AHEC unveils three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), the leading international trade association for the American hardwood industry, has unveiled three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020. The design collaboration – Please Sit Here - challenged three prominent Emirati designers to develop versatile public seating solutions in thermally-modified American hardwoods.

AHEC unveils three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020

According to AHEC, social distancing - a captivating oxymoron coined to reference the space we need to leave between each other - has begun to dominate the way we live and the decisions we make. While incredibly important in the fight against the spread of the virus, it also curbs our freedom of choice and forces us to behave in an unnatural way. People are social by nature and regulations that inhibit normal social behavior do not come naturally.

In response to this, three prominent Emirati designers - Aljoud Lootah, Khalid Shafar, Hamad Khoory and their teams - were invited by AHEC to each design and develop a hardwood bench for outdoor use in a public space. The bench needed to be designed in such a way that people who sit on it are forced to separate by the current social distancing minimum of 2 meters.

AHEC unveils three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020

This would negate the need for warning signs and allow for people to sit in a relaxed way without having to think about whether they are too close to the next person. However, the design of the bench would also allow for conversion to accommodate more people, closer together, as and when the time comes for social distancing regulations to be relaxed. This will ensure that the benches retain a legacy as functional public seating in the future.

Please Sit Here draws inspiration from the AHEC’s many high-profile and ambitious collaborations to date, in the UAE and also in Europe, Australia and South Africa. These projects have included multiple design teams, imaginative briefs, innovative designs and the very best of wood craftsmanship, to celebrate the beauty, performance and sustainability of American hardwoods.

The three designers were offered a choice of two American hardwood species - hard maple and red oak. Together, these species account for nearly 25 percent of the eastern hardwood forests of the USA, one of the largest and most sustainable hardwood resources in the world. Because the benches are for outdoor use, the maple and red oak offered was thermally-modified, involving high heat in a vacuum, carried out after normal kiln drying.

AHEC unveils three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020

Thermally-modified timber (TMT) is ideal for exterior application, as it has both increased durability and dimensional stability. Specified widely across India, thermally-modified American hardwoods are suitable for applications such as cladding, decking and shading structures, as well as in outdoor furniture and their environmental impact is extremely low. They have much to offer as a natural and low- environmental impact alternative to many other wood and non-wood products.

Jalees by Aljoud Lootah in thermally-modified American red oak has been designed to recognize the primitive characteristics of outdoor benches found around the UAE and in every Emirati home. Jalees in Arabic translates to being seated securely in place and also means companion. According to Lootah, this seating design pays tribute to its minimal structure and attributes. The essential vertical and horizontal red oak members have inspired the minimalist design of this outdoor bench creating an appealing modern interpretation.

AHEC unveils three COVID-proof outdoor benches at Dubai Design Week 2020
“Taking into consideration the post-COVID social distancing requirements, this bench creates a flexible seating system for all users. Contrasting the horizontal octagonal thermally-modified American red oak members are circular seats with metal inserts that slide along the length of the bench to create social distancing when needed between strangers and to bring family together at the same time. Additional seats could be added or removed from the bench according to the requirements of the user,” said Aljoud Lootah.

Contrasting the natural hardwood is a playful pop of color – yellow - that is minimally added on the interior of the bench both for visual aesthetic and structural purposes, along with three metal arches to stop the seats from moving further along the bench. Smaller sliding and removable tables are also placed between the two seats to provide the users with a space to place their cups of coffee, phones or small personal belongings.

Pop Up by Khalid Shafar in thermally-modified American hard maple with thermally- modified American red oak detailing has been inspired by the ‘80s. Neon linear lights, ad- boards, the energy in the era's synth wave music, catchy pop colors in the fashion industry and the retro cyber-techno theme all served to inspire the design of the Pop Up smart outdoor bench to portray the ‘80s energy and to convey the optimism and strength that we need to overcome the current COVID-19 pandemic with the hope for a brighter and stronger future.

“From the launch of the first space shuttle and the release of the first IBM computers to the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, the ‘80s offered hope to humanity to once again achieve the impossible and for people to chase their wildest dreams. The energy and passion expressed in their supercharged aesthetics still reflect the 1980s in the current decade,” said Khalid Shafar.

Wahda Bench by Hamad Khoory in thermally-modified American hard maple has been inspired by the traditional majlis with its inherent values of humility, equality and community. According to Khoory, the Wahda bench is an exploration of connection and separation.

“Employing thermally-modified hard maple in cuboid modular units of seat, tree, planter and sanitization, the modules engage with a linear comb-like thermally-modified maple base, a plug-and- play approach of slipping into and out of the comb, with many possible configurations. The bench is thus an expression of community and disunity, with the separated seat modules slipping out of the main bench, and then slipping back when the social distancing measures of the COVID-19 pandemic are no longer required, creating the final bench form,” added Khoory.

Using material volume data collected by the UAE-based manufacturers - Urban Studio and Alfa Interiors & Furniture - and based on AHEC’s Life Cycle Assessment tool, it has calculated that all the maple and red oak used to make the three benches would be replaced in the US hardwood forest through natural regeneration in just 5.8 seconds. At the same time, for the duration of their existence, the three benches will keep approximately 1 metric ton of CO2 equivalent out of the atmosphere.

“It is a delight to see the different approaches that all three designers took with this topical brief. The designs by Aljoud, Hamad and Khalid are innovative, playful, practical and beautiful. The attention to detail on the benches is high and the craftsmanship excellent, which serves to highlight the beauty of the thermally- modified American maple and red oak used,” concluded Roderick Wiles, AHEC Regional Director.
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