Sustainable Buildings Toolkit:
Auditorium Seating Replacement

As the built environment contributes to almost 40% of the UK’s total CO2 footprint, our industry must collectively work towards reducing our impact on the environment. Narrowing this down, over a building’s life cycle, furniture is responsible for 30% of the CO2 emissions.

Sustainable management of seating and seating replacement means considering the whole lifecycle of the product. Each section of the product lifecycle may have a knock-on effect on the next.

 

  1. Product design
  2. Procurement
  3. Manufacturing
  4. Delivery
  5. Use & longevity
  6. End-of-life

Product design stage

The product design stage provides a range of opportunities to improve the sustainability of the seating. The seating’s ‘end-of-life’ should be considered from the get-go, not as an afterthought. The next steps should detail why this is important.

Utilising design software functions

Firstly, as mentioned in Sustainable Productions Toolkit 10, utilising Solidworks and other CAD software can help assist with the sustainability analysis of a product, as most product design CAD software has a built-in report tool. The material properties can be stored within the CAD model and used to evaluate the makeup of the seating.

Ask your seating manufacturer to utilise this software early on, to enable you to compare design and material options and create a design with less environmental impact. The things to consider:

  • Recycled content of input materials
  • Recyclability of input materials
  • Weight of materials which can reduce transportation carbon emissions
  • CO2 emissions of input materials i.e., Recycled steel over Virgin steel

The data can then be used to calculate the percentage of the entire product (e.g., by mass or volume) which is recycled or recyclable.

Tip: Discuss the machining methods and material sizes used by your seating manufacturer (sheet sizes etc.) CAD and other CNC software can assist in calculating how the material is used. The form of the seating can be optimised to increase parts per sheet and decrease the total amount of material and processes used during the manufacturing stage.

When choosing the components within your seating with the above in mind, also consider the longevity of the material type and the repairability as detailed in full below. In addition, consider the whole seating layout design, to ensure you are thinking holistically about the space.

Longevity

Consider the lifespan of the chairs and whether their ability to be repaired and refurbished could extend this lifespan. For example, the chair frame (if made from a durable material such as steel) could last 30 years, whereas the seat and back, typically made of less durable materials, are more likely have a lifespan of 10-15 years. If these parts can be repaired and refurbished, the life of the chair can be extended.

By considering the design and durability of each individual seating components, the need for refurbishment can be reduced. For example, consider where the key wearing points of the seating are and how these areas can be reinforced (as explained below). Also, when planning the spares package, be aware that these quick-to-wear parts should be included to ensure you are able to repair more simple components. The key spare chair components advised would be:

  • Armrests
  • End of row panels
  • Back upholstery
  • Seat upholstery

Quantities would be dependent on the seating layout and frequency of use; and would be in addition to spare fixings, signage, materials, touch up paint etc.

Upholstery

Seating upholstery is the first area to show wear and tear as the fabric is the least durable of the materials and is used in areas of the chair with the most contact and abrasion.

When developing the design of your seating, softer edges and corners are more forgiving and will wear slower than sharp edges, especially when the fabric and foam is pulled tight.

Material choice can also assist in improving the durability – and therefore lifespan – of the chair. Typically, leather is used due to its durability. Today there is the debate about the sustainability of leather due to its resource intensive production. Consider the material, the CO2 footprint of fabrics, the durability and the end-of-life disposal of each material to find which is most suitable and sustainable for use. On the corners of seating, consider a hardwearing fabric to stop it wearing as quickly. If leather is considered the most appropriate fabric due to it being in a high contact area, could you consider panels of leather, whilst upholstering the rest of the seat in a different fabric to reduce the amount you need?

Upholstery Key Wear Areas:

  • Armrests (if upholstered)
  • Front edge and corners of seat
  • Top edge and corners of backrest

Stained & veneered timbers

Following the upholstery, the next most common area to need replacing are stained or painted timber components. Armrests or handholds, where the user is commonly making contact with the seating, will show wear in the form of fading, scratches or dents in the stain or paintwork.

These parts can be replaced over time, however they still tend to have a longer lifespan than an upholstered alternative. To improve the lifespan further, a solid wood armrest which has only an oil or clear lacquer finish will visually appear newer for longer and can easily be touched up. Unstained solid wood arms may be more costly but will not show wear in the same way stained or painted timber would.

Timber Key Wear Areas:

  • Armrests (if stained)
  • Top edge and corners of backrest – especially with an upstand (if stained)

Painted metalwork

The metal framework of the seating is the most durable component, and will last longest if made from powder-coated steel or similar.

