Smart School Furniture

Smart School Furniture

Refinishing furniture can be a good solution for residence halls on a tight budget.

Practical, cost-effective and sustainable, school furniture refinishing has many benefits for education institutions with tight budgets and a commitment to sustainability. Refinishing keeps structurally sound pieces out of crowded landfills, giving students high-quality, long-lasting furniture for a fraction of the cost of new purchases.

On dozens of campuses, summer marks the beginning of construction season. During the past summer, building projects ranged from relatively small, such as the $3 million renovation of a chapel roof at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to massive programs such as the $864 million expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. At the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, USC also stands for the "University of Summer Construction;" the campus had 51 different construction projects underway, all slated for completion before the beginning of the fall semester.

In the budget

In virtually all of these building programs, schools have budgeted for new furnishings. But in older buildings, particularly for student residence halls, the decision to buy new school furniture or refurbish existing furniture assets is more complex. The evaluation must take into account variables such as the condition of furniture, its usage patterns, the rate of wear and tear, and even the building’s location and floor plan. And budget constraints always must be a factor in deciding whether to buy new or refinish existing furniture.

Another important factor is the increasing awareness and concern for the impact of new school furniture production on the environment—from harvesting sustainably grown wood products to the use of non-toxic adhesives.

Colleges and universities are among the leading drivers of the sustainability movement. The founding of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in 2005 was a landmark event in helping colleges and universities coordinate and strengthen campus sustainability efforts. The association also serves as the first North American professional association for those interested in advancing campus sustainability. By the end of 2010, AASHE had 839 members, and the number continues to grow.

AASHE is not the only organization to influence sustainability efforts at colleges and universities. The U.S. Partnership of Education for Sustainable Development also was founded in 2005, with a mission "to leverage the U.N. Decade of Education for Sustainable Development to foster education for sustainable development in the United States."

Furniture Assets Under Scrutiny

As colleges and universities look for ways to achieve sustainability, campus furniture is getting closer scrutiny from environmentally aware students, faculty and in many cases, an institution’s sustainability manager. According to AASHE, more than 75 percent of all college and university sustainability manager positions were created in the last four years. In addition, most colleges and universities have established guidelines and policies for sustainability that cover such goals as increasing campuswide energy savings and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, improving fuel efficiency, reducing water use, eliminating toxins and pollutants, and launching recycling programs. Procurement managers often are directed to select environmentally preferred products and services that minimize the impact on the environment.

But sustainability initiatives on campus may conflict with economic realities; funding for colleges and universities is tight, and endowment values have decreased at many institutions. One way to adhere to budget constraints while maintaining the momentum for environmental awareness is to look at the eco-friendly process of renovation and refinishing.

To Refinish or Buy New?

Furniture refinishing can be a practical, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to manage college and university furniture assets. Furniture has a hard life on campus, particularly in residence halls; the constant turnover of students causes extensive wear and tear, and furnishings begin to look old very rapidly. As a result, facility managers must decide whether to buy new furniture and send old pieces off to landfills, or undertake a cost-effective, environmentally sustainable effort to refurbish and refinish furniture.

The decision comes down to a school’s goals for environmental impact, the quality of refinished furniture and budget considerations. But cost efficiency and sustainability can go hand-in-hand when refurbishing existing furniture. This approach can stretch budgets as well as help schools and universities earn points toward LEED certification.

Many existing pieces of furniture are constructed from higher-quality materials than are typically available in the replacement market. Solid oak, one of the best materials available and one of the most common types of wood used in furniture, can be refinished to look as good as or even better than new furniture. The cost to refinish and renovate furniture can be far less than purchasing new furniture—as little as 20 percent of the price of the new replacements.

Refinishing can keep structurally sound furniture out of landfills. Many schools regularly dispose of high-quality furniture that appears to be in poor condition. However, the apparent cost savings don’t pass the test of time, because new furniture often has only a fraction of the life span of the original.

Refinishing furniture is productive and efficient. Typically, refurbishment teams can complete the process for dozens of pieces of furniture a day, working on-site and leaving rooms clean and ready for re-occupation that same day. When environmentally safe materials are used for repair, sealing and coating, and techniques such as dustless sanding limit unwanted emissions, the air and the workroom remain clean and odor-free.

By refinishing instead of replacing furniture, colleges and universities can make progress on their sustainability goals, reduce the strain on budgets and provide students with the benefits of a learning environment supported by high-quality, long-lasting furniture.

Insenga is founder and president of The Refinishing Touch, Alpharetta, Ga. He can be reached at [email protected].

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