By Julie Gauthier, IIDA, LEED AP
From the June 2018 Issue
Furniture plays a critical role in the workplace, providing employees the functional support to complete tasks comfortably and efficiently. And with new and updated products being introduced consistently to complement the latest workplace trends and practices, the “out with the old and in with the new” adage is justified in order for organization to keep up with competition to attract and retain the best workforce.
The flip side of this begs the question—what do we do with our current office furniture? And this sets in motion a dilemma that few in an organization really contemplate. The burden of what to do with the firm’s existing inventory typically falls to facility management. And while there is nothing “easy” about the task, there is an opportunity to think creatively about how to transition “out of the old and into the new” or, maybe, there is a new life for the old.
The 3D Approach: Decommissioning, Donating, Dismantling. When a company is renovating or relocating office space, it is often implementing workplace changes to inform their business strategy and rendering old furnishings obsolete along with outdated processes. And so the conversation begins about how to offload older products that won’t be utilized in the new office.
Decommissioning, donating, and dismantling for reuse or recycling are the “go to” for many. Some organizations have satellite or secondary locations that can benefit from its use. Newer inventories in large quantity are attractive to resellers. Non-profits are happy to take gently used items. And there are scrap metal dealers who will consider taking older systems furniture in whole to salvage. It is rare that any of these options will make money, and most will require funding from the organization to remove the items.
Reuse & Blending: Good, Better, Best Evaluation. Which pieces are too old, and which pieces are in good enough condition to be reused? What can stay in the front of house, and which items might be used behind the scenes? Are there modifications to existing pieces—reupholstery or reconfiguration that could breathe new life into tired pieces? These are questions that a creative design and facilities team can use to evaluate existing furniture and make room for a blended approach.
An example: McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., a green building and construction firm, selected Perkins+Will, formerly lauckgroup, to design their new office suite in Houston, TX. (The resulting office is shown here.) The client purchased new furniture as part of a previous project that was less than seven years old and in “like new” condition. Furniture reuse was part of the design concept and informed the direction of the office planning and finish selections to work with the existing inventory. We added in new pieces to fill in gaps that the larger space created and would enhance the main entry and meeting spaces, but kept in mind the style, finish, and quality of the existing inventory to maintain the same aesthetic and keep work spaces equitable for staff.
In this project, 99% of the existing furniture inventory was reused and the cost savings allowed the team to reallocate funding to other design elements and features. The project also benefited from early onboarding of the furniture dealer, directing inventory and specifications for the new layouts work with no complications. The project benefitted from an efficient process and thoughtful consideration of furniture reuse and blending.
Non-obsolescence policies that many major manufacturers have been offering for the past 10-20 years on products—especially systems furniture—provide a great framework to consider refurbishing older systems for reuse. If this not considered for the current owner’s organization, then certainly for another end user. The marketplace for refurbished products is robust and offers an alternative for smaller/cost conscious buyers.
Targeted Investment: Health And Wellness. There are furnishings that are more worthwhile financial investments when replaced and more likely to contribute to worker health and productivity. Ergonomic investments—computer monitors, highly adjustable task seating, and sit-to-stand desks—create a flexible environment that supports the human resources of an organization and can rationalize the spend. Considering new products that have non-obsolescence strategies to ensure longer life (e.g., panel systems) and or have considerations for after useful lifespan componentry (e.g., task seating) while still hitting the mark on health and wellness are good ways to think about how furnishings will continue to serve the organization or find an easy recycling route.
Pushing The Envelope: Creating Change Through Challenge. BIFMA, a not-for-profit association for business and institutional furniture manufacturers, forecasts that the growth rate of office furniture sales will be 5.1% and 5.0% in calendar 2017 and 2018¹. When considered with the annual revenue of the commercial furniture industry of $27 billion dollars², it begs a bigger question of how to encourage new product producers to absorb some of the old product and consider how to redirect those parts and pieces.
The commercial carpet industry and ceiling tile manufacturers have stepped up to provide some compelling examples of programs that will take any and all worn, torn, tired product and consider how to dismantle, recycle, and reinvest into new products. While all of these products likely don’t get diverted from landfill, it lessens the burden.
Recognizing that this isn’t the easy road and likely will have associated costs for any manufacturer, it would build a collective clear conscience within the larger marketplace for facilities and design professionals as well as the furniture manufacturers. There is room for more engagement from the folks who know the most about their own products.
The changing office landscape will continue. New technologies and processes will influence the way we work. But smart decisions about furniture can provide long life for new additions and ease older product into fruitful retirement or to be remodeled into new tools yet to be discovered.
¹ Herman Miller Annual Report, 2017
Gauthier is associate principal at the Houston office of Perkins+Will, formerly lauckgroup. Leveraging over 20 years of design experience, her repertoire includes programming, concept design and development, standards establishment, space allocation development, and implementation.
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