When selecting furniture for education institutions, administrators often consider durability and ergonomics as givens. The furniture they select must be comfortable for a variety of age groups and body types, and be able to withstand heavy use and last into the future. But many school officials are adding sustainability to their furniture selection criteria. And thanks to education furniture manufacturers rising to the occasion, specifying green furniture doesn't mean a sacrifice in comfort or quality.

"It's really a win-win situation," says Cathy Shields, LEED Coordinator for DES Architects + Engineers, Redwood City, Calif. "In my 15-year career, I've seen some really great advances, and so many of the manufacturers that we use are on board, and they've been proactive. They have to stay competitive in the furniture market, so they've really gone all out to provide the right products, and the pricing is just as good."

What's the problem?

Although some school and university administrators have jumped right on board at the idea of specifying green furniture, others are reluctant. They think that it will cost too much or just isn't necessary. However, furniture and furnishings are a source of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in schools, and controlling the sources of the VOCs is one of the most effective ways of improving indoor air quality.

Fifty percent of all schools have indoor air quality concerns, which can lead to illness, increased asthma and allergy attacks, absences, productivity loss, poor student performance, adverse employee/student relationships with school administration and negative publicity, says Marilyn Black, founder of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI).

A typical school can have anywhere from 200 to 1,000 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air at a given time. These VOCs originate primarily from furnishings, indoor activities and cleaning processes, and include known toxins and irritants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, toluene and limonene.

A foolproof way education administrators can ensure they are selecting sustainable furniture products with low VOC emissions is by choosing products certified by independent sources, such as GEI. More than 90 percent of all manufacturers with GREENGUARD-certified products seek the Children & Schools standard, according to GEI.

This standard involves a rigorous evaluation and testing process. Manufacturers must have a high-quality system in place to ensure consistent manufacturing and proper supply chain control so all products continue to meet the standard. The products also undergo a quarterly quality check by measuring the emissions, says Black.

If a GREENGUARD-certified product isn't available for a furniture product, school and university administrators still can find sustainable options by thinking green before they make a purchase.

By asking the right questions, they can ensure the furniture products they select are sustainable, even if they don't carry a green certification, says Shields. Some questions to consider before purchasing education furniture:

  • What materials are in the composition of the furniture? Does it have recycled content?

  • If it's wood furniture, is it available with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood instead of veneer?

  • Does it have a large amount of vinyl content?

  • If it's upholstered, what is the content of the fabric? Is there a 100-percent-recycled polyester option?

  • Where is the furniture fabricated? Is it shipped from overseas, and if so, is there a comparable product that is manufactured locally?

  • What is the life cycle of the furniture? Are there opportunities to recycle, refurbish or resurface it?

  • Is the furniture flexible? Is it usable now and in the future?

Reaping the benefits

The effort put into specifying green education furniture can result in better student health and green building certification for a facility.

"Data show indoor pollutant levels in the air within schools and indoor spaces where GREENGUARD-certified products are used can be approximately 80 percent lower," says Black.

Also, the reduction of formaldehyde, a carcinogen at elevated levels and long-term exposure, and an irritant at low levels, is a significant concern for school administrators, she says. An elementary school study in Atlanta showed that the use of low-emitting floor cleaners, low-emitting furniture and hard-surface flooring, all meeting the GREENGUARD Children & Schools standard, resulted in air levels of formaldehyde below the ½ California Chronic Reference Exposure Level (CREL) of 13.5 ppb, says Black.

An additional benefit to using sustainable education furniture is gaining green building credits toward certification. Credit for green furniture can be obtained under LEED for Schools (EQ Credit 4, Options 1-6), the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) (EQ Credit 2.2 for low-emitting materials) and the Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC), which includes university hospitals (EQ Credit 4.5 for furniture), says Black.

Hall is associate editor for AS&U.