As he works on the renovation and expansion of the Center for the Arts at Towson University in Towson, Md., academic facility planner Kris Phillips is reminded continually of the importance of choosing the right furniture for the center.
Much of the furniture still being used in the existing facility was purchased when the center opened more than 30 years ago. The lesson? The furniture Phillips is helping to select for the renovated center needs to be around not just for today's Towson students, but also for their children — and beyond.
“For us, it's a longevity issue,” says Phillips. “With the capital funding available, we have a once-in-a-lifetime shot to buy furniture. We need to make sure we make a wise institutional choice.”
For education institutions, many of which are coping with stagnant or shrinking budgets, issues such as style and aesthetics may play some part in deciding what furniture to buy, but the overriding characteristic sought in chairs, desks, tables and other furnishings is durability.
“It doesn't have to look pretty, but it has to be durable,” says Dominique Laroche, assistant director of university physical planning at Arizona State University. “You may even go further on cost to get more durability.”
Anybody looking to buy furniture is seeking products that will last a long time, but what is considered durable in the reception area outside the chancellor's office might not qualify for that designation in a classroom where hundreds of students climb in and out of chairs and desks throughout the day and night.
“It just gets abused,” says Laroche. “You don't have the luxury of replacing the furniture. You need things that will last and things that have parts available for repair.”
Furniture on campuses accumulates wear and tear not only from day-to-day student use, but also from the need to reconfigure spaces and relocate furniture. Workers moving the pieces often are not inclined to treat items delicately.
“We try to avoid products with particle board or with dowel rod connections,” says Phillips. “Some of the faculty may see some furniture they like at (a furniture store), but it's made of laminate chip board and it wouldn't last. We have to get 15 to 20 years out of them.”
In public spaces where prospective students and their parents are likely to visit, aesthetics may take precedence, Phillips adds.
Large universities have so much classroom space and furniture that over time they develop a good idea about which furniture holds up to the daily campus grind.
“Our general-purpose classrooms may seat anywhere from 20,000 to 22,000 students from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” says David Crane, a classroom facilities coordinator at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “We get a pretty good level of feedback of how that furniture is performing. It's a great laboratory, in effect. We see what's working, the failure rate, look at preventive maintenance and apply what we learn.”
In addition to those observations, school officials often set up specific sites where students and instructors can try out furniture under consideration for purchase.
“You've got to get some validity and consensus with the people who are going to use it,” says Crane. “We put the furniture out there for informal testing, so we can get direct feedback.”
A school's size also can allow it to purchase furniture in large quantities and receive better prices. In many of those cases, colleges have campuswide agreements for buying furniture.
“We utilize a university-wide contract,” says Crane. “There is some leeway, but the university standards ensure that we're getting good quality and good pricing.”
By focusing on durability, education institutions sometimes have had to sacrifice aesthetics.
“With some heavy-grade fabrics, you might not have as much detailing in the pattern,” says Phillips. “The pendulum has durability on one side, and style and design on the other.”
Individual faculty members might want office or classroom furniture with a little more style, but Phillips says, “We have to look at an institutional as opposed to an individual perspective.”
Crane agrees that functionality takes precedence over aesthetics, especially in general-purpose classrooms, but he says a school does not have to totally forgo style considerations.
“Choices have expanded,” says Crane. “Five or 10 years ago, you had a lot more limitations.”
Facility planners often need to rely on vendors to keep them up to speed on the latest improvements in furnishings.
“Exhibitors and contractors have a depth of knowledge about the different products available,” says Crane. “It's a challenge to keep up with all the information.”
Although style and aesthetics often get short shrift in furniture decisions, durability can't rule the day at the expense of comfort.
“You can sit on a piece of wood — that would be durable,” says Laroche. “But you have to consider comfort. Aesthetics might be the last thing we consider, but we definitely do look at ergonomics.”
Double-rub abrasion rating for general contract upholstery.
Double-rub abrasion rating for heavy-duty upholstery.
Cycle abrasion rating for general contract upholstery.
Cycle abrasion rating for heavy-duty upholstery.
Source: Association for Contract Textiles
Sidebar: There's the rub
For upholstered furniture, one of the characteristics school officials use to guide their selection is the product's “double-rub” rating.
A double-rub test is meant to simulate a person getting into and out of a chair and assessing how the upholstered fabric holds up to the wear of continually rubbing against another fabric.
The method most commonly used to determine the double-rub rating of a fabric is known as the Wyzenbeek test, according to the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT).
The Wyzenbeek test uses abrasive material that is rubbed back and forth on fabric specimens. “The number of double-rub cycles achieved before two yarn breaks occur or ‘noticeable wear’ is observed is recorded as the fabric's abrasion rating,” ACT says.
The higher the rating, the more durable the fabric.
The association labels fabric with a 15,000 double-rub rating as “general contract upholstery,” and categorizes fabric with a 30,000 double-rub rating as “heavy duty.”
ACT says upholstery with a 30,000 double-rub rating is appropriate in settings such as hotel rooms, conference rooms and dining areas. The association also recognizes “extreme wear situations that may require higher levels of abrasion resistance.” Among those places are public gathering places such as theaters, lecture halls, stadiums, fast-food restaurants and 24-hour businesses.
The association also says that double-rub ratings of more than 100,000 “are not meaningful in providing additional value in use. Higher abrasion resistance does not necessarily indicate a significant extension of the service life of the fabric.”
Another test of fabric durability, more commonly used in Europe, is called the Martindale test. It is an oscillating test in which fabric samples are rubbed with abrasive material in a figure-eight-like motion. “The number of cycles that the fabric can endure before the fabric shows objectionable change in appearance is counted,” the association states. “The number of cycles determines the abrasion rating.”
Using the Martindale test, a rating of 20,000 cycles is considered “general contract upholstery,” and 40,000 cycles is considered “heavy duty.”
Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.