Design for Life

Can a chair look good, feel good and be good for the environment too? Yes, it can. Haworth’s ZodyTM task chair has been honored for outstanding design, endorsed by the American Physical Therapy Association, and awarded MBDC’s first Gold Cradle to CradleTM certification, among other accolades.

When it comes to designing eco-friendly office chairs, Haworth, the world’s fourth largest manufacturer of office furniture, hasn’t been idly sitting around. It has factored sustainability into every step of the process.

“Good design never separates the item and its function from its materials and processes,” says Mark Bonnema, Haworth senior design for environment engineer. “There are always performance, aesthetic, cost and structural requirements. Environmental considerations are one more layer.”

That “layer” was foremost in the development of the award-winning Zody task chair, jointly created by ITO Design in Germany and the Haworth Design Studio, led by Michael Welsh. Collaborating with Haworth engineers, they combined science and design to arrive at a best-in-class sustainable chair that is made of 51% recycled materials and is 98% recyclable at the end of its life span.

Achieving these impressive results demanded a complex analytical process, because what may be safe structurally to the chair’s user may be harmful ecologically. Bonnema explains, “Products can be made from any number of materials and components, each of which has a broad set of environmental impacts over its life cycle, starting with the extraction of raw materials from the ground to how the product is disposed of at the end. Some materials or designs may provide a reduction in one or more impact area, but increase impact in another.”

The Zody chair team used a method called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to assess all of the inputs and outputs in the product’s life cycle. Each material was examined to a minute level and rated according to environmental safety. The team then categorized, sorted and added up the total impact to arrive at a single number that represented how much the environment would be affected by the manufacture, use and disposal of the product. The score allowed them to make broad comparisons of the environmental impact of one product design over another. It also enabled them to evaluate tradeoffs and compromises to achieve the best results possible.

“Everything that had an acutely negative effect on human and environmental health was designed out of the product,” says Bonnema. That included carcinogens, sensitizers, chemicals that damaged DNA or disrupted the endocrine or reproductive systems, and a whole category of chemicals known as “persistent.” Persistent chemicals are those that do not break down through natural processes. They can leach out of landfills and escape from incinerators, eventually accumulating in the food chain. Mercury, used in the making of everything from televisions to medical devices, is one example. PBDE, a notorious fire retardant, is another. PBDE is now showing up in the fatty tissue of fish and found in increasing concentrations in humans.

Bonnema cited PBDE, PVC, CFC, heavy metals and the hexavalent chromium used in the chrome plating process as ingredients designed out of the Zody chair. Instead, the Zody team relied on materials vetted by the MBDC Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol and fully assessed down to the 100 parts per million level as safe for human and ecological health. Developed by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, the Cradle to Cradle principle argues that all things should be made completely recyclable or completely biodegradable to ensure zero impact on the earth.

In place of chrome, Haworth designers and engineers opted to use polished aluminum for a number of parts of the Zody chair. “Aluminum not only offered the flexibility, strength and appearance we sought,” says Bonnema, “it can be recycled indefinitely without significant degradation of properties.” He adds that recycled aluminum only takes 3%-5% of the energy that is needed to make aluminum from raw materials and is readily available.

Other components such as color dyes were chemically adjusted to protect the biosphere. PVC, a low-cost but highly controversial antimicrobial plastic used on chair arms, was replaced by polypropylene and thermoplastic urethane. A glass-filled nylon, made with 67% pre-consumer recycled content, primarily scrap from carpet manufacturing, was used on 31 parts, most visibly in the adjustable arm column and lumbar adjustment shaft. Powder coatings for metal were substituted for solvent-based paints. Heavy metal antimony, used to treat polyester for mesh seats and backs, was eliminated. Rapidly renewable materials such as cotton and wool were offered as seat fabric choices.

“Material chemistry analysis at the start of the project means that if the product ends up in landfill, safety concerns are virtually eliminated,” says Bonnema.

Haworth hopes that its products will avoid landfills completely and not even need to be recycled for a long time. Zody, for instance, is designed to withstand 12 years of round-the-clock use. At the end of the chair’s useful life, Haworth has established a take-back program to ensure that valuable materials can be reclaimed and reused. Its recycling center in Michigan has been operating for more than a decade and has taken in over 150,000 tons of waste related to all of its products. To make it easier to reclaim recyclable parts, Haworth designed Zody so that it can be disassembled in about 15 minutes using simple hand tools.

Beyond recycling, Haworth is dedicated to reducing its carbon footprint. The Zody assembly plant in Allegan, Michigan, uses 100% Green-e wind power. This renewable energy for manufacturing has been shown to prevent the emission of 1,423,000 pounds of carbon dioxide in the first two years-the equivalent of taking 124 cars off the road.

Also, although a relatively small user of municipal water, Haworth is working to eliminate the phosphate wash system used in its Allegan plant to mitigate the amount of treatment that its process water needs before being returned to the municipal system.

While Haworth has made operational changes and adopted tradeoffs in materials for the sake of the environment, it has not compromised on the aesthetics and functionality of its products. In aiming to create a high-performance chair, Zody designers and engineers conducted a joint study with the Human Performance Institute of Western Michigan University to identify the best way to protect the lower back. Based on the study, they developed a revolutionary ergonomic feature, called PALTM, that combines strong back support and passive pelvic support.

The asymmetrical lumbar support system allows the user to increase support to either side of the lower back independently, depending on personal preference. Zody is the only task chair in the market that provides asymmetrical lumbar support without forward displacement.

Additionally, to address differences in user body measurements (height, weight, hip breadth, etc.), Zody features four-way adjustable arms, a sliding seat, and a balanced three-point tilt mechanism-an overall range of adjustments designed to accommodate the body types of 95% of the world’s population in a single chair. It also offers a gel seat option that reduces pressure on the user’s lower hip area as well as lower back muscle activity. Zody is the first task chair endorsed by the American Physical Therapy Association.

This attention to ergonomics and sustainability has not hurt Zody’s aesthetic appeal at all. In fact, Zody has garnered a number of prestigious design awards, including honors from IDEA and NeoCon.

“It has become clearer that good products and green design go hand-in-hand,” says Bonnema. “As we design greener products, we find people like them better. Our market, primarily Fortune 1000 companies, also is going through a transformation and they want to know how green we are. It used to be that moving toward sustainability was an option if the company wanted to do the right thing. It is rapidly not an option anymore. You need to fully embrace sustainability. Companies that are sitting and waiting are going to be left behind. No question about that.”