The Furniture Equation

June 1, 2004
Schools of tomorrow must be able to accommodate advances in technology.

Technology is changing educational facilities in ways that could not have been imagined a few years ago. When bricks and mortar are put in place, they are expected to remain in place — educational programs are modified to fit the “box.” With gaps of 20 years or more between capital-improvement projects, schools must develop ways to accommodate the fast pace of technological change and facilitate the use of the latest technology.

Teaching now embraces differing learning styles: independent student work, small-group sessions, larger group discussions, teacher-directed instruction and lectures. To accommodate those styles, schools must have the flexibility to reconfigure instructional spaces regularly. The spaces also must have data and power connections for laptop or desktop computers and possibly other personal electronic devices. Some specialized lab spaces can be customized with fixed equipment, but most educational spaces will require as much flexibility and adaptability as possible, including technology-free zones with comfortable seating for interaction and communication.

Be flexible

In an effort to attract students to their campuses, colleges and universities have created special flexible spaces and workstations. A visit to construction or renovation projects at most colleges or universities will reveal classrooms, labs, conference spaces and common areas with wired or wireless computer connections. More students are coming to class with laptop computers to research, communicate and take notes during class. This has resulted in a major change in what type of furniture is found in classroom spaces. Instead of tablet-arm chairs, more schools are incorporating tables and desks with power and data connections.

Many K-12 schools have been providing computers to all teachers, as well as installing data connections in the rear or side of a classroom and one or more dedicated computer labs in the building. Often, the computers are installed on built-in counters or on top of whatever table or desk is available. Placing these computers in classrooms has created crowded conditions in many areas.

A desktop computer shared by three elementary students at a time would need at least 33 square feet of space (6 feet by 5.5 feet). Twenty-five students with four computer stations will not fit in a conventional 750 square-foot classroom. For a classroom with five computer drops, the additional space would equate to at least 165 square feet, in addition to the space for conventional desks. Some schools have found this additional space for computers in the corridor.

More and more K-12 public schools are following colleges and universities and are creating increasingly sophisticated educational facilities, incorporating technology with spaces sized for specific uses and utilizing non-traditional classroom furniture and layouts.

Be comfortable

Ergonomics is not always considered when placing computers in classrooms. Many schools are purchasing furniture based on past practices. Keep in mind that business took about 20 years to recognize the benefit of providing ergonomic furniture designed for technology, and schools are only 10 years into that curve. It is only a matter of time until schools will be required to provide students with appropriately designed furniture. With regard to technology, televisions, which recently became a fixture in classrooms, are being replaced with projectors because students more than a few rows from a TV monitor cannot see the task bar when computer screens are displayed during class.

Technology requires flexible furniture and specific spaces for computer workstations:

  • Student tables with integrated cable trays and separate chairs allow flexibility and wiring from the walls or floor boxes.

  • A desktop computer workstation requires a 30-inch by 36-inch workstation. With an LCD screen, the station can be 24 inches deep or with a laptop, 20 inches.

  • A chair in front of a workspace takes a 24-inch by 30-inch footprint.

  • The rule of thumb for a general computer workstation space is 3 feet by 5.5 feet per student, plus walking space or about 25 square feet per station added to the general square footage of the room.

Be thorough

There is no right or wrong answer to providing classroom furniture, provided it is “right” for the school and its curriculum, and is comfortable to use. In the past, school systems bought furniture and equipment based on the least expensive way to provide the maximum number of seats, as well as looking at previous purchases to buy more of the same. Function, other than a place to “sit,” was usually secondary if it looked “good” and appeared to be long-lasting. Typically in a renovation or new construction project, schools never plan for “expensive” furniture in the program-development phase, and if there were cost overruns on the construction, they simply reduced the furniture, fittings and equipment (FF&E) budget. This lack of funds usually translated to reusing existing equipment or settling for less desirable furnishings.

Schools need to ask how they will be using the space and how often the equipment will be moved throughout a typical day. Also, administrators need to consider which types of services are required (water, electricity, data) as well as the life-cycle cost and how easily custodians can clean around the furniture. Schools need to determine the type of computer to be used in the space so it will have adequate desk space. Before buying furniture with an integrated duplex outlet, check local electrical codes, which typically require that it be hard-wired to the electrical service. UL-rated plug-in power extenders that clamp to the furniture are more flexible and are available in lengths up to 30 feet.

Some schools use access floors for all spaces so data and power can be provided virtually anywhere. This provides a great deal of flexibility, but it comes at a significant cost. For the majority of educational spaces, a combination of floor and wall outlets, and furniture with integrated raceways, provide flexible configurations. Ceiling drops have proven to be a cost-effective solution, especially in a “high-tech” environment.

Spaces will be used for a variety of programs and delivery methods. The furniture selected and incorporated as part of the interior architecture will play an increasingly major role in whether a space remains useful as needs change.

Think ahead

Some general considerations:

  • All facility improvements should include furniture use and layout based on a school's current and anticipated curriculum.

  • Movable fixtures and equipment will provide maximum flexibility within an educational space.

  • Data and power connections are required in all classrooms. A school should use the latest technology that it can afford. Even with most wireless systems, hard wiring is still required for video transmission.

  • Install a pathway for future needs, including conduit above the ceiling, conduit through firewalls and cable trays throughout the facility.

  • FF&E must be addressed properly in any construction budget to ensure that the required furniture is provided.

  • Tablet-arm chairs most likely will be phased out in 10 to 15 years because of technology.

Sidebar: Good works

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is rethinking its physical environment for education and is in the midst of a massive reshaping of its campus in Cambridge. Facilities are being designed and redesigned for the specific programs that are housed in the space and are incorporating relevant technology. One of those spaces is the TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) Room, a classroom for 99 students at tables that seat three teams of three students.

Students work on laptops; the entire room is networked. Work on the laptops can be projected on screens around the room as desired by the instructor. This interaction allows an instructor to facilitate the merging of hands-on learning with lectures and dissertations. Another space is the Aeronautics and Astronautics Laboratory, which was carved into an existing traditional classroom. It was intended that the space should “not be over-designed so that it can evolve.” Students continue to change the space by moving furniture and movable partitions within the boundaries of the hard-walled spaces.

Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, Md., is another example of creating a facility based on a technology-rich curriculum. This facility has embraced technology in the renovation of an old high school facility and is a technology magnet high school. All spaces were designed to allow students to use laptop computers in all classes, and the furniture allows the space to accommodate the intended function.

Most of the spaces have tables with data and power connections and are planned for becoming wireless. Some adjustment is required for testing, as it is more difficult separating students at tables in some of the configurations that work best for the learning process than it was for individual desks.

Chambers is a principal with Bink Partnership, Camp Hill, Pa., and serves as Director of the Pennsylvania Schoolhouse Studio, which specializes in curriculum-based designs for the educational community.

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