Playing to a Larger Crowd

Oct. 1, 2001
In choosing seating for school auditoriums, officials should recognize that it will be used by more than just students.

Over its life — or even in just one day — a seat in a classroom can go through many different users and a lot of hard knocks. That's why most schools and universities emphasize durability when choosing everyday student seating.

But for school auditoriums, different elements enter into the equation. Who's going to be using the space — just students or the community at large? Will it serve at times as a large lecture hall or will it be preserved strictly for performing-arts events? Will it have to function also as a cafeteria, study hall or gymnasium?

Facility planners need to consider all those questions as they determine whether to outfit their spaces with bare-bones metal folding chairs; lushly padded, upholstered seats; or something in between.

Community concerns

Many school districts have embraced the trend of opening up their school facilities to wider use by the public. One of the more obvious places for that bonding with the community to take place is in a school auditorium. If community members come away from an auditorium visit with a good feeling, they are more likely to have a good impression of the school.

In Davenport, Iowa, the district has just completed construction of an auditorium at North High School. It seats about 800, less than the enrollment of 1,200, so it's not designed as a student assembly area. The space will be used primarily for dramas and concerts that attract more than just students and their families.

“The community use of our auditorium was a very high priority,” says Bill Good, director of operations for the Davenport Community School District. “We wanted a professional-looking theater.”

That meant the facility — including the seats — had to convey an image of quality to the community. The district selected more comfortable seats upholstered with fabric.

In the Campbell Union High School District in San Jose, Calif., the performing-arts center planned for Leigh High School will have upholstered, padded seats. Like the auditorium in Davenport, Campbell Union's center is not intended for everyday use by students.

“We wouldn't be having padded seats if students were going to be using them on a daily basis,” says Bruce VanBuren, custodial supervisor for the Campbell Union district.

Many schools steer away from other features that might provide more seating comfort at the expense of durability.

At Bentonville High School in Bentonville, Ark., the new auditorium being built will have theater seats with padded bottoms and backs, but officials decided it would avoid rocking seats that might tempt students to misuse them.

“We are looking at something that wears well and stands up to hard use,” says Bruce Jones, executive director of personnel for the Bentonville School District. “We felt it was not a good idea to put a rocking seat in a school setting. Rocking seats are more expensive, too.”

Flexible space

In choosing auditorium seating, schools must recognize their own budget limitations. Not every school can afford to spend the extra money that adds more stylishness or sophistication to the seating in an auditorium or performing arts center. In fact, many schools can't afford a stand-alone auditorium. They establish spaces that perform many functions (and have provided the English language with new words such as cafetorium, auditeria or gymnatorium).

A critical element for choosing seating in these areas is how easily the space can be converted from one use to another. VanBuren says that the cafetoriums in the Campbell Union district use tables with attached chairs for cafeteria use, and simple folding chairs for use as an auditorium.

“The seating choice was purely a function of cleaning the cafeteria,” says VanBuren. “We can clean the space more easily.”

In Davenport, the district's intermediate schools also use folding metal chairs in its multiuse spaces. “That gives us flexibility,” says Good.

Lecture halls

Some auditorium spaces, especially at colleges and universities, serve as lecture halls for large classes. Those lectures can be lengthy, so comfort is a consideration.

“We use upholstered seating — we want something that is fairly comfortable to sit in for a couple of hours,” says Marcia Melone, interior designer in the facilities, planning and management department for Iowa State. “It depends on how well it will hold up. We really want something that's pretty heavy-duty.”

In Iowa State's lecture halls, the seats are equipped with movable tablet arms that allow students to take notes more easily. For some kinds of classes, such as science or engineering, long tables might be used instead of tablet arms. However, those tables can detract from the room's flexibility.

Also more common at the college level are auditoriums and lecture halls with seating that allows students to connect laptop computers to the school's technology backbone.

“We are looking into getting some of our auditoriums retrofitted for computer plugs,” says Melone.

Because of the wear and tear that seating takes in schools and universities, one of the more critical factors in choosing auditorium seating is the track record of the vendor, says Melone.

“We want companies that have provided good service in the past,” says Melone. “If we go with a new manufacturer, we want to make sure that the parts and pieces we need to repair the seating will be available.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


Marcia Melone
Interior Designer in the Facilities, Planning and Management Department, Iowa State University, Ames

“We try to stay away from any patterns on the upholstery that would lead students to draw dot-to-dot pictures or trace an outline.”

Bill Good
Director of Operations, Davenport (Iowa) Community School District

“We didn't want the seating material to be vinyl or any sort of composite material. We chose upholstered seating like what you would find in a nice theater.”

Bruce VanBuren
District Custodial Supervisor, Campbell Union High School District, San Jose, Calif.

“In our cafetoriums, we use folding chairs that are stored under the stage. We have tables with benches attached for the cafeteria that can be folded and moved easily. It is easier to set up the space for community functions.”

Bruce Jones
Executive Director of Personnel, Bentonville (Ark.) School District

“With kids around, you want the strongest and sturdiest seating you can get.”

What's left

Schools that outfit their auditoriums with seats that have tablet arms should remember to do the right thing and install some left-handed tablets.

At Iowa State University, interior designer Marcia Melone says about 10 percent of the tablet arms in the school's lecture halls have tablet arms for lefties.

“We spread them out — some in back, some in front,” says Melone.

The best location for the left-handed tablet arms is on the left end of a row, so that the arms can be lowered without bumping up against an adjacent right-handed tablet arm.

Facilities managers also should remember that their auditoriums need to have spaces for persons with disabilities to sit. Melone says it's important for those spaces to be interspersed throughout an auditorium, so that all persons with disabilities aren't relegated to the back or off to the side.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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