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Home Away From Home

Many schools are striving to outfit residence halls with furniture that gives students the flexibility to create their own homes away from home.

They've left behind the comforts and familiarity of their own beds and mom's cooking. So when students embark on new lives at college, they want a residence-hall room where they can feel, just a little bit, as if they are at home and not one of hundreds of anonymous tenants in a drab institution.

Colleges and universities are taking those student attitudes into account when they decide how to furnish student rooms and other areas of residence halls. Many schools are striving to outfit rooms with furniture that gives students the flexibility to create their own homes away from home.

"Students are going to spend a lot of time in their rooms, so they really want a place that feels kind of homey and comfortable," says Jim Malzewski, director of housing and residence life at Gonzaga University, Seattle. "They don't want furniture that looks too 'dorm-like.'"

Defining that concept isn't easy, but for many, "dorm-like" conjures up images of furniture that is institutional, uncomfortable, heavy, space-hogging, ugly.

"We've tried furniture that is very durable," says Tim Gennett, director of facilities, housing and food services at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. "It weighs a lot and is immobile and virtually indestructible, not comfortable or flexible. That model has not worked out well."

Providing options

Colleges say they seek out furniture that is flexible. Students are assigned to rooms with limited space and, probably for the first time, have to share their living quarters with a roommate. In such a circumstance, students put a premium on flexibility.

Having residence-hall rooms that students actively like rather than merely tolerate can enhance the marketability of a college, says Purdue's Gennett.

In general, the goal for most colleges and universities is to let students fit the most amount of stuff in the least amount of space.

"They want maximum storage space with a minimum footprint," says Gennett. "They want something that looks nice and is in reasonably good condition.

"Our preference is to look at furniture that is flexible and can be rearranged."

Lofts have long been a popular way for students to increase living space and create a unique look in cramped residence-hall rooms. Some schools do not allow them, but at Gonzaga, Malzewski tries to maximize a room's size by looking for furniture that is "loftable."

"You want to be able to tuck away and hide certain things," says Malzewski. Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which is redoing some of its residence-hall rooms for the first time in 30 years, is making its furnishings more flexible for students.

"We're not going to have built-in beds and bookcases," says Larie McCluskey, interior designer at Baylor. "Students will be able to move them [beds and bookcases] around and set up the room as they like."

The desire for flexibility and comfort goes beyond the residence-hall room. In its cafeterias, Baylor chooses stackable chairs because they allow more flexibility.

The university also has added more large tables in its library to accommodate students who want to study in groups. And it has rid the library of many sofas and other lounge furniture, where students often slept, and replaced them with individual chairs where students can study in comfort.

Beyond making their students happy, colleges and universities have logistical reasons for choosing the right furniture for students.

"If the students don't like the furniture, they often end up putting stuff in storage rather than keeping it in their rooms," says Malzewski. "They bring their own stuff in, and we have to find storage space for what they don't use."

Balancing cost and comfort

An unavoidable consideration, of course, is cost. No matter how good the intentions of a college or university are, they can't provide what they can't afford.

"Price is important," says Malzewski. "We look at longevity, the amount of wear a product will take. We also look closely at warranties. There are some pretty good ones out there for five years or more."

"We try to balance aesthetics and durability," says Baylor's McCluskey. "When you include financial considerations, durability will take precedence over aesthetics; the furniture has to stand up to heavy use."

Schools can be reluctant to invest too greatly in furniture that has to face the often-destructive tendencies of a new college student.

"It's horrible," says McCluskey, "and it's both boys and girls. Boys are worse with furniture, and the girls are worse with finishings and carpets. I think it has something to do with the freedom of being away from home for the first time. They want to see what they can get away with."

Baylor looks for furniture with one-piece construction, "very few nuts and bolts," says McCluskey.

At Purdue, housing officials hope that by purchasing furniture of higher quality, it will encourage students to take better care of it.

"Our philosophy is to opt for quality, based on the presumption that students will respect that, even though the furniture might last a year or two less," says Gennett.

Many schools will test furniture before they decide what to buy, sometimes setting up a prototype room.

"We have the companies come in and set up their typical residence-hall furnishings," says Malzewski. "Students and other people from the university come in and decide what works and what doesn't."

Wired to the World

Besides comfort and flexibility, colleges and universities have to address the changing needs of student residents. Rooms of today have to accommodate more that those of a generation ago.

"The big difference with the students' rooms in recent years is the computer factor," says Gennett. "It wasn't there 10 years ago, and it was there only minimally five years ago."

As computing power increases and prices plummet, students are more likely to have some sophisticated-and space-consuming-technological equipment.

Five years ago, says Gennett, Purdue began to look at desks that could accommodate a 14-inch computer monitor. Now, the typical student's desktop computer comes with a 17-inch monitor, so even larger desks are needed. That means acquiring desks that are wider and deeper, that come with slide-out trays for keyboards, and that have openings to manage the computer's tangle of wires.

"There's more clearance between the desktop and the attached bookshelf to allow for the computer monitor," says Gennett.

At Baylor University, housing officials anticipate that student computing needs will take a different direction.

"We have been getting bigger desks for the PCs," says McCluskey. "But in the next couple of years, the expectation is that students will be using laptops, so that will free up room for more books."

Computers also have affected furniture choices in other student-gathering spots.

"Our new student-life center will have lounge seating that includes flip-top arms so that students can use their laptops more easily," says McCluskey.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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