Sustainable materials were used in this architectural woodwork project for the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.

Nicomia is a small custom and design fabrication studio specializing in mixed media for residential and commercial work. Its cadre of artists bring together a wide variety of experience from woodworking and sculpture to metal, fiberglass and sustainable materials.

Tane Clark, co-owner of the Mesa, AZ-based company with her husband, Chris Alcalde, says they use sustainable materials as often as possible and have done so since even before the green movement reached its current state of popularity.

One of the company’s first sustainable architectural woodwork projects was the Childrens’ Museum of Phoenix. Clark says they worked with Paul Hickman, a designer who is “really into using green, sustainable materials [like] reclaimed lumber and recycled glass tiles. He used reclaimed hickory flooring to make a cabinet. There were all of these ways of using scrap and reincorporating it.”

For the Children’s Museum, Nicomia designed and fabricated educational interactive exhibits and activity centers. Materials for the project included dyed formaldehyde-free MDF, low-VOC water-based lacquer, reclaimed acrylic, Eco Surface recycled rubber flooring and Abet Laminati’s recycled laminate product, Tefor.

Other green woodworking projects that the company worked on with Hickman are: a vanity which uses reclaimed cedar, recycled glass tiles and salvaged steel; a Civil War bookshelf featuring reclaimed madrone, reclaimed camphor and etched glass doors; a bed made of reclaimed walnut; an antique hand-carved screen and a cupboard fabricated with wheatboard, and salvaged steel and wood flooring.

 This interactive display uses pots and pans from
a thrift store and scraps of pine and purpleheart.

What is Green?
One question that often arises when discussing the green movement is, “How green is ‘green?’” It is not an easy question to answer, and it is one that Clark says she often asks when looking at the resources available locally.

“There is no resource for reclaimed lumber here, as far as I know,” she says. “When [Hickman] was in San Francisco, we would get reclaimed Sierra madrone and all these great woods, but they were being shipped here. It is that kind of offsets [we must deal with].”

Still, materials like formaldehyde-free sheet goods and CARB-compliant products are becoming more widely available from suppliers. Clark says using them, as well as environmentally-friendly glues, provides the added benefit of being better for the employees, “in terms of us breathing the dust and the quality of the material. We use low-VOC or no-VOC finishes in as many cases as possible. We use the water-borne finishes as often as possible.

“We have been doing this for a long time,” she adds. “In some cases people are interested [in green products], and in some cases [they are not because of] the price-point.”

Because of the cost of some green material, it is still considered a luxury item. “There is a narrow percentage of people who can enjoy that,” Clark adds.

Green Products
There are several new products that Clark says she would like to incorporate more into her architectural woodwork projects. But until demand lowers the price, it is unlikely for now, she adds.

These products include Kirei board, made from reclaimed sorghum straw; Dakota burl, made from sunflower husks; IceStone, made from recycled glass and cement, and Acrilaq, a water-based soy sealer.

Because these materials are new and rather expensive, Clark says it is important to find ways to highlight them and educate the consumer on the possibilities these materials offer. For example, many of them were used as samples in a project Nicomia did for the City of Tempe, AZ. “We designed a mobile recycling education unit that the city wanted, to educate the community about ways to recycle,” Clark says.

The unit features seven interactive displays. The basic structures were fabricated with a formaldehyde-free product, and recycled products were used as often as possible. “It was a great project to showcase what we can provide,” Clark adds. “We did a lot of research for it.”

Other projects fabricated by Nicomia that either feature green material or explain green principles include an interactive display for the Global Water Center in Maricopa, AZ. The building housing the display is Silver LEED-certified.

 Employees work on an interactive display that
features dyed formaldehyde-free MDF.

Getting Onboard
Even though it can be difficult to find green materials and the newer innovations tend to be more expensive, Clark says the movement is gaining momentum. “These types of projects are going to become more common,” she says. “So, it is either get on the bus or get left behind.”

Still, she acknowledge that it takes time. “The general public isn’t really aware of the types of products that are available. They may not understand much about FSC certification...nor do they know what CARB compliance really is. With us being so close to California, it has an effect on our woodworking. If we don’t start using recycled materials, the demand will go down and people won’t have an incentive to make them.

“There is real potential with them,” she adds, “but unless people use them and drive the prices down, [they will continue to be hard to find and expensive].”

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