Cabinet Design for Multifamily Developments: The Great Wood vs. Laminate Debate

The architect, developer, designer or contractor is often challenged with deciding which cabinet material is best for a high-rise residential development design project, especially for kitchen and bathroom cabinets, but it always comes down to wood vs. laminate. While there’s nothing like the beauty of natural wood, it’s not always the best option for cabinetry, especially in a multifamily development where renters may not properly maintain materials.

Thermally-fused laminate (TFL), a lower-cost, low-maintenance alternative, has become an increasingly popular choice – even in single-family homes. Using TFL makes it possible to create an affordable, customizable cabinet that is equally capable of fulfilling the vision for a project.

As with any design decision, there are a number of factors that should be considered before choosing TFL over wood. Below is a list of the pros and cons:

TFL Advantages:

  • Easy to maintain– TFL is rated for use in commercial spaces. It is a tough material that is designed to withstand wear and tear in high-traffic areas. Available in a wide range of colors and finishes, TFL maintains its finish from the day it’s installed. Should a door or drawer front become damaged and require replacement, the replacement parts will always match. This is not always the case with wood, whose color can change over time due to sun exposure, humidity and everyday use.
  • Customizable – Although it’s commonly used in contemporary designs, TFL is highly customizable and, as a result, can fit the design and style of any home kitchen or bathroom. This is sometimes achieved through grain and color treatments that replicate the look of exotic woods that are otherwise cost prohibitive.
  • Affordable – TFL is a budget-friendly option that allows residential developers to maintain their design vision while meeting their budget. By using TFL instead of wood, developers can anticipate savings between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the TFL chosen.

For all its benefits, TFL also has shortcomings that are unique to this material.

TFL Disadvantages:

  • Unalterable – Door and drawer fronts are limited to either a slab-style or shaker design and cannot be sanded or re-stained in the future to change their appearance.
  • Sizes – TFL products typically have a maximum size of 48” x 96” which may limit the height of a cabinet. This is especially important when considering trim pieces that may run the length or width of several cabinets: think molding across the top of cabinetry below a soffit or paneling on the back of an island which may need a seam.
  • Not the real thing – Even though TFL can be manufactured to match a particular style of wood, it won’t have the same richness that can be brought out through various stain treatments. While wood’s changing appearance can present challenges when it comes to a replacement, it is part of what gives the material – and a room – its character.

Advancements in technology have made the production and appearance of TFL closer to that of natural wood than ever before. So, if you’re looking for a design that looks expensive, but isn’t, TFL is definitely something that should be considered for your next residential multifamily project, not only because of its appearance, but also because of its ability to stand the test of time.

Are you considering installing TFL instead of wood in your next development project? Why or why not? We’d love to hear what elements drove your decision.

Jane Kelly
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