Naturally, what the Echo super-sustainable inter-faculty building also requires is sustainable furnishings. But rest assured: it’s not like you’re walking into a thrift store. The thing is: a sustainable ambition for furniture calls for a whole new approach to procurement. This is the story of the exciting and educational journey to circular furniture. Read on to find out whether or not the outcome was successful.

For Tobias Jonker, project leader Relocation & Interior Design at TU Delft CRE & FM (Campus Real Estate & Facility Management) and his colleague Themara Bogerd, Consultant Education Spaces ESA, it was clear from the start: a sustainable building must also have sustainable furnishings. Bogerd: “It is almost impossible not to have sustainable furniture here.” This was endorsed by the interior design plan that was drawn up for Echo by Fokkema & Partners in 2018. In addition, a delegation of students and lecturers – the future users of the building – that was formed and involved in the Echo interior design project considered it important not to take the lazy route and simply pick out furniture from the latest interior design catalogue.

OK, but what exactly does sustainable entail?

The logical, but immediately also one of the most complicated, questions that then has to be answered is: so what is sustainable? Roughly speaking, there are three different options to choose from in terms of taste, explains Jonker. “You can go for new sustainably produced furniture, for the purchase of reused furniture or for your own refurbished furniture.”

Circular procurement for a large accommodation project

More than 2000 pieces of furniture were needed for Echo. Because of the scale of the project, the purchase of the furniture was put out to tender. TU Delft commissioned sustainability consultancy firm Copper8 to supervise the tendering process for sustainable furniture for Echo. Godard Croon from Copper8 explains: “Sustainability was high on the agenda for TU Delft, they exuded it. But you have to clearly define your ambitions and draw up a wishlist.” A delegation of users sat down to discuss just that, along with the consultancy firm and the project stakeholders at TU Delft. There were lecturers as well as a delegation of students, including members of Green TU, a group of students that provides solicited and unsolicited advice on making the campus greener.

Gathering starting points from users

A number of important starting points came to light during the initial discussions with users. Everyone was open to the idea of reused furniture. Both students and staff also considered it important for the furniture to have a certain uniformity. Themara Bogerd saw this project as an opportunity: “It might be difficult to include the whole of TU Delft in that ambition. But this is a concrete project. You can use it to set an example.” The Sustainability Ambition Document that was drawn up with the involvement of the users, and the interior design plan that had been drawn up earlier, served as a guide when making choices further down the line.

Video: The exciting journey to circular furniture for Echo

Reused furniture – can you purchase items in large quantities?

TU Delft chose to purchase reused furniture because their own reserve stock was found to be insufficient. Research carried out by Copper8, together with TU Delft, looked at how the market for reused furniture has developed. For according to Godard Croon: “Suppose you want to buy used furniture in these large quantities, are there then enough suppliers who can deliver them? What is possible and what isn’t?” It turned out that a lot is possible in the case of companies that take this business seriously. Croon also noticed: “It is still difficult for parties for whom circular furniture is not their main activity yet. Particularly when it comes to combining it successfully with their existing product lines. That can create conflicting interests. In the first instance, they are still cannibalising their original revenue model too much.”

Workbrands won contract

The Eindhoven-based company Workbrands has been circular since day one and refurbished furniture is part of its core business. At Workbrands’ production site, there are thousands of tables, chairs, pouffes, benches, desks and office chairs waiting to be refurbished based on customers’ requirements. They also scour the Dutch office landscape for sustainable furniture for their customers. Of the two bidders for the TU Delft contract, Workbrands was the one that came out on top. Juliëtte van der Wilk from Workbrands praises the ambition of TU Delft: “This contract is a special one for us. Refurbishment is always a complex process for which we have high standards. TU Delft actively contributes ideas on how we can reduce the environmental impact even more. We see refurbishment as a fully-fledged alternative to new furniture. It’s nice to see that TU Delft appreciates this and puts sustainability first, like we do. A big project like this is a journey you embark on together.”

The circular ambition of TU Delft

In the invitation to tender for the furniture for Echo, TU Delft stipulated various requirements that had to be met. Firstly, a circular ambition. Tobias Jonker explains: “We wanted at least 50% of the furniture to be reused. Anything on top of that was awarded extra points in the invitation to tender.”

Diversity versus uniformity

The second requirement was uniformity. Naturally because the items would be reused furniture, it would also depend on what was available on the market to a large extent. It’s a lot more challenging than choosing from the latest interior design catalogue as the project stakeholders were well aware of. But the students in particular demanded a certain degree of consistency. Jonker: “Students didn’t want the possibility of there being a run on the best chairs.” The requirement was worded as follows in the invitation to tender: while the furniture could differ from one room to the next, it had to be the same within a single room. Tobias Jonker explains: “You have to make these kinds of concessions. You go for sustainability but then you have to accept the consequences of that choice.”