The plastic powder coating is a protective coating that is resistant to scratches and scrapes and so the metalwork can last for years; and as long as it is kept clean it will likely only need the paintwork touched up. These elements will therefore dictate the total possible lifespan of the furniture.

Metal frame Key Wear Areas:

  • Baseplates
  • Front edge of frame
  • Areas that are damaged during storage and transportation(removable chairs)

Tip: Discuss with your furniture manufacturer which of their product ranges have a longer lifespan, as well as the lifespan variations between ranges to understand the optimum design.

Reusing design – refurbishment of Seats

Relating to Sustainable Productions Toolkit 12, if you are planning on renovating an existing theatre, consider the option of refurbishing your seating rather than replacing it. A new fabric/finish can often have the same impact on the space as completely replacing the seating.

To do this, request a survey of the existing seating from your supplier to determine which parts can be reused in the refurbishment. Often the framework of the seating is still fit for purpose, while the upholstery and wood finishes are more susceptible to wear and tear and will be the areas needing attention.

As previously mentioned, if the end-of-life is considered at the start of design; products will be designed for disassembly to aid separation to either be disposed of responsibly or remanufactured.

How can the seating be disassembled?

Designing a product that can be disassembled (as mentioned in Sustainable Productions Toolkits 13 & 14) links back to the possibility of future refurbishment. It takes into consideration the entire product lifecycle and can be beneficial for cost, transportation, and the environment.

In practice:

    • Reduced/No adhesives
      • Ask your seating manufacturer about their upholstery methods, some adhesives may be necessary to hold the foam in place, however there are ways to reduce or minimise adhesives in the upholstery process.
      • Opt for non-adhesive fixings when choosing the signage, options such as woodscrews and magnets are preferable over glues or tape, this reduces the use of single use products in the short term and allows the signage to be replaced independently of other areas of the furniture.
    • Maintenance
      • Seating that can be disassembled allows for the furniture to be maintained more easily – this may be a refurbishment further down the line or day-to-day internal maintenance. Taking care of the seating and replacing only the worn parts will mean that you can extend the furniture’s lifespan and prevent it from going to waste for longer.
      • Request a spares package to be supplied as part of the seating order. Having spare parts for the seating when ordering furniture not only enables quicker and easier maintenance, but also means that the materials, processes and transportation is included in the main order and therefore has a lower environmental impact
      • If a self-tipping seat is required, explore the mechanism options with your seating manufacturer to ensure that the mechanism is serviceable and/or has a long-life span as moving parts will wear out quicker than the rest of the seating.
    • Delivery
      • A product that can be easily disassembled allows the packaging to be more compact and can thereby reduce the environmental impact of delivery by reducing the number of journeys required.

Seating Layout Design

Design of the seating is directly related to the layout of the seating. Discuss with your seating manufacturer how your layout proposal affects the form and make up of the chair, which in turn could help you maximise the sustainability of the theatre.

    • Consider a holistic view while designing the seating layout. A multifunctional space can increase the usability of the theatre and reduce the need for a complete renovation or alternations over the following years. Removable and reconfigurable seating is available and can be designed to work with the space available in the theatre. This would thereby reduce the amount of redundant furniture and space.
    • When designing the space, work with your seating manufacturer to increase modularity and common parts throughout the theatre. The reduction in complexity and parts reduces the materials and manufacturing processes, resulting in lower energy demands.
    • Repurposing seating
      • If refurbishment is not an option, can the existing seating be reused or repurposed for other areas in the theatre? The repurposing of the furniture increases the product life span and redirects potential waste; as explained in section 6 of the life cycle approach.

Procurement

Material hierarchy

As detailed on page 14 of the Green Book Volume One:

With all materials, you should insist on material transparency, knowing where components and the raw materials have come from, beyond just your supplier. Materials have a carbon cost from manufacture and travel. Sourcing locally can significantly reduce this. Thoroughly research the company you are buying from and the efforts they are making to reduce their carbon footprint.

Reuse

As previously mentioned, when reseating a theatre, have a conversation with your seating manufacturer about refurbishment and reuse of existing parts. Whilst foam and fabric wear down, the wooden seat pad and metal frame may still be in good condition. Many seating manufacturers offer refurbishment as a service.

Recycle

If seating has reached its end-of-life, or refurbishment isn’t an option, consider how to incorporate recycled materials into the product. Ask manufacturers to use recycled metals and recycled plastics where possible.

Reduce

Depending on the material type, if recycled content is not an option, consider sustainable materials (referring to Sustainable Productions Toolkit 15) e.g., FSC sourced wood, local materials, etc to reduce the CO2 footprint. Specify for water-based glues and varnishes rather than solvent based. Consider the sustainability angle of your project, and choose fabric accordingly.

