An Essex-based family-run fit-out firm is finding that environmental awareness also makes sound commercial sense.
Barking-based Blue Line Office Furniture is a rare operation these days. The business not only builds in wood rather than synthetics, but has been run by the Marshall family for four generations – or half a century – during which time it has moved all of seven miles down the road from its East End birthplace.

Marketing director Trevor Elliott has identified a trend over the last couple of years in office furniture and fit-outs.

'As they have downsized and become leaner operations, companies are now looking at making the working environment nice,' argues Elliott. 'If you have a natural wood veneer desk, people like it because it's a beautiful piece of furniture.'

He believes that a good environment is a deterrent to 'sick building syndrome' – whereby a poor working environment causes poor productivity or even illness among employees – and encourages worker loyalty.

Image conscious
And it is not just about solid equipment that lasts. The choice of furniture reflects a company's self-image and makes a statement to clients about who it is. Vast dark wood, leather-topped tables would look as out of place in a start-up as a beanbag on a traders' floor.

Blue Line is also aware of the importance of image and being seen to make the right moves. It is the first furniture manufacturer in Europe to be recognised by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for its environmentally friendly practices.

'It means that customers are guaranteed that all the timber we use is from sustainable sources,' explains Elliott. 'Sustainable purchasing is becoming more mainstream and the FSC accreditation shows this is a Green, ethical product.'

Like it or not, environmental awareness is becoming increasingly important and is another issue that occupiers have to consider when planning an office fit-out.

But Blue Line is not just about tree-hugging and saving the environment. It is a business, points out Elliott, and there are sound economic reasons alongside the environmental ones, as Blue Line is able to reposition itself in the marketplace as a green operation.

The quality of office furniture is tested by the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA) which uses a number of methods for testing the furniture to its limits. These include repeatedly suspending desks a metre from the ground and dropping them, dragging them across the floor, and opening and closing the drawers 80,000 times with a 20 kg weight inside. If the furniture survives that there is a good chance it will last in your office too. Blue Line has a FIRA Gold Award meaning that its products have lived through these rigours.

Elliott points out that innovation in furniture design is often driven by technology changes: 'A major trend is towards a reduction in desk size and, with the introduction of flat screens, we are seeing a move back towards rectangular shaped desks from the L-shape that has been popular.'

Large computer monitors led the move towards L-shaped desks in order to allow workers enough distance from the screen but the latest flat-screen monitors need less space.

Taking this idea on, Blue Line has come up with the 'technology rail' – a electricity- and network-wired rail that spans the desk and which can accommodate desk furniture that would usually clutter the desktop.

Elliott explains that the rail on which a flat-screen monitor can be mounted allows, 'a smaller footprint without loss of ergonomic functionality'. In other words, the occupier can be much more efficient with space – and therefore costs, another important consideration in the current climate.

The rail will make its debut at Workplace 2001 at Docklands' ExCel centre, 2-4 October. The exhibition and conference event attracts thousands of buyers, specifiers and managers responsible for office fit-outs.

One-stop shops
Most companies can provide a full fit-out service, covering anything from ordering one desk to redesigning and refitting an entire office for hundreds of people. Many, including Blue Line, also run a bespoke service designing furniture to a client's specifications and can produce CAD plans of the refit. But large-scale manufacturers fall down in this respect as their critical mass requires the production of vast numbers to make a line viable.

Looking ahead, Elliott thinks wireless local area networks will be the technological step to affect office furniture manufacturers. 'Although it requires substantial IT back-up, to allow workers to be mobile, the concept of having your own desk may go.'