The one-metre viewing rule

The same applied to signs of use on the furniture. University accommodation adviser Themara Bogerd therefore asked the question: “Do we consider it acceptable if there are signs of use on the furniture?” The answer that came back from the group of users was a unanimous ‘yes’. “But then that is followed by the question: how bad can those signs of use be?” That led to a remarkable requirement that is exemplary for circular tendering: the one-metre viewing rule. The rule comes down to the following: no scratches or other clear signs of damage to the furniture must be visible when it is viewed from a distance of one metre. And also, if damage is caused when moving the furniture in – as a result of a chair accidentally being knocked against the door frame, for example – we will always discuss what to do about it first. “With new furniture, items almost always go back to the supplier immediately in such cases”, says Juliëtte van der Wilk. “The fact that this does not happen now, I consider to be a totally deliberate and sustainable choice by TU Delft.”

Variation in colour to a ‘limited extent’

TU Delft also set requirements in terms of colour. Whereas conventional invitations to tender can specify an exact colour for plastic, for example, or a type of wood, that could not be done in this case. After all, the chairs and tables had already been produced once and had to be gathered together – or ‘sourced’ as Van der Wilk calls it – from the warehouses of Workbrands and from offices all over the Netherlands. The requirement therefore became: items of furniture may vary in colour to a limited extent but must be in the same shade of the colour required. However during the tendering procedure, the phrase ‘limited extent’ did lead to questions but, as Juliëtte van der Wilk put it, it’s all part of the journey that you have embarked on together.

Tense search

Van der Wilk makes no secret of the fact that this search for circular possibilities got quite tense at times. “Sometimes you think that you’ve found 200 tables on the market but then it turns out that they don’t quite fit the bill in terms of functionality or dimensions”, explains the Workbrands representative. “That can lead to tense times. That’s when the treacherous thought ‘shall we go for new after all?’ can rear its ugly head. Fortunately, we were able to keep our nerves in check. That takes full attention and drive, from the whole project team.”

Quality first

Whereas circular concessions were made in terms of colour, extent of damage and uniformity, the same could not be said for functionality. The furniture had to be of a certain size, had to have the desired functionalities, and had to be of excellent quality. “We were quite clear about that”, says Jonker. Godard Croon from Copper8 adds: “Some of the older models are even more solid than the newer variants. There are also iconic chairs among them.”

Almost 100% circular

In the end, the project team succeeded in delivering almost all of the furniture already refurbished. There are 2,135 products in total, including 950 chairs and 375 office chairs. The rest are tables and accessories. There are around 170 different types of products. The percentage achieved was 90%, so way above the minimum requirement of 50% set. Project leader Tobias Jonker explains: “I had not expected such a high percentage. I really thought that it would be difficult to achieve virtually 100% circular furniture, especially when you’re talking about large numbers. Fortunately, my assumption turned out to be wrong! It was easily achievable.”

Benches from the bank

The origin of one product is clear, the origin of another not. One of the special interior design items in the new Echo inter-faculty building are the chill-out benches. Perhaps some people will recognise the shape but they definitely won’t recognise the colour. That's because the original familiar orange covers have been given a durable coating of residual material. This is furniture that used to be at ING and that the bank was keen to offer for reuse following the closure of various offices. TU Delft and Workbrands are planning to indicate the origin and history of some items, including these.

Concepts explained! Reuse is circular

Reuse is one of the circular strategies and it can be applied in various ways. The high-quality option, at product level, means that you reuse the whole product. You can also just reuse certain components. Or – and this is the lowest-quality form of reuse – just reuse the material. The highest-quality option was chosen for this project: reuse at product level. When the furniture to be reused is also renovated, we describe it as being refurbished.

The interior design

In four weeks’ time, almost all of the interior furnishings in the sustainable campus building will be circular. It will then be ready for students and lecturers to use – for studying, research and teaching. And, of course, also for chilling out on the reused benches.

Tobias Jonker

Is responsible for the interior design project as project leader Relocation & Interior Design at TU Delft Campus Real Estate & Facility Management (CRE & FM).

Themara Bogerd

Advised on the requirements and desires for good university accommodation in Echo and consulted the relevant stakeholders on this as university accommodation adviser for TU Delft Education and Student Affairs (ESA).

Godard Croon

Consultant from consultancy firm Copper8 who supervised the realisation of the tendering process for circular furniture for TU Delft.

Juliette van der Wilk

Works as a Circular Consultant for sustainable project design company Workbrands and sourced the circular furniture for Echo.

Facts and figures

Total number of products: 2,135
Chairs:     950
Office chairs: 375
Total number of product types: 170
Percentage reused: +- 90%