Furniture and Finishes

Furniture plays a significant role in green offices and homes. The life-cycle impacts of the materials used in chairs, tables, desks, partitions and similar systems, the source of the wood products and the ecological footprint of fabrics are all considerations in green interior design.

One of the easiest ways in which companies can start on the journey to sustainability is to evaluate their furniture and furnishings purchases and to incorporate such criteria. The LEED for Existing Buildings system explicitly incorporates "environmentally preferable purchasing" policies into the rating system. LEED for New Construction also rewards furniture made from salvaged and reclaimed materials; recycled-content materials, rapidly renewable materials, certified wood products and composite materials that are free of urea-formaldehyde resins. Consider the new Steel-case Think chair, which is up to 99% recyclable by weight. Disassembly for recycling takes about five minutes using common hand tools. The chair has up to 44% recycled content. It holds the "NF Environnement" label in France for environmental quality and is Greenguard Indoor Air Quality certified in the US.

Formaldehyde-free Materials

Urea-formaldehyde (UF) is a suspected human carcinogen.51 When it's present in the air at levels of at least 0.1 parts per million (ppm), acute health effects can occur including watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat; nausea; coughing; chest tightness; wheezing and skin rashes.51 It is also a ubiquitous resin used in most composite wood and agrifiber products, to hold the pieces of wood or particle board together. Trouble is, UF stinks, causes irritations and is almost impossible to get rid of, even after airing it out for a considerable period. If you try to buy any conventional furniture that's not made of solid wood, you'll experience the UF smell. Recently, I made a trip to a very large, well-known international furniture retailer in the Phoenix area and was quite distressed to find almost no wood furniture that didn't smell of UF.

There are substitutes, including phenol-formaldehyde, that emit far less formaldehyde gas. So why don't manufacturers and designers use them? It's almost always related to cost and performance of the resin binder. In a LEED building, there is a credit for the use of composite wood and agricultural fiberboard products, including glulam beams, that don't use UF resins. In commercial buildings, where designers are specifying products that will influence the air quality for others, shouldn't they use furniture and other wood products that are odor-free, without toxic fumes?

The Think chair by Steelcase is the first product to ever receive Cradle-to-Cradle™ Product Certification from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).

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