Covid-proof outdoor benches from US hardwoods

AHEC Regional Director Roderick Wiles (seated) with Emirati designers (L-R) Aljoud Lootah, Khalid Shafar and Hamad Khoory.

‘Please Sit Here’ challenged three prominent Emirati designers to develop versatile public seating solutions in thermally-modified American hardwoods, which were featured at the Dubai Design Week, 2020.

According to the American Hardwood Export Council (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 Covid-19, 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 behaviour 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 concept

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 metres. 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 ensures 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, 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.

Two species

The three designers were offered a choice of two American hardwood species:  hard maple and red oak. Together, these species account for nearly 25% 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.

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.

Secure seating

 ‘Jalees’, by Aljoud Lootah, in thermally-modified American red oak, has been designed to recognise 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.

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.

Contrasting the natural hardwood is a playful pop of colour – 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.

Roaring Eighties

‘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 colours in the fashion industry and the retro cyber-techno theme all served to inspire the design of the smart outdoor bench.

“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,” 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, “Employing thermally-modified hard maple in cuboid modular units of seat, tree, planter and sanitisation, the modules engage with a linear comb-like thermally-modified maple base.”

The design also affords plug-and-play approach of slipping into and out of the comb, with many possible configurations.

The separated seat modules slip out of the main bench, and then slip back when the social distancing measures of the Covid-19 pandemic are no longer required.

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