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Natural Selection

School's out for summer. For younger students, this might mean swimming pools and ice cream cones. For high school and college students, it could mean a summer job or internship. For education administrators, however, summer break can be a time to regroup and prepare facilities for the next influx of students.

Ensuring facilities are equipped with proper furnishings is part of this preparation. Some considerations to keep in mind when choosing furniture include the function of the environment in which the furniture will be placed, the furniture's level of comfort and ability to perform different tasks, and the availability of different types of furniture within a given space.

Playing matchmaker

One of the first steps in selecting new furniture is to take a look at the intended function of the space in which it will be placed. Will the area be used for lectures, for hands-on projects, or for both?

When an architect is involved, school administrators should communicate their expectations clearly. If the architect doesn't have a good grasp of what the space will be used for, it can result in “a mismatch or misalignment” in regard to the furniture that's selected, says Kevin Havens, design director of Wight & Co., an architecture, construction, engineering and environmental firm in Darien, Ill.

Another part of selecting appropriate furniture for a learning environment is choosing pieces with the right level of durability.

“Research your options,” says Ann Marie Jackson, interior design department coordinator for Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., Novi, Mich. “Ask around for opinions, and get samples to test.”

Most companies will provide a sample and allow potential customers to mistreat their product, she says. This can give administrators a good idea about how well the product will stand up to abuse over time.

Hard plastic is very durable for seating, but heavy and cumbersome for young students to use. Soft plastic has a tendency to crack, but it's lightweight, says Jackson. By considering the function of the space and the students that will be using the space, administrators can decide what options are best for a specific environment.

“Determine your products based on the user, and determine if they're appropriate,” says Jackson.

Getting comfortable

The furnishings in a learning environment should support the goal of educating students. Seats that are uncomfortable or too small can take away from the learning experience.

Young students are not robots. They fidget, squirm and wiggle around. In the past, teachers have fought this behavior and encouraged students to sit still. Now, however, administrators have the option of purchasing furniture that adapts to student behavior.

“Some furniture allows the student to move while he or she is sitting in a chair, and there have been studies that state that it helps the student learn,” says Jackson. “What has been found is that kids want to move and need to move. If you let that happen, it keeps their brains active, and they end up learning more and remembering more.”

At York High School in Elmhurst, Ill., administrators wanted to create an outdoor feel for an enclosed, skylighted courtyard used as a common area outside the school's cafeteria and library. To do this, the architect included wooden benches and chairs, as well as rocking chairs, which allow students to move, says Havens.

“There are many dozens of them [rocking chairs] in this large room, and those are the first seats taken because kids just like to move and, of course, the chair is built to take it,” he says.

In addition to selecting furniture to suit student behavior, it's also important to consider student size.

“In the K-12 environment, we typically go for what we call the fifth-grade size and/or adult,” says Jackson. “Even in elementary school, the kids tend to be bigger.”

Allowing plenty of room between the seat and the desktop also will add comfort. An ideal length for this distance is 10 inches. Twelve inches is the maximum, says Jackson.

Furnishing a medley

Each new academic year brings new programs and new students. Smart furniture selection includes items that are flexible and can serve different functions.

“The school curriculum changes yearly,” says Michael Hunt, manager of interior planning and design for The Thomas Group, Ithaca, N.Y. “School districts need to invest in pieces that will keep up with these changes.”

In regard to furniture for housing technology applications, a general recommendation is to stay a little less specific, says Havens.

“It's not uncommon to see universities buy scores and scores of desk systems that have the ability to put a computer power unit (CPU) into some sort of special slot to get it off the desktop,” he says. “But every day, we're seeing the conversion away from desktops to laptop units.”

Furniture that can serve multiple functions also is beneficial when space is limited.

“Availability of space will always be an issue,” says Hunt. “Classroom furniture must be able to multi-task.”

Administrators can ensure a learning environment has appropriate furniture that is comfortable and flexible by incorporating a variety of furniture options from which students can choose. This is helpful especially in a university setting where there is a large mix of students with different study habits and needs.

Universities can offer areas for different types of study in residence halls and other places on campus.

“The trend and the recommendation would be to offer as wide of a selection as possible: private study, group, lounge study areas with couches and soft chairs, project tables that might be in separate rooms for serious group-study work, all the way to the more casual end of combining study and dining together,” says Havens.

By researching the market and keeping these key considerations in mind throughout the furniture-selection process, education administrators can choose products that will survive for years and prove to be a beneficial investment.

Comments? E-mail Hall, associate editor, at [email protected].

Waste not, want not

Keeping students comfortable and accommodating the way they learn should be the focus of selecting furniture for schools and universities. But, as administrators know all too well, the buck has got to stop somewhere.

With a fresh interest in environmentally friendly learning environments and a longstanding interest in saving money, some schools and universities find it worthwhile to consider refurbishing furniture instead of buying new. In some cases, a piece of furniture can be refinished with fabric to give it a new look, and sometimes even a new function, says Kevin Havens, design director of Wight & Co., an architecture, construction, engineering and environmental firm in Darien, Ill.

“If you took a systems-type chassis, a panelized system, but then specified brand-new tops that might be used for a completely different function … you can get a second life out of a piece of furniture and really give it a new function as well,” he says.

Furniture also can be restored to become more environmentally friendly, which is appealing to schools and universities seeking LEED certification. Systems can be dismantled and reassembled with recyclable materials such as compressed wheat board for tabletops. This gives an interesting look in addition to a second life, says Havens.

“Schools that have progressive facilities personnel are very open to these ideas,” says Havens. “They can reap enormous savings out of their inventory just by recycling what they already own.”



The ideal distance, in inches, that should exist between a student seat and desktop.

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