A Better Understanding of BIFMA Standards

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association is known as BIFMA, and its namesake furniture standards are widely known across the design industry, but little understood. The confusion primarily exists around what the organization is, and what its standards mean for the products being specified and purchased. BIFMA is not an independent consumer advocate group or government entity, it is an association of member companies, almost entirely major office furniture manufacturers, including Steelcase, Haworth, Herman Miller, and Kimball. Since 1973, the organization’s goal has been to advocate for these members when it comes to regulations and testing standards, and on occasion employ lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

While the BIFMA standards are well-established, with a long history of efficacy, few designers know that they have been developed almost exclusively for the office environment. The demands of which can differ greatly from those of a hotel lobby or a neighborhood coffee shop. Large hospitality brands and retailers often turn to consultants like Doug Woodard, a Michigan-based engineer and furniture testing expert to adjust these standards specifically for their businesses in an effort to mitigate the risk of customer injury and to minimize furniture replacement costs.

Woodard has been focused on furniture testing and development since 1994, when he started his career as a test technician and engineer with Krueger International, moving to Herman Miller in 2004. In 2008 he started Advanced Furniture Testing, where he worked with dozens of the world’s top furniture manufacturers and in 2014, he sold the business to Underwriters Laboratory, better known as UL. Today, he consults with some of the largest furniture buyers in the country to make their furniture safer and more durable, brands like Starbucks Coffee Company and Panera Bread. He also works as an expert witness in injury lawsuits, advising on both sides of the plaintiff/defendant divide.

Knowledge Bank asked Woodard to answer some questions that might help the design community better understand BIFMA, how best to rely on their standards, and what to consider in the design process.

What are the most common misconceptions that designers and buyers have about BIFMA?

Many designers and industry professionals think that BIFMA testing is some sort of requirement by one of the government agencies, but compliance to the BIFMA standards is completely voluntary. 

Another common assumption is that BIFMA testing must be rigorous, and that only really durable, well- made products can achieve an applicable BIFMA standard. This can give designers and their clients a false sense of security around safety and durability. There is no industry stamp of approval that can guarantee this for any buyer, there’s a lot more nuance that needs to be understood.

What should designers and their clients know about BIFMA and what is the nuance around how best to ensure safety and durability in their FF&E selections?

BIFMA tests are very office-centric in their design. Testing is generally based on a standard assumption of workdays per year used by the office furniture industry. This means eight hours per day, 250 days per year and for 10 years of usage.

For a hospitality designer for example, a more accurate assumption of restaurant usage might be 12 hours a day, approximately 350 days per year for 10 years. For this use case, some of the tests, especially the durability tests may need to be changed. If my client planned on changing out the furniture every 3-4 years, that would change the math a bit.

It would also be wise to really study how the furniture is used by customers and employees, and potentially make other changes to the standard to account for the environment.  It would be unwise to reduce the BIFMA standard unless you have a really good logical reason, due to possible litigation risk.  Remember, BIFMA standards are the industry minimum, and are designed for office furniture. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using these standards for other markets/environments, but they may need to be ‘tweaked’ a bit.

For designers working on projects other than workplace, like high volume food and beverage projects, or hotels, does BIFMA plan to release a standard that directly meets their project needs?

BIFMA has had a ‘hospitality standard’ on the agenda for well over a decade. The BIFMA Lounge and Public Seating standard just added a specific mention of restaurants to the scope in the last revision cycle.  This is a step in the right direction, but the potentially most dangerous items to customers in restaurants are café chairs and bar stools, which are not included in this standard. It is something to consider when working on food and beverage projects. Large brands like Starbucks rely on consultants like me to develop their own standards based on the specific demands of their retail environments. That can be done for smaller brands or one-off projects too. Another misconception is that testing is really expensive. It isn’t, especially compared to the cost of an injury claim.

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