Picking the Right Pieces

May 1, 2003
Schools and universities look at many factors when purchasing furniture, including its impact on the learning environment.

Students who have an experienced teacher in a well-lighted classroom with excellent acoustics, fresh air and comfortable temperatures should be well on their way to success in school. But the path to effective learning can be blocked if the furniture students have to use forces them to squirm in discomfort and lose focus on their lessons.

The kinds of desks, chairs, tables, shelves, storage cabinets, computer workstations, carts, partitions and other equipment that a school or university chooses for its classrooms, labs and other spaces can affect whether students feel they are in a setting suited for learning.

“What we look for are warranties, service, quality and getting the best bang for our buck,” says Christine Gordy, furniture specialist with the Indiana University Architect's Office.

High-quality teachers and curriculum create a setting conducive to learning, and the right furniture can do the same.

The Anchorage, Alaska, district recently put together a committee to recommend the types of furniture that its schools should be purchasing.

“Making the learning environment better — that is the issue most committee members had in mind as they made their recommendations,” says Pat Preiss, a purchasing agent for the Anchorage, Alaska, school district.

That means equipment in which students can work comfortably, furnishings that create an aesthetically pleasing ambiance, and furniture that stands up to the rugged treatment it receives from daily student use.

A changing environment

Educators know more than they did years ago about how students learn. For many students, sitting in the same desk for most of the day listening to a teacher is not the ideal way to learn. A school needs to take those different learning styles into account when it chooses classroom furniture.

“Flexibility is the big thing,” says Jim Manahan, leader of the supply-purchasing team at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “With seating, it's almost getting to be one chair fits all.”

The key to flexibility for seating is adjustability.

“Everything's adjustable — the arms, the legs — so a chair can fit the tiniest woman or the largest man,” says Manahan.

Many schools want classroom desks and tables that can be moved easily to change the learning environment and prevent students from falling into a rut of boredom.

Another way to shake up the status quo of the classroom setting is to use movable partitions. Partitions give teachers a different means of redefining the learning space and transforming the classroom to accommodate different methods of instruction — individual study, small-group projects and large-group instruction.

The use of carts provides schools another avenue for flexibility. Placing computers, video machines and other multimedia equipment on wheels is another opportunity to transform the classroom setting and allow greater numbers of students to be served by that equipment.

Ergonomic concerns

Seating comfort has always been important for schools, but it has become more critical as students spend more time pecking away at a keyboard and staring at a computer screen. To prevent eyestrain, repetitive strain injuries and other problems that might result from poor posture, schools need to make sure that a computer chair and monitor are positioned correctly for student use. Because most computer stations are used by more than one student, furniture for computers should be flexible.

That means a computer user's eyes should be in line with a spot two to three inches below the top of the computer screen; keyboards should be aligned so that the user's elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Feet should be resting on the ground; if, in meeting those guidelines, the seat raises a student's legs off the ground, schools should have supplemental foot support available.

The prevalence of technology in schools also means institutions must take steps to manage all the wires that are necessary to connect computer components. Desks and tables should have modesty panels to conceal wires or clips that keep the wires adhered to the edge of a workstation so that they do not trip up passersby.

Keep the customer satisfied

In many cases, schools defer to the wishes of faculty and staff members who will be using the furniture. That can mean sticking with the tried and true, even if designers might prefer something more novel.

In newly constructed facilities, school officials may be more willing to choose newer styles of furniture, Gordy says,

“At Indiana University, we are very traditional,” says Gordy. “There are some good, modular pieces out there, but we aren't going in that direction. We pretty much stick with standard metal desking.”

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

Limiting choices

Educators can thumb through the pages of a catalog and order furniture for their classrooms and other spaces in a school, but they may not have the expertise to choose the best products at a cost that fits within their budget.

To spare administrators in its more than 80 schools from fretting over furniture selection — and save the institution money — the Anchorage, Alaska, school district has put together an internal catalog for commonly purchased furniture that standardizes purchasing options.

“The intent is to limit choices and to give guidance to administrators who didn't have experience ordering,” says Pat Preiss, a purchasing agent for the district.

For each category of furnishings, the catalog will offer two options: a “best-quality” product and a less-expensive “budget” choice. To permit a little more flexibility, the district does not plan to limit choices with respect to colors or the type of finish, says Priess.

Anchorage officials formed a committee of employees that worked with a consultant to identify the products that will be most beneficial for schools.

Narrowing the number of products that the district can purchase will allow Anchorage to buy those products in greater volume and negotiate a better price. In addition, having schools order the same products will allow the district to move that furniture from school to school as enrollment fluctuates and needs change.

“When the choices were wide open, there was less chance the same item would have been ordered by the same schools,” says Preiss. “This will result in standardization instead of a mismatched conglomeration of different items.”

Limiting purchasing options also will help the district control shipping costs, which in Alaska can be a significant drain on the budget.

The catalog will be available to staff members on the district's Internet site. However, officials won't be able to place orders online, says Preiss, because the catalog is not compatible with the district's business computer system.

The district hasn't begun using the catalog yet, and Preiss says he expects resistance from some administrators who feel they are giving up some control over how they disburse their furniture budget. And some administrators won't like the limits it places on furnishing their own areas.

Beat the rush

Schools and universities must mull over many choices when selecting furniture — color, aesthetics, ergonomics, adjustability, size, durability — but administrators might not be able to get what they want if they don't place their orders on a timely basis.

“A lot of departments wait until almost the last minute to get us their orders,” says Jim Manahan, team leader of the supply-purchasing group for the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “They may have a price quote for two months, but forget to send it over to us.”

Manahan says schools typically need to allow four to six weeks for furniture to arrive. But if a department needs furniture to arrive in two weeks, it may have to compromise elsewhere to expedite delivery.

“Sometimes they have to settle for lesser quality,” says Manahan.

Timely delivery is a critical factor in how schools judge the companies from whom they buy their furniture.

“We evaluate the service we get in terms of lead times for delivery and installation,” says Christine Gordy, furniture specialist with the Indiana University Architect's Office. “If that is a problem that recurs, we may have to look for other companies.”

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