Furniture’s positive impacts on human health and wellness
November 12, 2020 | 2:56 pm CST
Students from the Tsukuba Research Institute’s Wood Innovation Group created an exhibiting celebrating wood’s positive emotional effects at Milan Design Week 2019.

Photo By Kenn Busch

News flash: The world has changed. 
Okay, of course that’s not news, we’re being confronted with the realities of COVID-19 every single day. What isn’t so obvious are the subtle ways the pandemic is changing how we think and feel about our world. The real news flash is how the changes COVID has put into motion will continue to affect how we live and work. 
This year I’ve participated in several webinars this year focusing on how the interior design world is, and should, respond to the pandemic and its aftermath. I’ve also created more certified educational unit (CEU) content for architects and interior designers than ever before. Everyone is looking for answers, but I sense few are even clear about the questions that are being asked.
The pandemic is accelerating the conversation about the relationship between our surroundings and our health. Impacts are still being interpreted, but a few things are certain: workplaces will change forever; working from home is now a reality for many more people; and we’re all spending more time at home, with few if any visitors. 
This comes at a time when interior design thought leaders have already been thinking beyond “sustainability,” about the big-picture meaning of “health and wellness.” 

Leading the healthy interiors conversation

Speaking of our industry’s materials and products in the context of “health and wellness,” and even more broadly, “healthy interiors,” requires a basic understanding of what these terms mean to designers. In brief, the desire is for products that are good for the environment, good for society, good for the economy, and good for people. 
Naturally, the conversation starts with resource use and manufacturing efficiencies.  

Material and manufacturing impacts

Furniture based on composite wood panels has a unique advantage as a climate-healthy material. Composite wood panels begin life as a recycled product, making use wood fiber left over from other wood products, which would otherwise be landfilled or burned. The fiber comes from managed or FSC-certified forests, maintained for peak health and fire prevention.  
These panels are naturally “climate positive” – a better way to say, “carbon negative,” being promoted by Ikea and others. Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Half of the chemical makeup of wood is stored carbon, which isn’t released until it decomposes or burns. Composite wood panels store more carbon than is released in their production. 
And because we’re able to engineer substrates and surfaces compatible with the most efficient manufacturing machinery and methods, the amount of energy and inputs required to convert wood fiber into furniture are minimal. 

Circular economies

Circular economies will replace the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, redefining growth with a focus on positive society-wide benefits. They are based on three principles: Designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use for a longer period of time; and, regenerating natural systems. 
The wood products industry has an unparalleled and detailed story to tell, far beyond the traditional meanings of “sustainability,” which you can find in full at
Unfortunately, we do fall short when our story reaches the “end of use” chapter. What happens to furniture, and furniture materials, when no one wants them anymore? Landfill, unfortunately, is usually the answer. There are discussions about remachining used laminated panels into new furniture, and Ikea has officially launched a furniture buyback program in 27 countries. (The U.S. is not yet one of them.) Our raw materials, machining, and long-term durability advantages are easy to share but as of now, our industry still needs a compelling end-of-use story.

Cleanability and chemicals of concern

If you spend any time with architects and interior designers, you’ll hear the phrase “chemicals of concern.” These lists include not only chemicals used in the manufacture of materials and product, but also many compounds found in cleaning solutions. Every residence and commercial building has stepped up its cleaning regimens this year, leading to increased concern about the makeup of cleaners and disinfectants. 
Designers, and consumers, are looking for materials that can be easily cleaned with the simplest compounds, to avoid chemicals related to respiratory and reproductive issues, and cancer. In commercial and healthcare applications surfaces must also be able to withstand frequent cleaning, a distinct advantage for TFL, 3DL and HPL. 

Healthy product advantage: Wood panel-based furniture

The key is to be ready to have a health-and-wellness conversation before your customers start it. We’ve touched on the main points: Climate-positive materials, efficient manufacturing, durability for a long life, ease of maintenance, and designs that make us calm and happy. 
Sustainability – although we have the best story in the building materials world – is really just a baseline advantage. Consumers and designers are ready for the bigger picture. 

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Kenn Busch

Material Intelligence organizes educational material exhibits like the Materials Pavilion at NeoCon, creates and presents certified educational content on materials and sustainability for architects and interior designers, and collaborates with design educators and students to nurture new thinking about materials and materiality. Founder Kenn Busch also covers the major materials and design fairs in Europe for the A&D and manufacturing communities, and presents at industry conferences like the Closets Conference and Expo and the Executive Briefing Conference.