By Kriss Kokoefer
From the October 2022 Issue
Re-upholstery is a strategy that facilities managers can use to keep their operations fresh, their furniture clean and healthy, and their teams happy. More FMs have learned that taking the long view on furniture lifecycles improves their organization’s financial and sustainability performance, while reducing furniture and natural resource waste.
Furniture Waste Stream At Flood Levels
Re-upholstery—by design, takes contract furniture out of the waste stream. According to the EPA, 9.8 million tons of furniture went into U.S. landfills in 2017—doubling the 1990 volume and five times the 1960 totals.
These challenges are only getting tougher. Even in 2017, $9.9 billion worth of secondhand furniture was sold versus $480 billion of new furniture. Post pandemic, as companies invite, incentivize, or mandate their employees’ return to offices, company management is expected to make those spaces more home-like, cozy, and collaborative with inviting interiors. With this expectation, facilities managers are tested to build, and maintain for the long haul, spaces that meet widely varied needs.
A Strategic Approach To An Extended Furniture Lifecycle
It is not all bad news. Facility execs are turning to furniture renewal, refurbishment, re-upholstery and eventually, recycling for answers. The drumbeat is getting louder. The “re’s” are helping companies reduce waste, reach sustainability goals, respond to staff demands, live up to design expectations all while saving time and money.
Facility execs should consider two upholstered seating sustainability goals: 20% re-upholstered furniture in every move/re-stack and 80% renewed in every refresh. These levels strike a balance between new and sustainable.
Step One: Purchase Specification Expectations
Look at the long-range footprint of every piece. Evaluate recyclability specifications. Some manufacturers are designing 100% recyclable furniture. That’s a start, but look beyond end of life. Can a piece be refreshed—do the fabrics accommodate cleaning? Can it be renewed? Is the piece constructed so it can be dissembled and updated? Find pieces that can live up to these expanded long-term expectations.
Step Two: Regular Customized Cleaning
Fabric cleaning is definitely part of the renewal process, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. With so many variables—location, air quality, wear, fabric, substrate, “a customized furniture portfolio maintenance program with an appropriate cleaning protocol is key to extending textile-covered assets,” says Kay Chesterfield’s IICRC Certified Master in Textile Cleaning Debbie Nakahara. “A cleaning strategy on a consistent schedule will effectively deliver a longer lifespan.”
The question more organizations are asking is “how many lives can a piece of soft seating have?” Diverse companies from Google to Alaska Airlines to Kaiser Permanente are shooting for more than one—making re-upholstery a part of their contract furniture goals. Some have made major commitments.
Re-Upholstery Taking Off At SFO
At San Francisco International Airport (SFO), re-upholstery is built into the furniture purchase and maintenance processes. According to SFO’s Architectural Assistant Diana Tsui, in charge of furniture maintenance in the massive international airport, “We always look at cleaning and re-upholstery potential in our furniture purchases. The fabrics and textiles we use must stand up to rigorous wear and cleaning, and the lounge chairs and food court seating areas must be able to be re-upholstered before we consider a purchase. As long as the physical structure of a piece is sound, we will always re-upholster before we replace.”
SFO re-upholsters approximately 150 pieces in a year, with recommendations based on the exacting feedback from the airport’s maintenance teams. Pieces include Arne Jacobsen’s Egg and Swan chairs, banquettes, and lounge seating. Tsui says the likelihood of increased re-upholstery numbers is expected now with travel being back at full strength.
Re-Upholstery At UCSF Medical Center
Three years after the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay opened its doors, its furniture was worn. “There were rips and tears—and fabrics were awful,” says Brian Hassett, the Center’s furniture renewal lead. “The wear impacted not only high-traffic areas like lobbies and cafeterias, but staff areas like breakrooms. It was surprising how fast things got bad. I cringed. I knew how much could end up in landfills. I really hated it.”
Instead, Hassett led a one-for-one cost audit on re-upholstery vs. replacement. He found re-upholstery would be less expensive than new replacements without even considering the costs of waste disposal and impact on natural resources. “Not only was it cheaper and better for sustainability issues, but the re-upholstery process had a shorter turnaround time than ordering new.”
Access More Helpful Renewal Resources
FM’s no longer have to take all of this on alone. There are a variety of new expert resources which can help achieve improved furniture longevity goals.
