Working across a range of retail and ground plane projects, I often get pushback for recommending movable furniture as part of a design. The basic premise of such projects is to attract people, to create vibrancy and to create economic opportunities, ultimately leading to an increase in property values. Flexible furniture options mean a space can be configured for a multitude of uses and can change and adapt as required. 

The key reasons for using moveable seating are as follows:

  • Flexibility – a key element of any successful project is to enable a place/precinct/project to accommodate a range of uses and experiences, and the ability to evolve over time. 
  • Furniture can be moved to suit the microclimate and seasons, increasing comfort levels.
  • Different group sizes can be accommodated, responding to customer needs.
  • Efficient allocation of capital – fixed seating has its place but is often not flexible enough to meet the needs of all users of a space, all the time. One person can take up a table for six people, which potentially means the next five people are unable to be accommodated.
  • Flexible seating is likely to enhance the end user’s experience of a public space. That means increased visitation, extended dwell times, improved opportunities for social interaction, improved community wellbeing and increased retail expenditure, all of which means a higher demand for retail and office space, which in turn drives up property values.
  • Cost – While costs vary from country to country, according to Project for Public Spaces, you can provide 10 chairs for roughly the same price as one fixed bench. However operational and life cycle costs need to be considered in the business case.
  • More flexible seating is more likely to drive visitation, social interaction and the community resilience and improved economic from improved mental health of community

Picture a cafe, vibrant and buzzing, full of activity. If however the seating is fixed, a cafe is confined by that arrangement, immediately restricted with regard to the size of groups it can accommodate. When visitors are not able to get a table that suits their needs, or if they are stuck in the cold or heat, they will opt to go elsewhere. This will lead to fewer visitors and less expenditure, resulting in a loss of income for the cafe leading to a reduction in a sustainable rental level for the tenant.

In New York where privately owned public spaces make up in excess of 590 of the total publicly accessible spaces. From small forecourts to larger courtyards such as Paley Park. Since the 1960’s the City of New York has offered developers an uplift in potential floor area when the developers have provided publicly accessible spaces at the ground plane. These public spaces are subject to strict design control set by the City of New York. These public spaces are required to provide flexible and moveable seating.

The conventional arguments against flexible furniture include the following:

  • The furniture will be stolen. In many successful public places, passive surveillance reduces graffiti and crime. At Bryant Park in NYC and Green Park in London, both of which have loose furniture that is left out overnight, only a few pieces go missing each year.
  • Additional costs from setting out and packing furniture away each day. As with  any great public space, management of the area is critical. Additional operational costs need to be assessed against the fixed or not furniture business case. Solutions might include engaging cafes or other businesses to help manage the setting out and packing up of furniture.

What does flexible furniture mean to asset values? Measuring the direct and indirect impacts can be done in several ways

  • An increase in visitation and dwell time by X% leasing to an increase of retail expenditure by X% assuming all is equal. Assuming that there is disciplined retail property management, this can justify an increase in retail rents by a similar proportion, therefore increasing asset values.
  • A less direct and less measurable approach is the contribution that movable chairs makes to the end user’s experience of a precinct. If the flexible seating forms an important part of a revitalised precinct, and businesses want to be co-located to that precinct – for increased amenity, improved well-being, and improved mental health of staff – this can lead to landlords being able to command more rent as a result of increased demand. 
  • In the 1990’s the Brookfield-owned Grace Building in New York City benefited from the revitalisation of Bryant Park located across the road. While the programming of events in the park has been the biggest factor in the park’s revitalisation, movable chairs have been a critical component. Within three years of the revitalisation of the park, Brookfield was able to command an extra $20 per sq foot of rent, leading to an increase in net income of about $20 million. Based on the cap rate at the time, this generated an increase in project value of about $350-$400 million.

One thing the pandemic has underlined is the need for flexibility – in business and in our public spaces. Forward-thinking organisations need creative and innovative options engineered in to designs, and one of those is clearly non-fixed furniture.