Wood: Achieving this credit for Wood Products requires that they must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or USGBC-approved equivalent. Products meeting wood products criteria are valued at 100 percent of their cost for the purposes of credit achievement calculation. Note that not all HPL manufacturers can provide this, but at least one has led the way in this industry and offers FSC CoC Certification on request.
  • Responsible Sourcing of Raw Materials – Recycled content: Products meeting recycled content criteria are valued at 100 percent of their cost for the purposes of credit achievement calculation. However, LEED makes a clear distinction between pre-consumer and postconsumer content, which is defined as follows:
    • Post-consumer recycled content is made from waste that has been used by a consumer, disposed of, and diverted from landfills. Examples include paper, milk cartons, newspaper cardboard, and wood products.
    • Pre-consumer recycled content (also sometimes called post-industrial) is material that is salvaged from a manufacturing process only.

      While both types of recycled content are positive, postconsumer is seen as more desirable because it returns material back into the life cycle of products (i.e., cradle to cradle) rather than post-industrial, which simply makes for a more efficient manufacturing process.

      Based on all of this, LEED defines recycled content as the sum of the full amount of postconsumer recycled content plus only one-half the pre-consumer recycled content, based on weight. The recycled fraction of the assembly is then multiplied by the cost of assembly to determine the recycled content value. Hence, the more postconsumer recycled content that is used, the better. In the case of HPL, it is the kraft paper that makes up the layers and has a specific amount of recycled content, which varies based upon product type (17 percent to 34 percent is available). In this case, it is best to seek laminate and backers that have been certified by SCS Global Services for recycled content. It is also worth pointing out that manufacturing innovations have allowed for a continued increase in the amount of postconsumer recycled content in HPL products, without sacrificing appearance or performance.

  • Material Ingredient Reporting – Health Product Declaration: To qualify for this credit, the installed product needs to have a published and complete HPD with full disclosure of known hazards in compliance with the HPD Open Standard to demonstrate the chemical inventory of the product to at least 0.1 percent (1,000 ppm). Similar to EPDs, HPL can be used in support of manufactured products that pursue an HPD.

Image courtesy of Wilsonart

High levels of postconsumer recycled content are preferred by LEED and other green building standards since it directly diverts waste away from landfills or incineration.

LEED Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ) Credits – Low-Emitting Materials

There are also several opportunities in this category.

  • Adhesives and Sealants: At least 75 percent of all adhesives and sealants, by volume or surface area, must meet the LEED VOC emissions evaluation and 100 percent percent must meet the VOC content evaluation. The adhesives and sealants product category includes all interior adhesives and sealants applied on-site. HPL manufacturers can provide information and documentation on acceptable adhesives and sealants that work for the product application and comply with the EQ criteria.
  • Composite Wood: At least 75 percent of all composite wood, by cost or surface area, needs to meet the formaldehyde emissions evaluation or salvaged and reused materials criteria. The composite wood product category includes all particleboard, medium density fiberboard, hardwood veneer plywood, and structural composite wood not included in the flooring, ceiling, wall panels, or furniture material categories.

    The LEED v4.1 requirement for composite wood panels is that they meet California Air Resources Board Ultra Low Emitting (CARB ULEF) or No Added Urea Formaldehyde (NAUF) resin requirements. HPL is not a composite wood panel, even though it does contain paper that is derived from wood. This is a common misunderstanding concerning HPL. Since HPL has low emissions of VOCs and is not a composite wood panel, it is exempt from both the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the EPA Composite Wood Rule. Most HPL product types may qualify as an individual component in a system or part of a finished product or furniture, depending upon the LEED credit approach used. As a laminate, HPL is exempt from reporting NAUF content. NAUF certification needs to be requested from the manufacturer of the finished article who will include the substrate (wood panel), adhesive, HPL decorative surface, backer, edge banding, and other components into a certification for the finished product.

  • VOC Emissions Evaluation (Option 1) and Furniture Emissions Evaluation: This credit is based upon UL GREEN-GUARD low chemical emissions testing. HPLs with UL GREENGUARD Gold Certification meet or exceed the requirements for low chemical emissions on all laminate types.

LEED Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ) Credit – Interior Lighting

If the HPL is being used on furniture that is in the scope of the work (built in or freestanding), then Option 2, Lighting Quality – Subpart F may be an opportunity to contribute to a project. In this case, select furniture finishes to meet or exceed the stated thresholds for area-weighted average surface reflectance, namely 45 percent for work surfaces and 50 percent for movable partitions. When using HPL, note that light reflectance values (LRVs) are pattern dependent. Consultation with a manufacturer’s technical representative is advised to assure that the selected patterns meet the desired LRV.

WELL Building Standard – Materials

The WELL Building Standard is increasingly being recognized as a means to assess and certify a healthy indoor environment. It relies on 10 core concepts plus an innovation concept as a basis for certification at different levels. One of the core concepts is materials with subcategories X06 VOC Restrictions, X07 Materials Transparency, and X08 Materials Optimization. The makeup and product certifications for HPL used for LEED in these categories can also be used in WELL to show compliance and help a building achieve certification.

Specifying Sustainable HPL

Based on everything discussed so far, it should be clear that it is quite possible to specify and use HPLs as part of a green and sustainable building. However, keep in mind that not all laminates are created equally. It is important to understand the specifics that have been discussed here and specify the most sustainable products. This means incorporating the proper language for durability, postconsumer recycled content, and other performance requirements as well as the design criteria. Some of the relevant items to address in a standard three-part specification format are highlighted as follows.

Part 1: General

The scope of the specified work can include all preparation, substrate review, product choices, and final installation. In terms of specifying performance, the appropriate testing standards should be referenced not only for the HPL products but also for any adhesives or substrates used. For sustainability, the third-party testing requirements should be stated, including all those discussed earlier.

Submittals for HPL should include the usual manufacturer’s data and information for all products used, plus samples with color and texture data to confirm that the correct appearance is being achieved.

Quality assurance is clearly an important part of any field-installed system, and the same is true here. Installers should have qualifications acceptable to the manufacturer. Evidence of such qualifications can be requested as a submittal, but it is important that the people actually in the field are the ones with the qualifications and experience needed.

On-site protection of products should be carried out according to the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations, particularly if any standard limited warranty is called for.

Image courtesy of Wilsonart

Composite wood and HPL can be specified with very low levels of formaldehyde and other VOCs to be compliant with sustainability standards.

Part 2: Products

If multiple HPL products are used, they should be identified by type in the specifications, and the location of each type needs to be clearly called out in either the drawings or specifications. The details of the specified products can include:

  • The specific type, size, and texture of the HPL panels should be identified for each product used. The maximum yield from the panel manufacturer’s standard sizes result in cost-effectiveness and green design.
  • The specific performance criteria for each product, including thickness, dimensional stability, surface characteristics, and any other needed criteria, can be specified.
  • The specific sustainability characteristics should be called out. In particular, the percentage of postconsumer recycled content, the VOC restrictions, and other green criteria should be stated.
  • The specific color, pattern, and texture of each product needs to be called out. Manufacturer’s literature should be consulted for this as with any finished product.
  • Other requirements, including the details of cleaning and stain removal for the product, can be called out.


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Originally published in October 2021