A strong dealership understands how furniture fits into a client’s entire business enterprise. “Dealerships can deftly evaluate and project manage re-use requests using trusted local and national resources,” says Kalee Woo, principal on the leadership team in the San Francisco office of RDI, Resource Design Interiors. “Our industry is here to support clients’ sustainability goals which have become so important them.”
Architecture and engineering organizations such as HDR Architecture, Inc., also have a lot of experience with specifying textiles, familiarity with client’s cleaning protocols and understanding the nuances of the sustainable attributes of the furniture manufacturing industry. HDR’s Sustainable Principal, Jean Hansen, who has added experience as a medical facility planner and in deep green materials research, noted it is critical when specifying furniture to identify models that can be re-upholstered to extend a portfolio’s life cycle and to keep furniture out of landfill unnecessarily. HDR designers also consider furniture styles that can be re-upholstered on site so there is less disruption and expenses for their clients.
Finally, independent sustainability consultants are deeply engaged in helping owners and FMs make decisions on builds and refreshes that deliver benefits in the short and long term.
Katie Bowman, owner of Acta Non Verba, an independent sustainability consultancy in San Francisco says, “Furniture renewal and re-upholstery are accessible ways to improve properties while making a positive impact on the world around us. A refresh is a great opportunity to push for quality not quantity. If you start out with good quality pieces, with an expectation for re-upholstery/refinishing, the payout delivers not only great long-term cost management, but is smart about energy, materials, shipping, landfill. It may even help as government regulation evolves to set up mandates for these kinds of measures.”
In the end it is all about doing the right thing—for the company, its staff, for the investment in renewable furniture lifecycles and in the benefits that facility execs can deliver to the planet. Keep those 20% re-stack and 80% refresh goals in mind and think long-term. Make disposal the job for your successors’ successor.
Out With The Old, In With The Re-New
Compiled by Facility Executive
Back in 2018, Plymouth Rock Assurance was looking for new furniture for its six-floor, Woodbridge, NJ facility as part of a multi-million dollar project.
The auto and home insurance provider had four furniture dealers involved in a bidding process. “We had them set up demos on a floor in our Red Bank, NJ office, and then our directors graded the furniture set ups they liked the best and why,” says Jack Paul, Director of Facilities, Administration, Business Continuity for Plymouth Rock Management Company of New Jersey.
The test was blind, and the directors ultimately liked the one—over large furniture dealers—that was remanufactured. When compared to the other options, the cost, the firmness, the quality, and the look was what attracted the company to the remanufactured furniture from Davies Office.
This project was not the first, and not the last time, Plymouth Rock has worked with the remanufacturing company, according to Tracy Taylor, Supervisor, Facilities and Administration Plymouth Rock Management Company of New Jersey—they’ve been working together since the early 2000s. By using remanufactured office furniture, Plymouth Rock is able to shed its old, used products, and earn credits to receive brand new items that have been re-made from raw materials through Davies’ Sustainable Exchange program.
“We like the idea that we’re not filling landfills, because there’s always a sense of environmental concern,” says Paul. “We liked it for other reasons, and that’s just icing on the cake.”
Remanufactured office furniture, used office furniture, and furniture retrofits all help support a circular economy and decrease landfill use. As a result of the pandemic, there’s also a lot of furniture in circulation that’s not in use—that could be remanufactured. “One thing we’ve seen in the past few years is that there is a lot of excessive office furniture in the system and no one has a good solution for how to deal with it,” says Bill Davies, President of Davies Office.
With an increasing focus on how the built environment can commit to being more sustainable, investing in re-made products is a simple and easy solution that enables a company to make the most of their existing resources to work toward LEED projects—and the process conserves millions of pounds of raw materials.
“Because of ESG and embodied carbon goals, people are seeking [remanufactured products with] third-party validated metrics,” says Bill Davies, President of Davies Office. “People are recognizing we can’t just throw our furniture away in the landfill anymore.”
Kokoefer is president and owner of Kay Chesterfield, Inc., a 100-year-old commercial re-upholstery company in Oakland, CA. It is a woman-owned business and a Certified B Corporation, working toward a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high-quality jobs with dignity and purpose. Kokoefer is a member of the National Association of Upholsterers and recently received the International Interior Design Association Northern California Chapter’s Distinguished Achievement Award for her commitment to sustainability in workplace design.
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