Easy Chairs

Sept. 7, 2001
Get in the comfort zone with these tips on seating

When discussing how seating choices change with age, Alan Hedge, an ergonomics specialist at Cornell University, says jokingly, "A healthy 20-year-old could sit on a block of concrete and be fine." Concrete blocks, however, are not appropriate for the majority of end-users. To help facilities professionals choose proper seating, BI interviewed ergonomic research experts and design professionals to develop a list of criteria questions. Their practical advice will help you get the perfect fit for your workplace needs.

Expert Advice

"The word ergonomics is used to describe a multitude of chairs, some of which are patently not ergonomically designed," says Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Sometimes distinguishing between health and hype is challenging. Niels Diffrient, a Ridgefield, CT-based industrial designer, encourages facilities professionals to rely on advice from ergonomic experts.

What are the two most common pitfalls for facilities professionals in seating selection? According to Diffrient, they are:

• Choosing chairs after testing them for a few minutes.
• Being too swayed by appearance.

"That's not to say there aren't well-functioning products that look good. It's just that aesthetics shouldn't be the sole criterion," says Diffrient.

Looks aside, education is key. Hedge believes a chair's chief requirements are:

• Dynamic movement, allowing the sitter to recline slightly.
• Adequate support from the lower back to at least the shoulder blades.
• Whether end-users can adjust a chair's back height while seated.

Other important considerations are avoiding any compression of the back of the knees, and comfortable support for the pelvis.
To achieve these ergonomic aims and others, a chair must be well-designed and its controls must be intuitive and accessible. "My objective is that a person should use a chair; it should do a good job for them; and they should never have to think about it," says Different.

Designers' Angle

In recent years, chairs have taken center stage with bold design. "Aesthetically, seating … is not embarrassed to be stronger visually, to be more extreme," says Leo Welter, seating project manager in the Chicago office of KI. Another design trend is that the feature set from most seating manufacturers is comparable. Seating has also become easier to move and manipulate to suit the needs of facilities professionals.

But what ranks as the No. 1 concern of facilities managers? "Price does not rank near the top. What comes across consistently is durability and comfort," says Welter. Increasingly, facilities professionals want a single type of chair to fit a wide variety of end-users. He adds, "Basically, to have one chair be everything to everybody has been the challenge of the industry for the last five years."

The two defining trends of the next five years, according to Suzanne Lovell, principal of Chicago-based Lovell Fridstein Limited, will be timeless design and the importance of privacy. "The concept of having one's own space is becoming increasingly important. It's the way we live with our laptops: Whether we're on an airplane or in a conference room, we are in our own little world," she says. Lovell states that sensitivity to privacy will be especially prevalent in healthcare facilities.

In healthcare and hospitality spaces, Kimberley Christman, president at AGI, Chicago, sees a move towards more residential-inspired interior products. "I see healthcare pieces you could take to your home. It represents the humanization of the business environment," she says. More lounge seating will have modem and electric outlets so that waiting rooms can be working rooms.

Educational seating has generally not been very dynamic in terms of seating. Those hard little grammar school chairs may be here to stay; however, the future of corporate and government training areas is flexible mini-workstation chairs. "Facilities managers want the training environment to be more multi-purpose, more fluid," says Welter.

Regina Raiford ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings and BI magazines.

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