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'Level'(ing) the Playing Field

The ANSI/BIFMA level® standard is the office furniture industry's first comprehensive, holistic certification program. We take a look at the effect it is having on the industry today, and will likely have in the future.

Georgy Olivieri

The ANSI/BIFMA level® standard is the office furniture industry's first comprehensive, holistic certification program. We take a look at the effect it is having on the industry today, and will likely have in the future.

Not too long ago, maybe 10 years, it was uncommon for clients to regularly request green contract office furniture; since then, hardly a day goes by without architects and design professionals being asked about the sustainable attributes of a product or company. Today, it is almost impossible to walk through manufacturers’ showrooms without hearing a sustainability story. Each manufacturer likes to tout what makes its products or processes environmentally responsible, whether it is through certifications, government recognition and achievements, corporate social responsibility, etc. While all of this information is important and relevant, it can be difficult for clients to compare products’ sustainable attributes accurately.

In 2009, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) introduced the e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard as a way to place furniture manufacturers on a level playing field, and provide clients with a standard that is easy to comprehend and accurately compares apples to apples. Last year, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) adopted the standard and it became formally recognized as the ANSI/BIFMA level standard. The standard, commonly referred to as level®, is a third-party certification for contract office furniture products which include, but are not limited to, systems furniture, casegoods, seating, tables, moveable walls and accessories. There are three levels of conformance, each requiring specific prerequisites and optional credits, similar to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Level 3 is the highest certification under the current ANSI/BIFMA program.

Soon after the standard was introduced, seven furniture manufacturers accounted for 135 level-certified products. Today, 27 companies account for more than 1,200 level-certified products. In less than three years, the number of level-certified products has increased by nearly 790 percent, supporting clients’ growing interest in green products.

what is level?
When the ANSI/BIFMA level standard launched, it became the first stringent multi-attribute, holistic, third-party certification program for the contract office furniture industry. Other sustainable certification programs focus on a single attribute to measure a product’s recycled content, life-cycle, off-gassing, wood components or other elements. The level standard takes into consideration a range of criteria including recyclable content, corporate social responsibility, manufacturing practices, off-gassing, indoor air quality and sustainability goals, to name a few. Additionally, once a product is level certified, it must achieve a higher number of conformance credits during the following renewal period two years later.

Part of the beauty behind the ANSI/BIFMA level standard is its simplicity for the client. A facility seeking environmentally-friendly products can review the ANSI/BIFMA standard and easily understand that level-certified products meet criteria for the categories of energy and atmosphere, human and ecosystem health, materials and social responsibility. They can also quickly see that products certified as level 2 earned more credits in those categories than level products, and the same goes for level 3.

Conversations about what makes a product green and what products are appropriate for an organization seeking LEED certification became easier once design professionals and facility managers began recognizing the level standard. By evaluating the same criteria across manufacturers’ products, clients can identify and compare the processes used to develop the product.

government and healthcare impact
A few months after the ANSI/BIFMA level standard was introduced to the contract office furniture industry, President Barack Obama signed Federal Executive Order 13514 (Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance). It expanded existing standards and set new federal energy requirements in several areas, such as accountability and transparency, strategic sustainability performance planning, greenhouse gas management, sustainable buildings and communities, water efficiency, electronic products and services, fleet and transportation management, and pollution prevention and waste reduction.

At first many of us in the design community didn’t fully understand the impact of this order; however, in recent months the magnitude of the order has become clear, especially for people working with the Government Services Administration (GSA). The GSA is demanding green furnishings and, in many cases, only ANSI/BIFMA level-certified products are considered. This means that manufacturers and products not participating in the program do not have a seat at the discussion table.

According to the GSA, the federal government owns or leases more than 9,600 buildings with a combined total of more than 370 million square feet of workspace. Since the level certification program is quickly becoming the GSA’s sustainability standard for office furnishings, it is easy to understand why so many manufacturers are striving for level and why it is gaining in popularity.

Although most healthcare facilities do not have a federal executive order requiring the purchase of green products, many are choosing to adopt the level standard because of its holistic approach and ease of evaluating products’ sustainable attributes. It is already important for healthcare facilities to identify products and partners that contribute positively to the environment, and the ANSI/BIFMA level program helps narrow down which products are suitable for healthcare settings and minimally affect the environment.

Many new healthcare facilities are also following LEED guidelines for construction, and although not all pursue certification, most purposefully seek out manufacturers that can contribute towards LEED credits. While taking many factors into consideration, products certified by ANSI/BIFMA have a higher probability of contributing towards LEED credits than those not level certified.

what next?
In June, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announced the implementation of LEED Pilot Credit 43, which applies to all Building Design and Construction and Interiors Design and Construction LEED rating systems. The credit has two separate elements, either one of which can be met to receive credit: 1) products can be certified to recognized third-party standards, such as ANSI/BIFMA, and 2) manufacturers can offer product sustainability data in approved and public formats.

LEED Pilot Credit 43 identifies product certification types and includes the ANSI/BIFMA level standard for contract office furnishings. This is even more of an incentive for manufacturers to begin adopting the level standard, and for architects and designers to further suggest level products to clients. As many new GSA facilities strive for LEED certification, government purchasers will further pursue level-certified products. The introduction of this new credit validates the purpose of the ANSI/BIFMA standard, which is to evaluate and recognize manufacturers’ products from a holistic point of view.

Now that the ANSI/BIFMA level standard is steadily gaining momentum among manufacturers and the professional design community, what’s next? When the BIFMA organization designed the level standard, they chose to distinguish the different levels of sustainability using a simple, three-step numerical system (level, level 2 and level 3) that makes it easy for clients and the industry to understand. Currently no plans are in place to expand the program to level 4 or 5, but if and when the time comes to introduce new levels, both manufacturers and customers will be prepared.


Georgy Olivieri, LEED AP, MBA serves as director of architecture, design and sustainability strategies for Kimball Office, which has received level 2 or 3 certification for all of its manufactured products. She has more than 13 years combined experience with the contract furniture, architecture and design industries, and is a member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).