How To Build Sustainable Residence Hall Furniture

In Blog, Green Manufacturing by Morgan Dix

Why is DCI one of the few residence-hall furniture manufacturers whose solid hardwood products are FSC C-o-C Certified?

It’s the same reason why we consistently win contracts with the most ecologically-minded universities like UC Berkeley, UCLA, Dartmouth, and UPenn.

We have the greenest manufacturing process in the residence hall furniture industry.

And there’s more to that assertion than a mere boast. Environmental sustainability is the vital blood that runs through the heart of our values and our operation.

Vertical Integration for Sustainable Residence Hall Furniture

For over 40 years, we’ve honed and developed our green manufacturing process to give you the most sustainable residence hall furniture possible.

We call it our sustainable vertical integration process (Sustainable VIP).

This unique process enabled us to win the coveted gold-standard of wood certification—FSC C-o-C. It’s also why you can earn multiple LEED credits when you install DCI furniture in your residence hall.

So how do we do it?

To begin with, we own our own sawmill. That lets us control the entire manufacturing process of our furniture from origin to final product.

Why is this important? Because it allows us to monitor quality and maximize efficiencies at every stage in our process—from the trees we select to the recycled sawdust we use to fire our kilns and heat our factory and offices.

Furthermore, it means that every aspect of our production process is truly local, which is a key aspect of sustainability. It also allows us to carefully monitor every step in the process for environmental integrity.

Why Green Manufacturing Is So Important

DCI’s level of sustainable oversight is distinctive in our industry. No other company aspires to this kind of environmental standard. Why do we do it and why should you care about green manufacturing?

We believe that sustainability makes good business sense. But we also feel that setting an example for students is important. We want them to better steward the earth, and we need to model that stewardship for them.

Solid hardwood is far and away the most sustainable raw material for residence hall furniture.

And it’s inspiring for students to use furniture with sustainable qualities: it lasts for 30-40 years, it supports local economies, it’s recyclable, it’s reusable, it has multiple lives, and it doesn’t pollute landfills, the atmosphere, or our bodies (unlike furniture made from wood laminate or rubberwood).

But let’s break it down.

Why is our green vertical integration process so unique and what’s special about it from a sustainability perspective?

A Green Manufacturing Process

To really understand it, we need to take a little journey and follow the wood as it develops from a raw tree into a finished desk.

1. Logs to Lumber

The first step in the process is choosing our trees. To ensure that we use the most sustainably grown and harvested timber, we purchase solid hardwood logs directly from state regulated forests in Vermont and New Hampshire that adhere to the highest environmental standards.

2. Transporting the Timber

The second step in the process is transporting the trees to our sawmill. We minimize our energy and carbon footprint by choosing trees that are harvested within 120 miles of our sawmill.

3. Getting the Most from Each Tree

Our sawmill in Vermont processes these hardwood logs—primarily ash, oak, and maple—into rough cut lumber. The lumber is graded by tree species, thickness, and length according to standards set by the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) and shipped to our factory in Lisbon, New Hampshire.

(Note: For organizations that own standing hardwood timber, we can provide a “chain of custody” for logs harvested from the customer’s property. We’ve been doing this at Dartmouth College. To read more click here.)

4. Using ALL The Wood: Zero Waste

Once the logs are cut, using a special saw blade to harvest the most wood from each tree, only a certain percentage—let’s say 80 percent—is fit for manufacturing the furniture.

But what about the other 20 percent? We use all of it.

Some of it is rough cut that’s not suitable for furniture, so we turn that into wood pallets. Some of it is bark, and we recycle that into wood chips for landscaping. And then some of it is sawdust, which we use to power our kilns and heat our factory.

5. Sustainable Kiln Drying

Next, the rough-cut lumber is placed into kilns. And here is one of the highlights of our Sustainable VIP. The kilns are heated with steam, generated from wood-fired boilers fueled by wood waste (see sawdust above).

One hundred percent of the wood used in these boilers is a byproduct of our sawmill or plant operations.

This kind of energy conservation and non-reliance on fossil fuels makes environmental and economic sense. All waste byproducts of our manufacturing processes are used to make steam and/or electricity for our factory. How?

Every machine has a filter that captures excess sawdust and wood waste which we then use in the wood-fired boilers. When our wood boiler is in use, the factory consumes no gas or oil (even during cold New Hampshire winters).

By using a wood boiler to run our kilns and heat our factory and offices, we save an average of 68 gallons of oil an hour and over 200,000 gallons of oil each year.

The lumber is carefully dried to a moisture content between 6-8% and then re-graded. The drying process can take up to 30 days. While we use much of the lumber at our furniture facilities, we also sell some to wholesalers.

6. Rough Mill

After the drying process, the lumber enters the high yield rough mill for planing, cutting, gluing, and pressed into panels for making furniture. We use the hardwood lumber that isn’t graded for making panels for internal support pieces in our casegoods.

This repurposing and efficiency eliminates the need to purchase additional components.

Processing raw materials from origin to finished product separates us from our competitors, who rely on outside suppliers for dry lumber, pre-manufactured wood panels, and components. Often those materials come from Canada.

7. Finish Mill

At this point in the process, we send the solid wood panels to the finish mill to make specific furniture parts.

The finish mill processes are carefully scrutinized and our manufacturing steps are subject to strict quality control. After passing all quality checks, the finished parts are ready for urethane application.

8. UV Finishing

We use state-of-the-art ultraviolet cured urethane finishing. This is the same material and application method used on pre-finished hardwood flooring.

It’s more resistant than other finishes to damage from abrasion and chemical exposure, as well as to the effects from temperature and humidity changes. We also apply it to the interior of all cabinets to provide superior dimensional stability.

Ahead of EPA standards, our roll-applied finishing process emits Zero VOC’s (chemicals emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids that have adverse health effects—see this article on How Wood Laminate Poisons People And The Biosphere).

Our UV finish is certified MAS Green.

9. Assembly

At this last point in the manufacturing process, the fully finished components enter final assembly at either our Lisbon plant or one of our regional assembly facilities in North Carolina or California.

We then put together the parts and panels under pressure and apply glue to the mortise and tenon or dowel joints. The furniture is clamped to ensure that all joints are tight and completely square before we drive screws into each joint.

This assemble process is superior to dry construction or other methods that don’t use mortise and tenon or dowel joinery.

A Virtuous Manufacturing Loop

We start with an infinitely renewable resource: wood. It only takes air, sunlight, water, and soil to grow a tree.

When we harvest our trees, we work with state foresters to minimize the impact on local wildlife habitat—we actually try to improve it—and maximize long-term forest health.

Then we use every single part of the tree to eliminate waste. Not only is nothing wasted, but we displace CO2-burning fossil fuels with clean burning woodwhich is recycled from our manufacturing process.

We harvest our “waste” to fuel our factory. Wood keeps our lights on in more ways than one.

In the process, we save money, reduce our CO2 footprint, improve forest health, and build beautiful long-lasting furniture for you.

This is our elegant vertical integration process.

It’s a virtuous manufacturing loop—the only one of it’s kind in our industry. As you can see, controlling the entire manufacturing process from source to product ensures that we can provide you with the most sustainable furniture in the residence hall marketplace.

As DCI’s President and founder, Henry Kober, is fond of saying, “These practices aren’t just good for the environment, they’re good for business. They just make sense.”

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To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representatives, you can write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.

You can also learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).

Download the DCI Sustainability Pledge here.