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The perfect specification for all environments
Furniture is a deceptively complex product to specify. The term ‘furniture’ describes a multitude of products; from upholstered seating through to work stations, screens, school desks, chairs and hospital beds. Different to furniture for domestic use, the public sector requires furniture that has been assessed and tested for non-domestic or contract use. Each item has its own applicable performance and safety standards as well as other factors that need to be considered when specifying furniture; from the suitability of the supplier to the environmental credentials of the product. This complexity can generate plenty of opportunity for specifiers and manufacturers alike to get things wrong.
There is also a great variation in the type of furniture required in the public sector; from office seating and desks, to kitchens for housing association and council housing. To ensure that the products you specify are suitable for the intended use, it is important that the correct factors are considered at the tendering stage and included in the final specification for potential suppliers.
What to look for when specifying furniture
Furniture needs to be safe in use, capable of delivering desired performance levels and as environmentally friendly as possible. Whilst applicable British, European and International standards form the core of specifications, other factors are equally important. This includes safety and performance; fire safety; ergonomics and sustainable manufacturing.
The Furniture Industry Research Association’s (FIRA) National Furniture Specifications is a freely available online tool, created to address the complexities of the procurement process. Its website offers essential guidance on the above factors and also incorporates a tool for creating specifications.
Standards exist for most types of furniture but there are also standards for most constituent parts. Specifiers often fall into the trap of over specifying these elements which has the potential for restricting design and innovation, introducing superfluous, and often incorrect, requirements and increasing cost. The recommendation is to address the basic requirements such as strength, safety, stability and durability of the whole item.
Specifications must reflect the location and intended use of an item of furniture. For example there are many applicable standards for seating, reflecting different uses - such as office task chairs (eight hour use); office task chairs (24 hour/heavy duty); office visitor chairs; general non-domestic chairs (light, general or severe use, covering everything from church halls to airports); chairs for outdoors; and auditorium seating (light, general, heavy or severe use).
Numerous standards cover the structural performance of other items such as desks, tables, storage and beds. Selecting the correct standard, by using tools such as National Furniture Specifications, is critical. The intended use of furniture will impact on its specification. However, it is important not to under or over-specify, as best value is the linchpin of any project. Under-specifying causes premature failures and associated replacement costs, whereas over-specifying increases the cost of items which may prove too robust for their intended use.
Durability also extends to textiles and foams. Unsuitable fabrics can fade or wear prematurely and inadequate foams could break down in use. Fabrics in upholstery should meet the appropriate classification within ‘BS 2543: 2004 Upholstery fabrics for end use applications - Classification to general contract or higher rating’. This ‘catch all’ standard denotes physical performance requirements for fabrics. Leather is a whole new ball game and requires its own special considerations.
Foam should conform to ‘BS 3379: 2005 +A1:2011 Combustion modified flexible polyurethane cellular materials for load bearing applications – Specification’ which defines ratings for different end uses. It is recommended that glass be toughened or tempered, and meet the requirements of the fragmentation test within ‘BS EN 12150-1: 2000 Glass in Building. Thermally toughened soda lime silicate safety glass. Definition and description’ thus ensuring that a piece of glass that breaks in service will shatter into small fragments rather than potentially lethal long, sharp shards.
Furniture for use in a domestic setting must legally comply with the ‘Furniture & Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations’. Whilst there are also fire safety requirements in the contract and non-domestic sectors, these are dealt with differently. The ‘Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005’ places a legal responsibility on the owner/user of the building to undertake a fire risk assessment covering issues such as fire escapes, fire doors and fire extinguishers/sprinkler systems; but also the building’s contents, of which furniture is one.
As such it is essential that calls for tenders make the required level of fire resistance clear. British Standards will help define appropriate safety levels and a comprehensive guide is freely available from the FIRA website. Fire resistance of upholstery is covered within ‘BS 7176: 2007+A1: 2011 Specification for resistance to ignition of upholstered furniture for non-domestic seating by testing composites’. It states that all fillings used in furniture must be suitably fire retardant, and stipulates fire resistance requirements for the furniture composite (i.e. the fabrics, foams and other materials that make up an item) based on different hazard levels.
