Protect Your Ass (And Back!)

cpafA home office needs more than computers, printers, and modems. Furniture, especially chairs, can be one of the most important purchases we make. A chair can radically affect productivity and enjoyment of work. And a chair can have a profound effect on health, since chronic backache is such a widespread problem for desk-bound computer users.

A good chair is an investment in your back that will pay dividends for the rest of your life. So sit up and take notice. The following questions and answers will guide you in your quest to keep your weary bones comfortable and rested. After reading, sit back, relax, and turn to the chart for a sampling of models from the leading commercial office-chair manufacturers.

What should I look for in a good office chair?

Adjustability. A good chair is one you can fine-tune to fit you. The best ones adjust automatically based on the user’s weight distribution, or manually, with easy-to-reach knobs or levers. The more adjustments possible, the more expensive the chair.

The most important adjustment is the height of the chair’s seat. There are two basic ways to raise and lower a seat: the screw post and the more expensive gas lift mechanism. The old piano stool used a screw post: spinning the seat raised or lowered the seat height. A gas lift mechanism is a cylinder filled with air, and it works much like the shock absorbers on a car.

Both methods work fine. However, you can operate the gas lift in seconds with a gentle tug on a lever while sitting in the seat. The screw post requires you to climb under the chair and rotate a ring or a large nut on top of the chair’s base. While this is somewhat inconvenient, you probably won’t have to change the setting much if you are the chair’s only user.

On the other hand, some people like to be able to make small adjustments in seat height throughout the day, while moving from handwriting, say, to keyboard entry. Under these conditions, a gas lift becomes more important. A subtle but alluring feature is that a gas lift acts as a shock absorber or spring. Flopping into the chair from two feet up is no problem.

What other kinds of adjustments are important?

The second most important adjustment is the back-tilt mechanism. As you sit, your heels should rest comfortably on the floor, to maintain circulation in your legs and feet as you lean back. When a chair is improperly adjusted, we tend to compensate in all sorts of ways: We put our feet up on the desk, rest them on the edge of an open file drawer, cross our legs, and so on, all to reduce pressure behind the knee.

The mechanisms that keep our heels on the floor are called posture-back or knee-tilt mechanisms. With a knee-tilt mechanism, as you lean back, the rear of the seat drops down without raising the front edge. Posture-back chairs have a back which moves independently from the seat. Both mechanisms accomplish the same thing, which is to keep the lower back at the proper angle with respect to the legs and feet.

Is it important that a chair have casters?

Casters make rolling from keyboard to fax machine to printer a simple matter. However, many people use four-legged or sled-based chairs, preferring them for functional (or financial) reasons. There is nothing inherently wrong with a stationary chair of this type, as long as you find it comfortable enough after a long day of sitting.

Caster-based chairs have a smaller footprint than stationary ones, and a five-pronged caster base is smaller than a four-pronged base, factors you’ll need to consider if space is tight. Floor surface is a major concern as well. The typical residential carpet will swamp any chair, casters or not. If you can’t replace the carpet with a short-nap industrial one, you have two choices. The first is to find a chair with three-inch casters instead of the standard two-inch ones. The larger wheels “float” somewhat better. The other solution is to buy a chair pad, which is simply a sheet of stiff plastic that provides a hard surface for wheels to roll on. Unfortunately, the standard pad is generally too small for most offices. And rolling off the pad is right up there with paper cuts in my book of office irritants.

Are kneeling-type chairs practical?

In the early eighties, a new chair appeared on the scene: a forward-tilting seat. The theory is that if you sit with your thighs sloping downwards from the pelvis, the opened angle between your back and legs tips your pelvis forward and thus maintains the natural curvature (or lordosis) of the lower back. This posture is most dramatic in the Balans chair, a backless “perch” (with an 11-degree angle built into the seat) on which your weight is partially supported by a kneeler in front of the seat. The Balans chair is surprisingly comfortable, but many people find it to be useful mainly as a task-intensive chair, for keyboard entry or similar focused work. As a general-purpose office chair, however, it lacks something (namely, a back).

