Home AEC PropTech: Heirloom Design Creates Platform to Minimize Commercial Furniture Waste

PropTech: Heirloom Design Creates Platform to Minimize Commercial Furniture Waste

One Workplace, Heirloom Design, San Francisco, Seattle, Uhuru Design, EPA, BIFMA, White House Council on Economic Advisors

By Meghan Hall

The commercial building industry has the unfortunate reputation of being one of the largest contributors to waste and energy consumption in the United States. A number of sustainability initiatives have taken off in recent years as the sector looks to minimize its impact, including Heirloom Design. Founded by One Workplace and Uhuru Design, Heirloom is working to change the way the commercial furniture industry operates. The Registry spoke with Dave Bryant, founder of Heirloom Design and vice president at One Workplace to discuss how the AEC industry stands to benefit from digitization and the wider expansion of proptech. 

Please tell The Registry a little bit about Heirloom Design. Why did One Workplace and Uhuru Design begin to think about a platform dedicated specifically to tackle pain points within the commercial interiors industry?

Heirloom Design is a company that was created to redefine sustainability for the built environment.  We do this by partnering with makers, manufacturers, designers and distribution partners to create well designed furniture that is meant to be passed on from company to company while telling meaningful stories in the process.  We felt this platform was needed because there is no way to capture chain of custody in the current ecosystem.  It is only at the end of a products’ useful life at one company that people start to think of where the furniture will go next — and often the answer is, to the landfill.  We are changing that by beginning with the end in mind.  If we are going to change the impact our industry puts on the environment (nearly 12 million tons of furniture goes into landfills each year) we have to create a system that is structured to support the ‘handing down’ of these pieces from one company to the next.

How does the platform work?

As each piece of furniture is manufactured it receives a plaque with a QR code that captures everything about that piece — materials used and where they came from, the design story, where it was made, and even the names of the people who made it.  It then captures the location of its first destination, celebrating the sustainable decision the company who purchased it made in selecting that piece. 

When the first company is done with the piece, the QR code tells them what to do with it and who to call to pick it up if they don’t already know.  The piece is then placed on a digital marketplace, where it is available to any Heirloom partner or designer to specify for their next project.  The designer has the ability to determine if the piece will be refinished back to new, per the manufacturer’s requirements, or if the patina it has established is actually more desirable.  If renewal is desired, the refinishing information is also captured on the QR code.  Information such as who refinished it, where was it refinished, what products were used, etc.  It is then redeployed to its new home while capturing all the data along the way.  We refer to it as sort of like a blockchain for sustainable furniture.  

What is your favorite feature of the platform, and why?

One of our favorite features is the ability for anyone who comes in contact with the piece to be part of the story as well.  Any passerby can scan the QR code with their mobile device and read the design story, makers involved and historical journey of that piece, and if so inspired, can add their own story and how they interacted with that piece directly from the QR code.  We believe in sustainability through storytelling.  Great design was made to be interacted with, and in doing so a consciousness is created in the storytelling of each piece, thus keeping its journey alive indefinitely, keeping it out of the landfill.  

What are some of the challenges to launching a new technology platform in the commercial real estate sector? How are One Workplace and Uhuru working to overcome them?

A primary challenge in launching this new technology is changing a well-established pattern of behavior, and we are proposing a mind shift from ownership to stewardship.  

Our industry is programmed to make furniture with planned obsolescence built in.  Historically, commercial furniture has a useful life and when its life is over it is discarded.  A best-case scenario is when the furniture is downcycled to the used furniture market, but this is just slowing the eventual destination into a landfill when its quality can’t support the need required.  At that point, hopefully it gets “recycled” which generally means most of it ends up in a landfill.  

Changing a mindset to create a preference for timeless design that is created to last forever, and then creating a system to support it being refinished back to new is very different thinking.  We are overcoming these challenges by focusing on 3 primary stakeholders:  

1) Makers – committed to designing and making pieces that can stand the test of time.  

2) Designers – committed to designing for the circular economy by being thoughtful in designing with Heirloom.  

3) End-Users – committed to making purchasing decisions that are in alignment with their values and sustainability goals.  When these three stakeholders have what we call an “Heirloom First” mindset, meaningful change will happen. 

If commercial interior products were renewed and redeployed on a wider scale, by how much could the industry reduce its carbon footprint? 

Our industry has done a much better job of reducing its carbon footprint by using better manufacturing processes and more sustainable materials.  However, those initiatives are not slowing the amount of waste being put into landfills.  Based on data from BIFMA and the EPA, we estimate we have hit an all-time high with nearly 12 million tons of furniture being put into the landfill, equating to 5% of total domestic waste.  The White House Council on Economic Advisors just announced that the social cost of carbon is $51 per ton (as of March 2021).   So, if the commercial furniture industry would commit just 30% of their total furniture to be from Heirloom, it would save nearly $184M in the social cost of carbon.  That is a substantial amount that could be diverted from the landfill. 

Why do you think the idea of a circular economy is not more widely incorporated into the commercial real estate industry?

We believe there are two primary reasons the circular economy is not more widely embraced.  First, it’s difficult.  From the start, these pieces must be designed to be timeless and have a built quality that can last indefinitely.  Then, having a process and partnerships through which those pieces can be renewed has to be established.  Having them go back to the original manufacturer doesn’t make financial (or environmental) sense.  We have solved that by having the pieces renewed locally by manufacturer approved partners who bring them back to first quality.   

Second, the current furniture industry benefits from new parts and pieces being created each time a project happens. Designing furniture based on trends, or “furniture fashion” as Heirloom Co-Founder Jason Horvath refers to it, is suggesting some pieces are made for a specific period then no longer valued — just like fast fashion.  The market needs to demand a different approach, which is where the commitments from the 3 stakeholders come in.  

What are other measures that both the commercial interiors and larger commercial real estate sector do to encourage the growth of a circular economy within the industry?

The carpet industry has done a great job of leading in this category (Interface, Milliken and Shaw) by creating take-back program for used carpet to be recycled back into new carpet using recovered material and fibers in the remanufacturing process.  On the furniture side, previously owned furniture is finding new homes through liquidators and on-line platforms using a Craig’s List like platform connecting buyers and sellers. However, many times when the circular economy is referenced, it requires additional carbon impact to keep it going.  

As proptech continues to expand rapidly, how does Heirloom Design plan to remain competitive?

At the core of the Heirloom Design platform is transparency and information tracking through the supply chain.  There is an opportunity in the future to leverage blockchain solutions to efficiently and effectively disrupt how we manage materials, labor inputs, pricing, logistics, delivery, from production to sale.  Proptech and the push to a vertically integrated and efficient price per square foot of managed space will benefit enormously from blockchain and software solutions (artificial intelligence and machine learning) when we can plug in holistic data and pricing for sustainable FFE.

Although Heirloom just launched, what are the platforms plans for growth?

Initially, most of our growth plans will come from adding makers and manufacturing partners who will produce Heirloom-specific products that meet our standards.  Additionally, we will be expanding our distribution partners nationally.  We want to make sure Heirloom can be supported by strong distribution across the country, with intentional storytelling to driving change with customers in local markets.  

Is there anything else you would like to add, or anything that we should be asking?

One key piece of Heirloom is our commitment to the maker community.  Proceeds from Heirloom will be designated to provide grants that makers can apply for to help them find a way into the difficult-to-penetrate commercial furniture industry.  Whether they need tools or a new shop to work in or access to a supply chain, our goal is to promote sustainable heirloom design.  We want to give back and invest in the community, providing new business models of meeting the needs of the circular economy.