Zero VOCs or not?

Matthew Pemberton at Treatex wood finishes considers the key questions for architects around VOCs, including whether they can be a misleading factor when selecting products for the least environmental impact

How can architects select an internal or external wood finish that will throughout its entire lifespan (i.e. up to the point where the finish has to be reapplied), have the minimal possible impact on health and the environment? Is there a requirement to choose zero VOC finishes, or are zero VOC finishes more complex to understand than first assumed?


VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapour pressure at ordinary, room- temperature conditions. Their high vapour pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound, and enter the surrounding air.

However the difficulty in reducing VOCs lies directly in that they are a key part of paints and decorative finishes’ mechanical characteristics, as they determine the viscosity, flow, surface dexterity and drying time.

VOC legislation – leading the way

Across the UK and Europe the decorative industry has been required to meet legislative guidelines applied to all paint types, with the aim being to reduce the environmental impact of the industry as a whole. A by-product of these reducing VOC levels is accelerated development of new materials, permitting lower VOC content without the loss of these key mechanical characteristics.

This legislation also allows companies who are clearly displaying the VOC contents of products on labels to demonstrate to today’s environmentally conscious society that they are at the forefront of contribution to the development of more ecological products.

Zero VOCs

Paints are made up of a large number of components. These can either be of natural origin or synthetically manufactured, that during processing require refinement to be readied as raw ingredients with which to make the final products.

The substances used to achieve the necessary levels of refinement are themselves classified as VOCs. A great deal of work is undertaken to remove these VOCs, but there are always trace amounts to be found in the processed raw materials. So it can be said that as the raw materials contain these trace VOC amounts, that the final product is not 100 per cent VOC-free aka Zero VOC, by definition determined across Europe by the CEPE and in the UK by the British Coatings Federation.

Are zero VOCs eco efficient?

This is a question best suited to specific projects and clients’ expectations, but Overall Environmental Footprinting (OEF) uses the comprehensive approach that durability should always be brought into consideration e.g. to the point where the finish has to be reapplied.

For example to achieve low-VOC credentials clay paints products are based on natural clays. These are not as durable as VOC-bases and require recoating more often. Achieving an OEF score (dependant on project and expectations) that is lower than its VOC counterpart.

Ecologically efficient solutions

It is a requirement of any company to trive to stand out in a market place, for a wood finishes company the usual first requirement would be to enhance the natural beauty of surfaces. But they need to be able to do so with products that involve openness with regards to the information they make available about products in line with legislation.

Is there a requirement to choose zero-VOC finishes?

VOC legislation has been consecutively tightened over the last 14 years since the European Paints Directive 2004/42/EC and should a company aim to meet criteria ahead of schedule, by default it shows both effort to satisfy environmentally orientated clients concerns and actual contribution towards creating a healthier environment. Thanks to efforts and technological achievements in line with legislation towards healthier interior environments made e.g. by Germany. There are new products now able to offer excellent performance characteristics whilst meeting environmental legislation.

Are zero-VOC finishes complex to understand?

When deciding between zero VOC products or not, be aware of terms often used to disguise the nature of what you are investing in. There are zero or ‘low VOC’ coatings which are beautiful, however they do tend to need ongoing upkeep or maintenance, which can often negate a product’s ecological efficiency over the full lifespan.

More and more end users are becoming aware of alternatives to what is usually available, these alternatives are often worth investigating for your client and the environment, and it is a matter of making an informed choice.

Matthew Pemberton is general manager at Treatex