Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ergonomics 101

My dictionary defines ergonomics as the study of how equipment and furniture can be arranged in order that people can do work and other activities more efficiently and comfortably.
On that score Cambodia fails miserably, but that doesn’t matter much to the Khmer since they can sit cross-legged on a hard surface all day without even noticing they’re uncomfortable. Not so myself, I’m the canary in the comfort zone, not only because geezers need and like to be comfortable more than the young, pliable and adaptable, but also because my back always hurts from the heavy challenges I put it through in my younger days. There were times I couldn’t sit, stand or walk without the potential of excruciating pain if I wasn’t extremely careful of my movements: it’s not like that now, but still the pain is always there in the background.
Most of us here in Cambo can put up with discomfort since nothing is supposed to work just right here anyway and considering that living is cheap we don’t expect cushiness to be part of our everyday experience.
But if I’m at a bar or restaurant and the furniture is so poorly designed for comfort that my back is hurting, well, I’m not going to be able to hang around very long. That doesn’t matter so much in a restaurant since people don’t ordinarily spend much time eating, but in a bar where you might find yourself lingering for hours over multiple brews, comfort becomes important. As I say, some people hardly notice, still, if you’re the owner of a drinking or eating establishment, do you really want your customers to be uncomfortable? Most times there’s no difference in cost, you just need to know what to look for.
It’s not just the likes of Cambodia with dysfunctional furniture, sometimes I’ll be back in the states and I see furniture so poorly designed for comfort it’s a truly punishing experience. Sometimes designers will go through flights of fantasy in creating really beautiful, unique chairs that’re almost impossible to sit in.
‘Form follows function’ is a phrase coined by architect Louis Sullivan, who was mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright back in the early part of the 20th century. It’s an extremely simple concept but a lot of designers still haven’t gotten the message. You know, if you’re designing a chair, your first task is to make it comfortable, after that, knock yourself out, do any crazy thing you want. For instance, last time I was in Siem Reap some years ago I stopped in at the FCC – Foreign Correspondent’s Club. In the outdoor seating area they had these beautiful, sleek, ultramodern easy chairs which were amongst the most uncomfortable chairs I’ve ever tried to sit in. The seat was so long, if you tried to sit all the way back, you felt like a kid with your legs sticking straight out; also the back of the chair was so short it offered no support whatever. You had to sit all the way forward and pretend there was no back.
Chairs are the most difficult pieces of furniture to design because they require angles, rather than rectangles. Most of the padded wicker chairs one finds in Cambodia have seats that are flat, that is, parallel to the ground. When you sit back in one of those your bum immediately slides forward. If the seat is angled backwards, even just a centimeter or two your bum has a bit of an anchor. If possible when sitting in a chair with a flat seat I’ll move the cushion forward and fold up the front to raise my legs up and lower my bum, making it far more comfortable. At least wicker easy chairs and sofas are generally at the proper height, that is, when you sit down your feet rest comfortably on the floor. Dangling feet is a no-no, it cuts off circulation to your legs and in my case causes back pain in a few minutes. Some are designed with rounded tops and arm rests. They look great but are a serious detriment to comfort. Arm rests need to be flat, otherwise all the weight of your arm is resting on a bone rather than soft tissue. Also, the flat armrest allows you to place a cup or glass on it.
Most wooden chairs and many wicker ones are way too high, especially considering how short the locals are. However, Cambodians are so accustomed to chairs built too high, they’re not comfortable in those cheap plastic chairs which are the correct dimensions so they’ll stack them up so they can have their legs dangle. To each his own. Once again Khmer are so used to being uncomfortable, they don’t even know the difference. Hard wood seats need to be scooped out for your butt, otherwise all your weight is resting on your pelvic bones, rather than on soft bum tissue, but that requires a lot of work and talent compared to leaving them flat. Adding a cushion solves that problem, but that might exacerbate the height problem. If the chair is intended for sitting upright then the seat is okay flat.
Bars are one of my favorite topics, which is not surprising considering how much time I spend in them. Therefore it’s especially frustrating to see how almost all of them are poorly designed here. The first, biggest mistake is height: 95% are too tall. There probably isn’t a bar in the entire US of A that’s as tall as the average here in Cambodia. If you don’t actually take the time to research proper height, then the natural tendency is to make it too high. This is similar to the first time you try to juggle: you always want to throw the ball forward rather than straight up. It’s an automatic response.
‘Belly up to the bar’ is an old saying. On that basis the bar should come up to the center of the average person’s belly, which means when that person is standing up leaning against the bar they can comfortably rest their arms on it. However, since most bar patrons are men, designing for the average man is probably right. On the other hand, when you also consider the average Cambodian is short and women also go to bars, it’s best to err a bit on the short side. Yes, tall men will be at a disadvantage, but you can’t please everybody and besides they’re always at a disadvantage and are used to it. Taking all that into account, the maximum height of a bar should be 110 cm or a bit more than 43 inches. Anything more makes no sense whatever and yet I’ve been to bars taller than my chin where Cambodian staff couldn’t even see over them.
The other glaring fault with the typical bar here is the lack of a proper overhang or the ability use a proper one because of the configuration of the footrest and stool. When you push your bar stool all the way in you should be able to rest your arms on the bar without leaning forward. By the third or fourth drink you (I) need something to lean on. The overhang should therefore be at least 30 cm or 1 foot; similar to what you have sitting at a dinner table. Otherwise to put your elbows on the bar you either have to sit on the edge of your chair and forego the comfort of the chair back or strain your back leaning forward. Yet most bars in Cambo have almost no overhang at all. It’s supposed to be a bar top not a counter top.
