Sustainable architecture and construction are being redefined to encompass increasing levels of activity in the commercial and institutional sector. No longer is green building predominantly about mud brick weekenders, composting toilets and burdensome technologies that are often post-script additions rather than integrated features in harmony with the overall building design.
The successful establishment of the Green Building Council of Australia, GBCA, in 2002 has marked a particularly significant shift in how sustainable architecture and construction is being operationalised in a more widespread and mainstream context.
The GBCA is focused on real world solutions and the tools and strategies needed to attract interest and buy-in from key players, be they developers, designers, specifiers or government stakeholders.
Their mission is “to define and develop a sustainable property industry in Australia and to drive the adoption of green building practices through market-based solutions”. This includes the promotion of “sustainable development and the transition of the property industry to implementing green building programs, technologies, design practice and operations”.
Underpinning this mission and objective is a comprehensive range of rating tools relevant to each key phase of design and construction as well as office fit-out. These ‘green star’ rating tools are expanding in their coverage while also evolving as their implementation is tested and refined.
A standard set of categories within each green star rating tool provides the framework for assessment against management, indoor environment quality, energy, transport, water, materials, land use, site selection and ecology and emissions.
The green star office interiors rating tool specifically deals with furniture such as seating, workstations and partitions, and this is where the green building boom is starting to have a direct impact on product design.
In particular, furniture manufacturers are having to both develop environmentally improved chairs and workstations while simultaneously having to substantiate, defend and elaborate on any environmental claims.
The reality is that the office furniture sector as a whole is showing great commitment and design innovation when it comes to eco-design and sustainable office interiors.
Whether it’s Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll or Formway and Wilkhahn, or even the smaller local producers such as Zenith Interiors and Interlink, these furniture companies are demonstrating how design quality, aesthetics, cost and environmental performance can be successfully blended.
These companies are also showing they can meet clear market demand form those customers and end-users expecting ‘greener’ more low impact office furniture products.
As reported, in an earlier issue of Curve on the development of Formway’s eco-improved Life chair, the trend continues. Some of the most intense eco-design activity has been focused on task chairs.
While many will be familiar with Herman Millers’ Aeron landmark chair or Wilkhahn’s Modus or Picto, the body of work has only grown and the process more competitive. Indeed the claims and counter claims related to the amount of recycled content or levels of recyclability are starting to become somewhat simplistic.
Despite such modes of comparison and performance, the serious and productive phase of the design and manufacturing process is resulting in some noteworthy outcomes.
One of the more recent releases has been the ‘Think’ office chair by Steelcase. Designed by Glen Oliver Löw with significant environmental input from American designer, William McDonough of Cradle to Cradle fame and also McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, MBDC, the Think chair is being heavily promoted on the grounds of its reduced life cycle environmental impacts.
The Copenhagen Institute for Product Development also undertook detailed life cycle assessment research to more clearly and quantitatively identify and articulate Think’s environmental impacts.
As far as eco-design processes are concerned, Steelcase seem to have invested considerable resources to ensure genuine and defendable environmental credentials that can be explicitly promoted in a sometimes sceptical marketplace.
The Think chair is more telling about the overall eco-design approach rather than any particular materials and production related environmental feature or attribute. While the chair does boast the forty-one percent recycled content and ninety-nine percent recyclability if someone recovers the chair and ensures its disassembly, it has also been designed with durability and refurbishment in mind.
The chair’s seat, back cushions, arms, headrest and lumbar support can be easily added or replaced, as a way of extending products life. Steelcase claim a twenty-year life expectancy, which is an attractive timeframe in a climate of disposability, premature obsolescence and rapid churn.
As mentioned, it’s the collaborative design process demonstrated through Think, which highlights a positive and likely ongoing environmental program, regardless of the product.
Steelcase has been clever and strategic to enlist key players in eco-design and life cycle assessment as a way of accessing robust input but also reducing the risk of specifier scepticism among more environmentally informed designs and specifiers.
The partnership between Steelcase, MBDC, Copenhagen Institute for Product Development and the Technical University of Vienna, is evidence that good design addressing environmental factors can be successful without compromising on the range of other product, market and cost related considerations.
As part of the Steelcase approach, the Think chair has also managed to address several other worthwhile environmental aspects including:
• Greenguard certification (USA based system related to indoor air equality).
• ISO140001 certification for environmental management systems
• Ecolabels relevant to France and Japan
Importantly it seems that the Think chair is not a one-off. Steelcase’s Director of Environmental Performance, David Rinard has commented: “Steelcase, renowned for its product quality, applies a broad definition of quality to its products which includes assessing the potential human and environmental impact across entire product life cycles.
"Through this collaboration with MBDC, we will enhance our existing product design processes and further define our corporate strategy with an eye on continuous improvements and environmental sustainability.”
The result will hopefully be the emergence of a company-wide environmental approach to product development so that all new products are eco-design with minimal life cycle environmental impact.
Indeed the top-end office furniture producers be they in North America, Australasia or Europe, have much to be pleased about given their individual and collective environmental achievements.
Through a process of inherent corporate environmental responsibility and competitive posturing, the office furniture sector is presenting a suite of exemplary eco-design products, systems and programs in pursuit of sustainable office interiors.
Whether the Think chair is a more superior product (holistically speaking) compared to its competitors on feature for feature basis will always be problematic to judge, especially where multiple end-user factors need to be satisfied.
This is where the trade-offs kick in and can’t be ignored i.e. ergonomic performance, cost, warranties, delivery timeframes, and the more subjective issues of aesthetics and visual relevance. Having said this, anyone interested in getting comfortable on an environmentally improved office chair, has more choice given the proactive work being carried out by Steelcase, Wilkhahn, Herman Miller and the more local design innovator, Formway Furniture.
For more detailed information about Steelcase and their environmentally oriented design work see www.steelcase.com
For more information about the GBCA and their green star rating tools see www.gbcaus.org