A contribution by Prof. Matthias Held, University of Applied Sciences Schwäbisch Gmünd

Design for Future

What should school furniture of the future look like, so that it not only meets design requirements? School furniture should be ecologically sustainable, harmless to health and innovative. Together with the Schwäbisch Gmünd University of Applied Sciences, Hohenloher has considered and implemented how this can be achieved.

School furniture in eco design

The consumption of resources and energy by products is largely determined during the design phase: What are the materials used, how can they be separated and recycled, how efficiently does the product work and how long is its life? Moreover, the design of intelligent services based on the principle of „use instead of own“ can make the purchase of products superfluous. Design therefore seems to play – or at least be able to play – an important role in sustainable development.  

Think more into the future  

„There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.“ This deliberately provocative remark was the opening sentence of Victor Papanek’s book „Design for the real world“ in the early 1970s. In it, he criticises the role of design – and thus its own profession – as a mere means of promoting superfluous or even dangerous products without claiming to improve the environment, which instead have a negative impact on the environment. Papanek continues by saying that industrial design helps to get people to „buy things they don‘t need, with money they don‘t have, to impress others who really don’t care.“ Papanek‘s book was published a year before the Club of Rome‘s report, „The Limits to Growth“, and hence was written in an era of dawning environmental awareness.  

Our world has changed dramatically since then. However, although progress has been achieved in many areas, the problem of our lifestyle burdening future generations is still unresolved, causing our children to take to the streets with concern.  

Design can solve the problems of our time  

And design is still at the crossroads: on the one hand, it still willingly provides superficial cosmetics and fashionable variation to increase sales. On the other hand, there are already design contributions to pressing problems of our time, including the transformation to become a more sustainable society. Many companies have already recognised the importance of a sustainability strategy. 

In view of challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity, the development of sustainable products is not only necessary for ecological reasons. Products that are designed and produced without taking this aspect into account soon run the risk of becoming unsaleable - be it due to stricter standards, increased resource prices or changed purchasing behaviour. As a company, aligning itself accordingly is therefore also becoming an economic necessity.   

But more ecological alternatives have still not gained widespread acceptance - neither among suppliers nor among customers.   

Research and development projects take over sensitization  

Additional measures are therefore necessary to support companies on their way to sustainability and at the same time to sensitize customers and strengthen the demand for corresponding products.   

The Federal Ecodesign Award, for example, has quickly established itself as a design prize with a consistent ecological orientation. It gives visibility to companies that orient their product range towards sustainability and to students who deal with sustainability issues in their projects and confirms them in their actions.   

The German Federal Foundation for the Environment (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt - DBU) also supports research and development projects in cooperation between universities and industry. Together with Hohenloher, the Schwäbisch Gmünd University of Applied Sciences (HfG) submitted the research project "Sustainable interior design using the example of school furniture", was successful and was funded accordingly.   

One aim of our joint research and development project was the exemplary design of innovative school furniture that is oriented towards the principles of ecological sustainability, harmlessness to health as well as new forms of teaching and learning and the changed spatial requirements of schools. Further project partners were the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy, the University of Education Schwäbisch Gmünd and the city of Ludwigsburg as a potential user and customer, in order to incorporate the user perspective into the development at an early stage.  

Ecological furniture for unused areas  

The innovative content of the project consists, in particular, of the interlinking of environmental, health and practical requirements into an integrated solution for school furniture. At the same time, it is assumed that the environmental and health findings can be broadly transferred to many other types of rooms and furniture. 

A furniture collection was developed especially for the corridor area, which meets the increased fire protection requirements (DIN 4102 B1) that apply there. The multifunctional furniture can even be used in classrooms, assembly halls, refectories or other areas and creates zones for concentration and collaboration. Furthermore, the furniture has a sound-absorbing effect due to fleece overlays, which reduces the reverberation time. This makes it possible to open up zones that were previously either not used at all or poorly used, which takes into account the greatly increased space requirements of schools.   

All components of the collection are designed for durability and are easy to replace or repair thanks to screw connections. This means that the materials can be easily separated by type at the end of the product's life. The fleece used has a high recycled content and can in turn be recycled again. The experts at Hohenloher have technically adapted the furniture to in-house production and implemented it as a prototype. The results are convincing - the project partners of the city of Ludwigburg were impressed.  

Establish sustainability criteria in tenders 

But sustainable offers can only have an effect if consumers not only recognize them as such, but also actually prefer to buy them. The public sector plays a decisive role as a purchaser of school furniture. However, sustainability criteria are still too rarely specified in tenders, which are then mostly decided on the basis of monetary considerations.  

A second goal of our research project was therefore to establish sustainability criteria more strongly as a criterion in tenders and thus generate a market pull. To this end, a guide for procurement was developed by the HfG in cooperation with the State Institute for the Environment Baden-Württemberg. The brochure "Public Procurement of Sustainable Room Furniture for Schools" is published on behalf of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Environment as part of the series " Sustainable Action" and is intended to support procuring bodies. 

The research project has achieved its goals. It has shown what is possible when companies, universities and local authorities join forces to tackle complex problems and develop very concrete solutions. It has also contributed to the development of competence in eco-design among all participants. This knowledge can now be used for further projects in the future and is thus also an investment in the future.

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