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PriestmanGoode's Horizon train carriage seats

Sitting pretty: in search of the perfect chair

Image credit: PriestmanGoode

One of the most striking things about modern humans is the amount of time they spend sitting down. Unlike our ancestors, we often pass more than half of our waking lives on some kind of a seat: at our desks, on the bus, in cars, on the sofa, at the dinner table etc. We look at five examples of seats created to meet the demands of 21st-century life.

Research with 28,000 Europeans in 2016 revealed that the median time they spent sitting is 7.5 hours per day, and almost 20 per cent of respondents said they usually sit for even longer than that. There were variations between countries, with stationary northern Europeans seated longer than their southern cousins. The study also showed that the more educated you are, the longer you are likely to spend on a seat.

The human body isn’t designed to spend anywhere near as much time sitting down and too many hours perched on our posteriors has been linked to a wide range of health problems. For the time being, it seems unlikely the trend is about to change, so designers are constantly trying to improve seats – to be more comfortable, more efficient, more fit for purpose.

For better or worse, we humans seem to be spending more of our lives sitting down than ever before. What these examples show is that taking a proactive approach to our seating is valuable – giving us more comfort, saving energy and ensuring that the right kind of seating is made available for the right circumstance. Quite a feat for the humble seat.

Let’s all take a stand against bad seating!

Silq: a self-adjusting office chair

Modern office chairs give their users a vast number of choices and settings. You can select height, back angle, arm angle, lean, lumbar support and so on. All this choice can be a good thing if you really want to customise a seat to your sitting position. However, anyone who’s worked in an office with a hot-desking policy will appreciate how tedious it is to adjust every chair you sit on from one day to the next. You can easily spend ten minutes trying to get a seat into position, and even then, it’s never quite right.

Steelcase, a Michigan-based design company, wanted to do away with all this choice – likening it to the overwhelming amount of options that users of services like Netflix experience when trying to find something to watch. The idea was to make a seat that adapts to the user, rather than users needing to make endless tweaks themselves. They note that the average office chair has some 250 components – theirs has just 30.

The company patented a new material they call ‘performance polymer’, which has many characteristics in common with carbon fibre. When a user sits on a Silq chair, it adjusts automatically to their posture and size (the only thing the user can actively adjust is seat height). The ‘performance polymer’ of the seat back ‘bends’ in the right place for each user, while offering enough resistance to ensure they get adequate support too. And that means that whenever someone sits on the chair, there’s no need to adjust it at all – the seat is meant to do that for you.

Recaro: a more comfortable seat for autonomous trucks

With autonomous vehicles expected to become more common in the next few years, the role of seats in cars and lorries will change. We may no longer need to be constantly facing forward, and some car seating designers have created prototypes for seats that can partially (or completely) revolve so drivers can have family time or business meetings.

Perhaps one of the most compelling areas for autonomous vehicles will be in long-distance trucking, with platoons of lorries driving many miles with little input from the driver. Recaro, the automotive seating branch of Adient, another Michigan-based firm, recently released a prototype of its ‘seating tomorrow’ concept for commercial vehicles.

The prototype is based on the idea of seats that can rotate up to 90 degrees in the lorry cabin, letting the driver use the adjustable passenger seat as a desk to hold a laptop. The seat has all the mod-cons imaginable, including a massage mode and body mobilisation programs. These involve swelling up ‘bladders’ in the seat cushion that simulate the muscle movements the driver would experience when walking, which is supposed to relax back muscles and keep them activated.

The seat is also designed to eliminate the risk of fatigue, as it contains sensors which monitor the driver’s vital signs. It could then be set to give them a wake-up call if they seem to be dropping off.

Horizon: seats to solve the problem of overcrowded trains

A packed train and the inability to find a seat are all too common experiences for the modern commuter. While the solutions to Britain’s current rail woes may need a more comprehensive solution, London consultancy PriestmanGoode’s new Horizon seat concept might at least provide a short-term answer to the problem.

The firm reckons its narrow benches could allow up to 30 per cent more seats in an average train carriage. The design is based around rows of tightly packed seats made for two passengers in commuter trains. Each seat has a staggered design, so one passenger is slightly in front of the other, meaning people have more of a sense of personal space. The design also provides two heights of footrest for passengers of different heights, and a small foldable table to lean a device on.

While it might not be the most luxurious option on earth, commuters could well find it preferable to standing and swaying while trying to read a newspaper, drink a coffee or browse on a phone.

Hawk: a slimmer, lighter aeroplane seat

Airlines are facing two competing challenges. More people are flying than ever, and this demand has to be accommodated. At the same time, concern about carbon emissions is also on the rise, so laying on ever more flights might not be the best option. One way to address both these issues is by changing the seat design.

The seats on the vast majority of today’s aircraft – for both short and long-haul flights – are fairly thick and heavy. A thinner, lighter alternative could therefore allow more passengers per flight, while also reducing the plane’s weight and, in theory, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions too.

This is the idea behind the Hawk, from the UK’s Mirus Aircraft Seating. The seats have already been retrofitted into a number of fleets’ planes and use a combination of lightweight materials and “Formula 1-​inspired” design. The Hawk essentially strips back the airline seat and does away with ‘frills’ such as controls to tilt the seat (which isn’t such a necessity on short-haul flights).

The Hawk’s backrest is made from carbon fibre, which allows for some movement and leaning, while the seatback is also designed in such a way that it allows more knee room for the person behind.

The Tek RMD: goodbye to the wheelchair

As valuable as wheelchairs are, they can often leave users frustrated. At social events, being seated while others stand means wheelchair users sometimes feel literally talked over, while a paraplegic person’s home may need to be redesigned entirely – especially if you don’t have someone around to reach those top shelves.

This is where Utah-based Matia Robotics’ Tek RMD is intended to help. Vaguely reminiscent of a Segway, the robotic device allows people with paraplegia or other walking disabilities to safely move from their wheelchair to a secure standing position and then move around their home with ease.

From a sitting position, a user can independently strap themself into the machine, and place their feet into footholds. The machine’s suspension system uses a gas spring mechanism, which balances the weight of the user – simply pulling up is enough to reach a standing position. From there, the user can navigate their home using a simple joystick.

Should they need to get something from a low cupboard, the machine also allows the user to lean down while the structure remains stable, so they can open drawers or pick up anything they’ve dropped. And, for even more freedom, the system comes with a remote control, allowing users to ‘call’ the device, or send it away when, for instance, they’ve sat down to watch TV and want it out of their line of sight. 

Design

What makes a chair ergonomic?

Jo Blood, director of Posture People, an office design consultancy, notes that “a chair that can help you move more while sitting is more important than ever to help combat a sedentary lifestyle”. So, what makes a chair ergonomic? Blood, who is an ergonomics expert, says that a true ergonomic seat will include:

Adjustable width and depth: there should be about three fingers’ space between the back of the knees and the seat, so an ergonomic chair should let you adjust to find that space.

Seat height adjustment: Ergonomic chairs will have a gas lift, which allows you to sit with your forearms in line with your desk.

Adjustable armrests: Ergonomic chairs normally feature armrests that can swivel for people of different sizes, and they should be able to adjust to support the forearms to rest at a 90-degree angle when your shoulders are relaxed.

Five star base: Regulations mean ergonomic chairs must have a five-star base, usually made of aluminium. This approach makes tipping much harder.

Back support: The back of the ergonomic chair should be height-adjustable and should match the contours of the spine. It may also include some kind of adjustable lumbar support.

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