Green Wood for Residence Hall Furniture

Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. recently commissioned a new residence hall and named it EcoDorm, because the design focuses on environmental goals including the use of renewable materials.

Indeed, environmental considerations have begun to drive many decisions made by colleges and universities about their residence halls.“I think sustainable design is a trend for colleges and universities, generally,” says Duncan McPherson, a designer with Samsel Architects, PA, the Asheville-based architectural firm that designed the EcoDorm.“Colleges tend to be on the forefront of new ideas and I would definitely say that environmental issues are important in residence hall design today.”

Upon completing the design of the EcoDorm, Samsel recommended environmentally friendly wood furniture that would complement the building concept. Wood furnishings are often favored for residence halls because of the warm and durable qualities of wood. Wood furnishings can also provide the environmental benefits of a renewable material. Before making specific recommendations about furniture manufacturers, however, Samsel investigated how different manufacturers handle a number of environmental issues. “We learned that there are different shades of green,” quips McPherson.

Many manufacturers contend that they use woods from managed forests, and that may or may not be true. According to McPherson, it is important to seek some form of third-party certification confirming such claims. Two organizations are widely acknowledged as offering objective third party certifications: The Forest Stewardship Council, with U.S. offices in Washington, D.C., and Scientific Certification Systems of Emeryville, Calif. “Both certify how trees are harvested and cut, while looking at other issues such as run off and habitat destruction,” McPherson says.

Barry Swanquist, vice president of Marketing for Education with KI of Green Bay, Wis., agrees that sustainable residence hall furniture appears to be a trend in the making. “It is a topic that interests many colleges,” he says. “But administrators are still feeling their way through the issues.”

Take cost, for example. Swanquist believes that first costs will sometimes discourage administrators from fulfilling the goal of using sustainable residence hall furniture. Sustainable solid wood furniture usually costs more than furniture made of particle board, which can contain environmental hazards related to formaldehyde-based glues and finishes.

Then again, an evaluation of total life cycle costs for solid wood furniture often favors an environmentally sound decision. “I think if you look to the long term, you will find that sustainable furniture not only preserves environmental resources, it also saves financial resources,” he says. “First of all, solid wood furniture tends to last longer. Warranties on our solid wood products last for 15 years, compared to two- to five-year warranties offered by manufacturers using particle board.”

Choices among wood species also affect cost. Favored woods such as maple, oak, cherry and other North American hardwoods take many decades to grow and in most cases aren’t farmed. Hence they carry higher costs.

But some nontraditional hardwoods are beginning to be farmed. KI, for example, recently introduced Sustain™ Residence Hall Furniture, a line that blends sustainability, durability and affordability with the use of eco-friendly rubber wood farmed in Thailand. According to Swanquist, KI has obtained a letter from the government of Thailand certifying that rubber wood bought for the Sustain line comes only from farmed woodlands.

Rubber trees typically mature in 25 years with trunk circumferences ranging from 12 to 24-in. While growing to maturity, they produce latex for rubber manufacturing. Historically, rubber trees have been cut down and burned after 25 to 30 years, a process that creates atmospheric emissions. “Burning rubber wood smells like burning tires,” Swanquist says. “By logging the trees, manufacturers like KI can make furniture out of them.”

The Sustain line features solid wood desks, beds, chairs, dressers and accents as well as loveseats and coffee tables used in common areas. According to Swanquist, rubber wood makes furniture that is similar in appearance, strength and hardness to oak. KI’s Sustain furniture comes in three finish colors and four chair fabrics all of which are made to eliminate off-gassing issues. The clear-coat finish on the furniture, for example, has been ultra violet cured to eliminate emissions of volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

In terms of cost, Swanquist estimates that comparable furniture made from oak or maple would cost 10 to 15 percent more than the rubber wood products.

Early interest in the Sustain line also adds to the suspicion that sustainable furniture may be a rising trend in college and university residence halls. According to Swanquist, the line has only been on the market since the middle of June, not long enough to build a sales record. Nevertheless, the company received between 60 and 70 requests for bids within three months of the line’s introduction. The company’s most popular furniture lines currently receive about 75 requests for bids every quarter.