A forward-tilting seat is for some a good compromise between the kneeling posture, which can be hard on the knees, and the standard flat seat. I have found that a fairly shallow seat (about 17 inches deep) with a “waterfall” or sloping front edge, when combined with a gas lift mechanism, approaches the features of a more expensive forward-tilt mechanism. By raising the seat height and moving forward to the edge of the seat, you can achieve the same forward-sloping effect for short periods of time.

Is there any practical difference between high-back and low-back chairs?

As far as function is concerned, there is very little difference. The most important area in the chair’s back is the lumbar or lower-back region and the angle that it makes with the seat. What happens above that area has little to do with the chair’s apparent comfort.

But our office chair, especially if we meet clients or address employees, says something about our attitude, economic status, or self-image. There’s a reason that a judge sits in a high-back chair with a roll behind the head. A felony judgment handed down from a lawn chair just wouldn’t be the same.

Secretarial chairs are functional chairs designed for task work, generally low-backed and often without armrests. Managerial chairs (the kind in our chart) are also functional, designed for meetings and telephoning, but more comfortable and impressive than secretarial chairs, with armrests and often higher backs. Executive chairs, designed for status over function, look like thrones, with armrests and high backs.

Are armrests important?

Armrests are more a matter of personal preference and budget than a functional absolute. They do make a chair more comfortable, but add several inches to its width and can make it too tall to fit under a desk. Seek short armrests that slope downwards at the front. They need only support the forearms and elbows; if the arms extend to the front edge of the seat, they may bang into your desktop all day long.

A good covering material is self-skinning foam, the same molded resilient vinyl used to cover automobile steering wheels. It is friendly to the elbows, its color is uniform throughout so scratches disappear, and it is soft enough to protect other furniture.

Avoid fabric-covered armrests. They appear comfortable initially, but soil easily and are otherwise vulnerable. I once saw an entire installation of $700 chairs returned after six months because the undersides of the granite desktops sanded off the top of every chair arm. Also, stay away from wood. Wood edges find funny bones too easily.

What’s the best material for seats and backs?

The best filling is molded polyurethane foam, preferably a progressive-density type. Although sometimes hard to distinguish from slab foam, which is fabricated from large pieces, molded foam is more dense and compact. If you can press into the seat with your hand and feel the padding “bottom out” rapidly against the seat structure, the chances are it is soft (and less expensive) slab foam. In fairness, I should add that a slab-foam seat applied over rubber webbing or a similar resilient decking material is a close second in terms of comfort and quality.

For a seat and back covering, nothing comes close to leather in comfort or durability. Leather is tough, resilient, and pleasant to the touch. It breathes, yet protects the filling from UV light and oxidization, both of which break down polyurethane foam. It also allows clothing to slide easily across the chair.

Unfortunately, good leather can almost double a chair’s price. But remember that leather improves with age. In 20 years, it will look and feel even better than it does today.

Where can I find a good chair?

Generally speaking, the very best office chairs are made by manufacturers in the so-called contract, rather than residential, furniture industry. (Contract manufacturers build chairs for commercial enterprises on contract.) Since they sell primarily to architects and interior designers, a sophisticated, well-informed clientele, contract manufacturers have a much better understanding of seating requirements. They sell through contract dealers who have showrooms in most major cities. Unfortunately, they rarely carry any stock, since fabrics, finishes, and other options must be selected by the designer. With thousands of fabrics and over 150 models of the Sensor chair alone (a single model out of literally dozens of other possibilities), it is no wonder a Steelcase dealer doesn’t carry inventory.

In the past, contract dealers wouldn’t sell to individuals, but today most will. Ask contract dealers to show you their “QuickShip” or “FasTrack” catalogs. Standard lead times are four to six weeks, sometimes longer. QuickShip programs ship from a limited catalog in a matter of days.

What can I expect to pay for a good, ergonomic chair?

List prices for contract chairs range from $350 to more than $2,000, depending on options, and choice of fabric or leather. After you recover from sticker shock, though, consider several bright spots. First, virtually every dealer will sell at a 5 to 25 percent discount off their list prices (even more if you can buy through a designer or architect). Second, most dealers periodically have sales to get rid of showroom samples, chairs shipped in the wrong fabric, and so on. Sale prices are outrageous, sometimes 50 to 60 percent off. Finally, a good chair should last 15 to 20 years, if not a lifetime.

Posted in Uncategorized by BigPaul at September 1st, 2015.
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