Mattress fire resistance is dealt with similarly in ‘BS 7177: 2008 + A1:2011 Specification for resistance to ignition of mattresses, mattress pads, divans and bed bases’. However, end use hazard categories differ slightly to those for upholstery.
Ergonomics deals with the interaction of technological and work situations with people. Interactions with furniture should be harmonious and reduce user stress. People generally adapt to unsuitable conditions, but such adaptation often leads to inefficiency, errors, unacceptable stress, and physical or mental cost. Designing equipment and work arrangements to improve posture and ease the load on the body reduces instances of factors such repetitive strain injury/work related upper limb disorder which, if unchecked, can result in costly litigation.
Good ergonomic design considers factors such as: matching furniture size and function with users’ needs; safety, ease and comfort; ensuring unimpeded interaction between users and equipment (including furniture); time spent in the workplace; the ability to operate furniture easily; potential misuse; design to accommodate intended IT or other devices in a safe manner; and the ability to adopt a range of comfortable dynamic postures without being restricted by the furniture.
In offices ergonomics is effectively enshrined in law via the ‘Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (amended by the Health and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002)’. To reduce health and safety issues all equipment at a VDU workstation should comply with ‘BS EN ISO 9241-5: 1999 Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDTs). Workstation layout and postural requirements.’
Other dimensional standards, applicable to desks, tables, chairs and screens, are covered within BS EN 527-1, BS EN 1335-1 and BS EN 1023 -1. In non-office environments there are fewer standards. However, good ergonomic design will have many benefits, from improved comfort to increased efficiency.
Where applicable, furniture must accommodate disabled people (The Equality Act 2010) with considerations such as lower reception counters for wheelchairs and desks that allow wheel chair users to sit and work.
The profile of sustainability and environmental criteria within specifications is rapidly increasing. Whilst this is to be applauded, it is also the source of greatest confusion amongst specifiers and manufacturers. The validity of sustainability credentials is often difficult to assess as much of the requested evidence is self-declared, the result being that good intentions enshrined within many specifications are rarely backed up by rigorous assessments of tenders.
When supplying furniture to central government and their related organisations, there is an obligation to meet the Government Buying Standard for furniture. This is based on the European Green Procurement Plan (GPP) which is a process for public authorities to seek to procure goods, services and works with a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle.
The core criteria includes: timber from sustainably managed and legal forests; limiting organic solvent content emissions; use of materials made partly or totally from recycled and/or renewable materials; avoiding designated hazardous substances; ensuring the recyclability and separability of packaging materials and furniture parts; and durable, fit for use, ergonomic, easy to disassemble, repairable and recyclable furniture.
When choosing a supplier to work with, it is essential to ensure that they adhere to all relevant environmental regulations such as the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005. Other EU legislation such as the EU Timber Regulations that came into effect in 2013 also make it paramount for specifiers to ensure that any timber and paper products that they and their supplier procure are from well-managed sources.
A supplier should have a suitable environmental policy statement for its business that is endorsed by the supplier’s senior management. Additional confidence can be gained by selecting a supplier who has an effective Environmental Management System, such as ISO 14001. Within the UK, the Furniture Industry Sustainability Programme (FISP) aims to address inconsistencies surrounding sustainability claims through third party assessment of an organisation’s commitment to sustainable development.
All organisations must have a documented Environmental Policy and comply with applicable health and safety, environmental and other relevant company legislation. In addition, companies have to demonstrate how they implement and continually improve management programmes and strategies to mitigate significant environmental impacts with at least six of the following areas: Environmental Management Systems (EMS); Waste; Energy; Packaging; Transport; Procurement; Sustainable timber; Air and water; End of life.
Corporate Social Responsibility
FISP also addresses Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with companies required to address at least three of the following: Nuisance management; Community relations and charity work; Education and training; Employment; Ethical issues; and Competitiveness. FISP benefits from having engaged with furniture manufactures. It ensures a level playing field in terms of environmental and sustainability claims thus making it easier for specifiers to assess tender documentation.
The wide array of furniture forms and functions tends to render specification more complex than initially envisaged. This article cannot claim to address all aspects of furniture procurement for the public sector. However, whilst it may reinforce some of the complexities, it also signposts solutions to performance, fire safety and sustainability criteria through National Furniture Specifications, the Guide to Fire Safety of Furniture and Furnishings in the contract sector and FISP.