Sometimes the problem is that the footrest sticks out too far and/or the stool is slanted backwards preventing the chair from going all the way forward. Rails solve that problem or you can design a footrest similar to an overhang. Either way those are key calculations required for a bar to be comfortable. Some bars here have no footrest at all. Take a look at the contortions people go through with their legs when there’re standing up at a bar with no place to rest one of their feet.
The only way to partially compensate for lack of an overhang is to have stools with arm rests, but they take up more space at the bar. Which brings up the subject of proper stool design. The cross members that give the stool strength and stability also need to be placed at a level which allows you to comfortably rest your feet; that is, without being so low it leaves your legs dangling or so high it forces your knees up around your chin. Taking a clue from those cheap plastic chairs, the cross member should be 16 to 17 inches or 40 to 42 cm below the seat. Khmer chair builders place them without any thought to where feet need to rest. It should be possible to tell the wood or wicker shop where you want the cross members to be - you’re paying for them after all - but sometimes they’ll just ignore you and put them where they’re used to putting them; which is exactly my experience.
If you also want your bar to work efficiently for staff there needs to be an underhang or cutaway at the back, essentially a shelf at a lower level where drinks can be conveniently mixed. Having local staff who are almost uniformly short mixing drinks on top of a tall bar or trying to use a lower shelf without a cutaway by bending over and contorting their bodies does not lend to efficiency. Khmers will never complain, but it’s a small matter to do it right.
Finally on the topic of bars, there are often serious disconnects in the way the rooms are designed. There are several establishments in Kampot which call themselves bar/restaurants but when you walk by you see a room full of restaurant tables with a very small bar at the back of the room just big enough for 4 or 5 seats with punters showing their back to the street. With my tired old eyes I can’t tell who’s there so I won’t go into a bar like that unless I know who’s there beforehand, otherwise I may walk in and find that I really don’t want to hang out with the people there. I’d probably still buy a beer to avoid an embarrassing U-turn, but then I have to sit around bored trying to drink it fast. If you sit at a table you’re looking for privacy, if you sit at a bar you’re looking to be sociable. If you call yourself a bar then the bar itself needs to be the full length of the room so that passersby can see who’s there. Tiny little bars as adjuncts to restaurants can’t achieve critical mass of boozy energy and are generally patronized only by close friends. The tap is best at the front so potential customers can see what you’re serving and so staff can see who’s entering the bar when they’re pouring mugs.
The problem arises from most shophouses being 4 meters wide which means if you have a full length bar and leave yourself a little space to maneuver behind it, there’s not enough room for full-size tables on the opposite wall. Essentially, you can’t do justice to both at the same time.
Most bar patrons are men and we tend to piss more often then women so a bar owner saves a lot of trouble by including a urinal, especially if it’s in a separate space from the toilet. Here in Cambo that’s easy as you can just hang it from a wall without its own room. Flush toilets, especially the cheap ones sold in Cambodia, don’t hold up well after being flushed 100 times or more per day and there’s hardly anything less fun than fixing a dysfunctional toilet which might be full of old shit or piss. Besides you offer better service; nobody wants to hang around standing in line waiting to pee.
I’m also a great fan of industrial ceiling fans. One ceiling fan moves the equivalent amount of air of 4 or 5 wall fans and does it with far more comfort. Except when it’s on high power it provides a gentle breeze with a lot less noise than wall fans. And it’s important to note that fans are not just for cooling: with the amount of cigarette smoking that goes on here in Cambo it’s essential to keep air moving.
Ultimately, ambiance trumps comfort. The better the atmosphere - lighting, music, vibrations - the less important the ergonomics become. But that begs the question, Why punish your loyal customers with discomfort?
One final note on bars. Many are equipped with wicker stools. They’re cheap and they look good but they can occasionally be dangerous. They’re handmade and not always consistently fabricated and they also sometimes loosen up. About 5 years ago I came close to a serious injury from one. I was leaning over backwards, as I often do, when the stool, which was seriously unbalanced toward the rear, sent me hurtling to the floor. I knew I couldn’t let the back of my head hit the hard tiled floor so I turned as fast as I could and bounced my nose, which was sore for more than a week, off the floor instead. I could’ve easily gotten a concussion or worse if I’d let my skull do the bouncing.
A friend who used it later remarked right off that it was unbalanced. I wanted the stool to be retired immediately and was almost ready to totally trash it so it couldn’t be used again, but the owner just blew off the danger and left it in place. For a lousy $25 dollars, the cost of a new stool, he’s taking an unnecessary chance with his patron’s safety, in this case could even mean death. There is, however, a silver lining to this particular story since my nose, which had been pointing to the left from a much earlier break is now facing straight ahead. It’s not all that straight itself, but at least it’s pointing in the right direction.
Finally a note about ergonomics and computers. Most people nowadays have laptops, notebooks, ipads or such. They’re very convenient but are impossible to use ergonomically without a proper computer desk and auxiliary keyboard and maybe monitor. If the laptop monitor is at the proper height so that you’re looking at it straight ahead rather than looking down, then the keyboard is going to be too high and possibly cause carpal tunnel problems in your wrists. Conversely, if the keyboard is at the right height, then you’ll be looking down at the monitor. If you’re young and/or you don’t use it too long at a time, all that won’t matter much, you can get away with poor ergonomics. Otherwise do yourself a favor and buy a computer table, and while you’re at it a back-saving well-designed desk chair: Ergonomics means comfort and efficiency.

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