Sustainability Profile: mafi America

Wood manufacturer mafi’s message is simple: they’ve been making 100-percent natural, organic, sustainable products for over a century. They were the first wood manufacturers to produce uncompromised, lacquer-free, natural-oiled flooring and they want the architecture and design industry to understand why this is so significant. mafi, an Austrian company founded in 1919 and named after the founder’s wife (Marion Fillafer), is still owned by the same family. Three generations later, their philosophy and sustainability practice is much the same, and they advocate strongly for natural, authentic materials. Knowledge Bank spoke with Walter Lourie, Head of Sustainability for mafi-America, and Eric Novick, Sales Force Manager for mafi-America, about their vision for sustainability and the importance of open-pore wood in indoor spaces.

Photography Courtesy of mafi America

Finding the Right Certification

mafi has been making sustainable wood floors, walls, and ceilings for decades, but in recent years they decided that in order to back up that claim, it was important to go through the process of certification. Out of the sea of options, they chose the one they found to be the most rigorous and comprehensive: the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI’s) Living Product Challenge (LPC), a certification that evaluates products according to performance areas as varied as energy, equity, water, and health and happiness. mafi became the first wood flooring manufacturers with an LPC certification and the assessments showed that their products are net carbon negative, contain no toxic ingredients, and even that they have health benefits. They also verified that mafi’s plant is zero waste, that they use renewable power, and that their employees are treated fairly.

Unlike other companies that might have balked or at the very least, gone through a bit of a reckoning in the face of stringent certifications and exhaustive life cycle assessments (LCAs), mafi kept their cool—they wanted the hardest certification, and they weren’t concerned about what the assessors would find. After all, their product is made up of just three ingredients: wood, linseed oil, and white glue. That’s it. In its edible form, linseed oil is known as flax oil because it’s made from the seeds of the flax plant. The glue, polyvinyl acetate, is made from a derivative of vinegar. “It’s the same glue we use in kindergarten,” Lourie explains. And the wood is all certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, ensuring that trees are harvested from responsibly managed forests – forests that provide both environmental and social benefits. Novick’s favorite saying, he tells us, is “if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.” If your product has three simple, natural, nontoxic ingredients, you won’t have any trouble passing assessments with flying colors or proving to specifiers and clients that they don’t have to worry about VOCs or toxic substances. You can find mafi’s Living Product Challenge scorecard, Declare label, HPDs, and more on Material Bank, mindful MATERIALS, or on their website.

Photography Courtesy of mafi America

Natural Versus Non-Natural Materials

Lourie expressed concern about a shift he’s seen in “sustainable” design. The trendier sustainability has gotten, the more the design world moves away from natural materials. He tells us about a project in Maryland with LEED and WELL platinum certifications and a Fitwel certification to boot. “The building was well oriented for ease of travel between spaces, with a restaurant that uses some of the vegetables grown on the front lawn, or even on the green roof. Everything looked right, with floor-to-ceiling windows, meditation rooms and workout spaces. They even recycle rainwater and generate power through a giant solar array.” But, he continued, there was not a single natural product in the space. It was all synthetic materials. “Recycled plastic floors, MDF cabinets covered in lacquer, tile meant to look like wood or real stone.”

Why should we care about whether a material is “natural” or not? We live in a world where “natural” labels are meant to read as healthy and “synthetic” as unhealthy, but in reality, it’s a bit more complex. After all, arsenic and cyanide are naturally occurring! But when it comes to certain building materials, like wood, there are real health benefits. For example, biophilic design is an evidence-based design method that is proven to reduce stress, improve cognitive function and creativity, booster mood and wellbeing, and even promote healing. An important strategy for incorporating biophilic design into a space is through natural materials. We can’t experience a tile meant to look like wood through multiple senses, as we can wood. We can smell wood, feel its soft texture, listen to the way it sounds when we walk on it, and enjoy the way it looks in a space. And studies have shown that being near wood can actually relax us and decrease our stress levels. Lourie tells us that there are over 200 studies that demonstrate the health benefits of wood, and many are cited on mafi’s website. And when it comes down to choosing materials, Lourie says, “I’d like to see more emphasis on converting people from focusing on technological, advanced products using recycled materials to natural products that can serve the same purpose and perform even better.”

Photography Courtesy of mafi America

Why the Finish Matters

And then there’s the difference between an open-pore wood like mafi and woods with polyurethane varnishes and finishes. “Sixty years ago, we invented polyurethane coatings and liquid plastics,” Novick tells us. “Before then, all wood floors were finished with natural elements: oil, wax, or both.”

“When you put a layer of polyurethane on a wood plank,” explains Lourie, “and you wear that layer down by use, how do you fix it? You have to sand down the wood or mechanically degrade the top surface and then put another layer of plastic on. And every time you sand it, you’re reducing a third of its life.” On the other hand, open-pore wood treated with natural oils, if properly taken care of, can last for hundreds of years. “You just have to take care of it, as you would a cutting board, by just washing it with soap and water, and it will literally last forever,” says Lourie. “The LCA was restricted to 75 years, but we could increase it to 500 years if we wanted to because you can go to churches in Europe that are hundreds of years old with the same floor. And that’s just how our process works.”

Why can naturally treated wood last so long? It can balance humidity. “Wood,” Lourie tells us, “is really just a stacked layer of cells—a sponge. Without a barrier layer like a varnish, wood can take in and remove moisture, so it remains flexible and resilient during seasonal changes. Every time moisture moves through it, it cleans the air because it pulls all of the allergens, the toxins, from the air into its pores. When you wash it with soap and water, you’re taking that out and pouring it down the drain.” Treating wood with polyurethane or varnish creates a barrier that moisture can’t pass through, making it more brittle and susceptible to damage.

At the end of life of a wood product, the difference is also quite significant. A typical polyurethane-coated wood floor can’t be composted. “The wood will rot and leave the plastic behind,” Lourie points out. “You can’t put it in the fire because that’s polluting. You have no choice but to send it to a landfill. But you could put a mafi board in a compost bin and the worms would love it.”

Photography Courtesy of mafi America

Sustainability as a Philosophy, Not a Buzzword

In 1853, Austria became the first country to establish a national forest law. Since then, sustainable forestry has been part of Austrian culture. And as for mafi, says Lourie, “For more than 100 years we have been partners with our neighbors who rely on those forests in Upper Austria and carefully managed them even before the 1853 national forest law.” mafi always uses the entire log—scraps become biofuel for their plant or are sold to the local market. And what other companies might see as an aesthetic “defect” in a board, mafi sees as natural character. According to Novick, “if there’s a knot hole or worm hole, we fill them and reconstitute them into the board, so nothing goes to waste.”

mafi works directly with the architecture and design community, without any intermediaries. “We don’t just sell our products; we also provide high-level support,” says Novick. “We pay close attention to our customers’ needs and we stay involved rather than just being a manufacturer that’s only interested in selling their product.” mafi is a custom manufacturer, so all products are made to order, and they boast a turnaround time of just four days for any order.

Today, in addition to their Living Product Challenge certification, mafi is a sponsoring member of ILFI. They identified a common goal with the organization: to push back against the trend of using synthetic materials. They like ILFI’s holistic approach to sustainability and are interested in working together to promote a deeper, more impactful understanding and practice, beyond the “sustainability market.” Novick tells us: “In a sense we want to put a challenge out to other manufacturers. We want to say that sustainability and our philosophy is so much more than just a word.”