Use of plastics / foams

Polyurethane foam is still heavily relied on within the industry due to the comfort and quality of the material. Due to the longevity of the material, the expected lifespan of theatre seating, fire regulations and testing requirements, it may still be the most appropriate material, with few adequate sustaijable materials on the market so far. It’s therefore important to reduce the amount of foam used in the product wherever possible.

The inclusions of plastics in the design of the furniture can be reduced by using thinner foam profiles where possible and focusing more on the form of the seat. As well as the use of plastic being reduced by less foam, there are also further benefits to this design decision: A thinner foam profile means that the foam will compress less over time and so will stop the fabric from sagging as much over time. Form over foam is also often preferable from an ergonomic standpoint as it provides more support to the user.

Some areas of the furniture, such as armrests and end panels could be made from timber to avoid the use of foam, which also may increase the lifespan of these components.

Fabric

Choosing a fabric isn’t simple, and fabric sustainability can be a complex issue, encompassing durability, embodied carbon in manufacture, and travel. It is important to consider the durability of fabrics:

  • Wools: Natural, less durable – however if the product is designed for disassembly and refurbishment is available, this option may be preferable for seating that is expected to be replaced more frequently.
  • Polyesters: More durable. Where possible, choose 100% post-consumer recycled polyester fabric which ensures it is using post-consumer recycled plastics from products like plastic bottles that is an abundant waste product in our society
  • Leather: Leather may have a higher carbon footprint than faux leathers (i.e. PU leather) but they are more durable and aren’t adding further to the plastic problem. Consider however, whether the leather hyde is waste product from the farming industry which would make it more sustainable, as it is using materials that are already abundant. Ask your fabric supplier about the difference in end-of-life of traditional leather vs faux leather as whilst durability may differ, the disposability may be similar.
  • New alternative materials: Keep up to date with new innovations that can replace traditional unsustainable methods and materials. Sustainability and technology are moving relatively fast and solutions imminently round the corner.

Manufacturing / Specification of the seating:

The processes involved in manufacturing a chair – such as chroming, powder coating, lamination etc – are likely to depend on your design choices. Different processes differ in environmental impact. 

The use of adhesives in manufacture can severely reduce the ability to refurbish and recycle seats. Upholstering without glue enables design for disassembly. There may be a bit of small adhesive between the seat pad and the foam to keep it in place. However, fabric can be created as a sleeve which is pulled tight over the seat and secured at the back using staples or other techniques. By avoiding adhesives between the foam and the fabric, the fabric retains its proposed end-of-life solution to be recycled.

Delivery

Packaging is a prevalent issue within the furniture industry. Due to direct delivery and installs, typical for theatre installations, there is less need for plastic bags which often act as dust covers. Discuss with your seating manufacturer what solutions they have for reducing the packaging they are bringing to site. If they have to include packaging, request the following:

  • Cardboard boxes – recycled cardboard or FSC sourced
  • Plastic (bags, bubble wrap, shrink wrap) – recycled plastic, recyclable plastic
    • More ‘biodegradable’ plastic surfacing, but make sure it is ‘biodegradable’ and not just ‘degradable’. Degradable plastic means that it breaks up so you may not be able to see it however it is just breaking down into micro-plastics which are extremely harmful for the environment and for human health.
  • Void fill – sustainable void fill like paper/cardboard
  • Paper tape

On site, try and recycle as much as possible. The majority of plastic types can be recycled if sent to correct sorting sites. LDPE isn’t always widely accepted on local kerbside pick-ups. If this is the only option you have, see whether your manufacturer can take the packaging back with them to dispose of responsibly.

Use – Longevity

As mentioned previously, theatre seating is made to last by using quality materials to ensure product longevity. There will be occasions where furniture reaches its end-of-life prematurely from mis-use or accidental wear and tear. In this event, utilise the warranty options and refurbishment solutions from manufacturers.

End-of-life

As mentioned in Stage 1, ‘end-of-life’ of a product should be considered first when designing a product. If a product is not designed with disassembly and recyclability in mind, it will likely be difficult to dispose of responsibly.

When it comes to furniture you are replacing, this may be the case since it could have been designed decades ago. This doesn’t mean, however, that it has to go to landfill. Check with your manufacturer if they can strip apart the materials to find use, or at least recycle components.

Alternatively search for Take back schemes out there that could find use of this old seating/materials. As an industry, we need to ensure we are not sending all furniture removed to landfill.

With thanks to Race Furniture and Charcoalblue LLP

The Arts Green Book has brought together culturalorganisations and sustainability experts to create common guidance for making culture sustainable.