Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – the poster child for what kind of chemical should be minimised at all cost – are so-called because they can ‘boil’ – releasing their molecules into the air – at normal room temperatures. Formaldehyde evaporates from some paints from the ‘boiling point’ of just -19 degrees Celsius.

The list of compounds and chemicals in what was once a standard paint mix is far longer, though also carefully monitored by authorities. Paints are not alone in their complex chemical structure. As a subset of stains and other coatings such as resin, as well as some innocent looking products – air fresheners included, ironically – they have suspect loads of VOCs. In an industry of shifting compounds and technology, it is vitally important to stay aware of what the leaders in the industry are offering.

As we know, the use of these solvents is heavily monitored and regulated in Australia, resulting in clear branding of materials that are low or lacking in ‘troublesome’ compounds.
Additionally, it goes without saying that the manufacturing industry of paints, stains and finishes has more codes than a B-grade spy film. The leaders worth noting for encouraging products made with environmental concerns in mind are the Green Building Code of Australia and Good Environmental Choice Australia.

VOCs weren’t added to paints without purpose – they assist in ease of application and extending drying times, which allows painters  to work on the surface coverage. Removing them altered the application process.

Dulux Paints, a major player in this area, has addressed these issues and produced a recommended application regime that includes using synthetic roller sleeves, as the thinner  film left behind when using this method can shorten drying time. Similarly, when using a spray application, Dulux suggests a process of back-rolling to ensure an evenly-finished coat. VOC-free options exist in a full range of finishes, from flat ceiling to gloss products – and each has an application solution found on the Dulux website. It is apparent that the additional industry research into finishes and their chemicals results in a safer environment, which is especially important in areas such as healthcare facilities and schools.

Institutions for health and education deserve special consideration, as they host people who are more sensitive than others in many ways. Toxins and irritants in finishes can be harmful to patients with compromised immune systems or allergies, as well as to children and the elderly. When grouped together, these users constitute quite a large and growing demographic. Another aspect to consider is the visualemotional irritants in colour and texture. It’s easy to see why the list of peculiar needs in these sectors must challenge, if not frustrate, designers.

There are unanimously encouraged elements in design for these buildings; for instance, timber finishes or timber-lookalike textures are very popular. The biophilic nature of the material is soothing and has been proven to be one way for interior designers to reduce stress levels.

These materials also offer several options. Wattyl’s I.D. range is an interior paint with a surface finish that increases the effectiveness of being cleaned, effectively resisting the problems of mould and fungus growth. For the same reason, surfaces painted with this range resist stains. The overarching positive in all of the applications is the extremely low VOC formula.

The Eco-Style range at Rockcote is another exceptional product in this arena, and while they too discourage the growth of fungus, the Rockcote name is synonymous with being able to withstand harsh conditions, including rigorous or industrial cleaning action. On top of that, they offer a touch up paint (which is very much in demand, especially in hospitals) which is low fume-emitting and quick-drying, a strong financial consideration in a healthcare context, where it is desirable to avoid closing patient rooms overnight.

But what about when you want to see that grain and texture, and really bring home the natural attraction of the medium? Timber stains are essentially divided into treatments that really sink into the wood – using a dye rather than a pigment to carry the colour – and are commercially often combined  in the one product. Engineered timber products such as LVL  or Gulam can be stained – Resene, Wattyl and Dulux have products suited from primer to third coats.

Whether the colour is left unaffected, or is stained for enhancement, it’s really the top coat or final finish that can make the difference. The concerns here of course are appearance, maintenance and durability. In a residential setting, the size of the task is so small by comparison that any finish is fine.

However, in a commercial setting, a wax finish just won’t cut it. A polyurethane finish is notoriously hardwearing, has a long cure time, but is available in a water based low VOC formula – that’s not to discount the more traditional polyurethane finish which is rated as relatively safe, despite using petroleum-based solvents.

Durability and maintenance have been key concerns that led buildings of high traffic numbers to be painted in generic white, or institutional grey and green. If you have just three colours to repair and a lot of government buildings that get scuffed, the economics of scale overrule the desire for diversity, beauty and visual relief.

Thank goodness science came through with excuses for a crowd of chroma, a blur of blues, a riot of reds, a purse of pinks. Science has proven the value of colour to our emotional comfort and productivity levels.

Think of colours as wavelengths – a visual representation of an energy that your brain can read. Once you do that, colour becomes like a secret language, one that bypasses familiar sense interpretation, and finds its target deep within the cerebral cortex where our lizard brain is still playing hide and seek.

Orange – the colour of sunlight at dawn and dusk – represents an ideal time to hunt for food, change locations, and stay warm. All energyconsuming occupations. But wait – is that why we become more active with orange tones?  Is that what make it a colour that inspires us to get up and go? Orange has the second highest wavelength interval (red is at the top) and is thought of as the wavelength of activity, agitating the brain into action.

If this is to be taken on board, it becomes clear why classrooms avoid orange like the plague, and instead opt for blue. Open skies, open water, and the second lowest wavelength interval – blue is calming, non-distracting, and creates the perfect effect for quiet learning, or even healing, as restfulness is incumbent on repairing the body.

However, the lizard brain lurking within our human one can be easily manipulated, and there is evidence to suggest that the immediate effect of the wavelength can be overridden by other stimuli.

So, despite all our references and investigations and theories, in most cases the effect of our chosen tones and palette will be somewhat ameliorated by familiarity. The insight to take away is perhaps that designers and clients should not be married to colour schemes and theories for life; that revision and updates are beneficial, if not therapeutic, on many levels.

Perhaps we should rather be considering the mixing of stimuli. The power of positive and negative, or of too few or too many stimuli in a room – that includes all sensory inputs, not just colours – is one that can be more deeply understood.

You cannot look at a room as just colours,  just sounds, or just textures – but rather as a holistic experience.

This opens the door to consider the growing acceptance of the Virtual Reality experience in designing learning and healing contexts. The ultimate in design – where nothing is real, boundaries and building budgets do not exists, and everything is possible. Where surgeons can experience a surgery, in every sense of the world, before they even put on their scrubs. It is also where patients will put on their goggles and leave the operating theatre, the ward, the dentist’s chair – and instead go to Disneyland, take a balloon ride over Provence or slay White Walkers in Winterfell.

It will be a world where students can immerse themselves in Da Vinci’s actual studio as they learn about flying machines or climb to the zenith of a Zaha Hadid building during a course on structural engineering.


Pictured: Wattyl's I.D. range is an interior paint with a surface finish that increases the effectiveness of being cleaned. Photography by Nicole England