By Chris Bates
Published in the October 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Today, facility managers (fms) certainly have their plates full when it comes to achieving progressively higher levels of sustainability and minimizing the environmental footprint of the buildings they oversee and operate. Many fms are surrounded by great ideas, but frequently, the ideas are more plentiful than the available dollars required to implement them. Fortunately, sometimes the best solutions are those that require a minimal upfront investment and lead time in order to put them into place.
One of the simplest and lowest cost ways to reduce any organization’s or facility’s environmental impact is to recover, recycle, and reuse products that otherwise will end up in the local waste stream. [For more on the recycling issue, see the TFM September 2007 article,“Waste Management And Ralph Waldo Emerson” by Mark Lennon and Katrina Rideout.]
Most offices today—particularly in significant metro areas—are already committed to recycling paper, plastic, printer toner cartridges, and other consumables. But how many have thought seriously about recycling the office furniture that constitutes a much larger portion of their economic and environmental footprint?
Green On The Go
Whether an fm’s responsibilities encompass office buildings, hospitals, universities, manufacturing plants, or other specialized facilities, space demands within those settings are constantly evolving. As building and employee needs shift—often in a three to five year period—occupants make significant choices that affect the environmental impact of facilities.
These choices may or may not trigger major construction changes or less complicated reconfigurations of interior space. Regardless, decisions about office furniture are typically part of the equation. The furniture purchasing decision can lead fms in multiple directions, some of which are more environmentally friendly than others.
In the simplest terms, fms have three office furniture choices when renovating: refurbishing current furniture, exchanging present furnishings for remanufactured products built to original or near original standards, or purchasing all new product. Choices one and two are ecologically sound to a large degree; choice three is less so.
Increasingly, however, there is also the blended approach, where new products may be incorporated with high quality, remanufactured products in a single office floor plan. The environmental implications and costs of these options can be quite different with important caveats.
So what is the definition of refurbishing? Refurbishing can range from deep cleaning and minor repairs of carpet, furniture, and wall panels (thus infusing new life into them). It can also mean complete reconditioning, in which the fabric or other “skins” on panels are swapped out and replacement parts are substituted for missing or broken items. Storage units and other pieces may be repainted or refinished (although such processes may cross the line into remanufacturing).
In any case, the result of the refurbishing process is typically a brighter, cleaner, and more pleasant working environment that looks upgraded. And the cost is typically modest in comparison with other, more far reaching solutions.
The “Reman” Benefits
Buying remanufactured (reman) furniture is another viable option for value minded fms and members of the upper management team who, in today’s world, often also have an interest in helping to conserve energy and other resources. Much of the work systems furniture that is remanufactured today was sold new during the 1990s or later and was made by the largest original equipment manufacturers (OEM), such as Haworth, Herman Miller, Knoll, and Steelcase.
Remanufacturing typically begins with the acquisition (often at little or no cost beyond removal) of visibly worn or outdated furniture from various business locations. Pieces that can quickly be sold as used are acquired and resold through dealers who handle such products.
Work stations, panels, and other furniture pieces that are structurally sound but require a complete makeover or significant reconditioning are sold to remanufacturers who operate in strategic locations around the country. Some dealers are small and largely local. But many have regional or national scale and specialize in remanufacturing portions of the furniture lines of one or a few OEM manufacturers.
These remanufacturers may be full service dealers who sell new lines as well as remanufactured products, or they may work through several dealers who have customers interested in remanufactured furniture or blended solutions in an overall office furniture plan.
In remanufacturing, the goal is to return the furniture to its original (or near original) condition with reference to the OEM specifications. Some of the larger OEM furniture manufacturers themselves have relationships with authorized remanufacturers of their products and supply them with OEM replacement components. Independent remanufacturers as a group, however, play the larger role in this market.
The Reman Philosophy
The remanufacturing process begins with an inspection of the furniture to ensure structural integrity and confirm that any damage is superficial or can be addressed fully. The products are then cleaned, disassembled as needed, painted and/or resurfaced, and reassembled with replacement components when necessary.
With increased regulation of VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions, painting operations have become more efficient, and their technology is more sophisticated. The goal is to minimize adverse environmental effects associated with this process.
In some cases, painting operations or entire remanufacturing operations are now outsourced by office furniture dealers to specialists who continue to sell, deliver, and install remanufactured products to commercial, educational, institutional, and government customers. In short, the industry has itself reduced its environmental impact apart from its role in office furniture recycling.
A Regional Preference
High quality remanufactured products succeed best where they fit the mindset of the customer—whether large or small. In areas where environmental sensitivity is particularly high, as in California or Washington State, remanufactured products are gaining much greater acceptance and are in strong demand.
Because remanufactured products are often sourced from local or regional suppliers, this approach can be a big benefit for fms looking to achieve LEED certification. Local sourcing can also translate into faster turnaround on orders.
Additionally, some remanufacturers or their dealers also now offer buy back programs and limited lifetime warranties.
The New Green Wrinkle
Buying new, contrary to the perception that may have been communicated so far in this article, can also be a highly environmentally conscientious choice, but only if fms, as buyers, have done their homework. Dealers increasingly have designers and sales executives who have extensive LEED training in addition to understanding the environmental consequences of the various furniture lines carried by the dealership.
LEED certified professionals can be expert partners to buyers who prefer new product but are focused on purchasing furniture with the lowest environmental impact. In particular, many dealers are equipped to help fms understand the material content and processing methods used in—and the degree of future recyclability of—specific products.
With the option of recycling, refurbishing, or remanufacturing office furniture, along with the improved environmental understanding built into many new products, today’s fms have more options than ever to help lower the environmental footprint of their facilities. Office furniture dealers, manufacturers, and remanufacturers have the knowledge and various resources to help them take advantage of these expanded choices, creating a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Bates (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Alexandria, VA-based Office Furniture Dealers Alliance (OFDA). Thanks to Apex Facility Resources, Seattle, WA; BKM Total Office of Texas, Dallas, TX; Tusa Facility LogisTiX, Carrollton, TX; and Jim Heilborn, Jim Heilborn Associates, Lincoln, CA, for their contributions to this article.