Making the Grade

Feb. 1, 2002
Residence hall furniture can impress with form as well as function.

Now more than ever, a college degree is essential to success in the workplace. The influx of students at colleges and universities has increased the numbers of schools, and the competition to attract students is fierce.

During the next decade, college and university enrollment is expected to top 16 million. Institutions of higher education are going out of their way to attract and retain students.

Creating inviting living spaces has become a priority. Students no longer use their rooms solely for sleeping and studying. Connections to the Internet and the popularity of entertainment systems have increased the time students spend in their rooms.

Because of this, residence-hall furnishings need to be flexible, durable, aesthetically pleasing and able to support technology.

What students prefer

When students choose a college, residence-hall furnishings play a large part in the decision. Many of a student's first impressions about a university come from touring the campus. Students have rejected schools when they did not like what they saw, and others have made up their mind based on the residence halls.

One of the essential stops on a college tour is a residence hall. Potential students look at an existing room and envision themselves living within its walls. So it is important for schools to provide furnishings that are attractive and inviting.

Enticing new students with comfortable, attractive furnishings is only half of the story: retaining current students is equally important.

Consider including these details for standard residence-hall furniture:

  • Clip-on lights attached to a bed for late-night studying and reading benefit both a studying resident and roommates who might be trying to sleep.

  • Shelving that attaches to the side of a bed makes it easy for a student to reach snacks, personal items or alarm clocks while lounging on the bed.

  • Desktop shelving designed to hold computer equipment off the work surface helps a student stay organized and maximize limited study space.

  • Mobile storage pedestals with an attached seating cushion can be stored under the desk when not in use or pulled out for additional seating.

These features, as well as the flexibility to rearrange furniture and add personal touches, will help make students feel comfortable in their new environment.

Close attention to aesthetics has another practical use. Some students decide to accessorize their rooms by “borrowing” a chair from the basement lounge. Color coordination can discourage this behavior. By specifying different colors of furnishings for different floors, schools deter residents from taking furniture from another part of the building, and make it easier to retrieve missing furnishings.

Furthermore, schools and universities that use school colors in this manner promote school spirit and help create a sense of unity among students.

Customizing student space

Colleges and universities should try to provide a sense of home for students. This can be accomplished with furnishings that are “homey” and versatile. Varying a living environment can be difficult in the small rooms found in most residence halls.

Students are bringing more things to school — refrigerators, sofas, microwaves, stereos and computers. However, the square footage of the rooms is not increasing. Many students dealing with too little floor space resort to vertical space for more room — usually lofts.

Why? By raising their beds, students free up floor space, providing increased flexibility, and a sense of independence and privacy.

Housing officials should choose residence-hall beds with components that can be installed easily and allow students to reconfigure rooms themselves, without tools.

Choose products with height adjustability on one-inch increments for all components, including beds, worksurfaces and hang-on storage units. Tool-less furnishings can save colleges and universities maintenance costs.

Computers offer another obstacle for students trying to maximize space. Having access to a computer is essential for college students, but finding a spot to set one up can be challenging. Many students use the desks in their rooms, but that may take up too much space on their desktops.

Several options can increase the usable size of a workstation and clear the desktop of clutter. A PC tower can be stored under a desk, or an appropriately sized shelf can hold both the monitor and the printer.

Computer connections are another important “extra” that schools should include in residence-hall furnishings. With the proliferation of laptops, furnishings must support these and other emerging technologies. This means more than providing accessible electrical outlets.

Ideally, rooms should have tables and desks with built-in data and communication ports. With those ports, students could arrange their rooms in any number of ways and still have access to the technology.

High-tech worksurfaces should have easy access to power and data connections, and be UL-approved. Power cords and data cables from the desk to the wall outlet should be at least nine feet long so that a student can relocate the desk anywhere within the room.

Finishing up

Today's students work hard and play hard. Residence-hall furnishings may end up bearing the brunt of that activity. Therefore, the durability of material comes to the forefront of any facility manager's mind.

Wood and metal furnishings are an obvious choice. But different situations call for facility managers to choose between the two. Wood furnishings are durable and have an image of being “homey.” On the other hand, metal furnishings are trendy and provide a look that appeals to students.

A facility manager can take advantage of a material's aesthetics to enhance a school's image. For instance, an engineering or technical school might want to consider cutting-edge metal furnishings, while an Ivy League school could burnish its traditional image with wood.

Another factor to be considered is the type of finish on furnishings. On wood, look for a manufacturer that uses an ultraviolet (UV) light process to dry the lacquers on furnishings. Other drying processes (usually air-dry) emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which damage the atmosphere. The emissions may continue for some time after the furniture is installed in a residence hall. This can cause headaches or other discomfort for some students. The UV curing process helps eliminate virtually all of the VOCs.

For metal furnishings, look for a product that is painted with a powder-paint process instead of methods that spray wet paint. Powder paint is better than wet painting for the atmosphere because there is no off-gassing of solvents. Also, powder paint is more durable.

Warranties are sometimes the last factor managers consider when buying residence-hall furnishings. Avoid short-term warranties that leave a school with little protection.

Products backed by long warranties not only protect the school, but also demonstrate the manufacturer's belief in its design and commitment to a long-term relationship. Although well-made products with long warranties can cost more initially, the amount of money spent is minimal compared with what could be spent if the furnishings need maintenance and are not under warranty, or do not hold up well over time. Look for a manufacturer that guarantees your furnishings for up to 10 years.

Residence-hall furnishings affect many aspects of university life — from recruiting and retaining students, to facility-management issues, to budget concerns. Choosing the right furnishings and details can add to the success and happiness of a student, as well as the long-term success of the institution.

Swanquist is vice president of institutional markets for KI, based in Green Bay, Wis. KI provides furniture solutions for the educational market.


Consider including these details for standard residence-hall furnishings:


    These can be attached to a bed for late-night studying and reading.


    This can make it easy for a student to reach snacks, personal items or alarm clocks.


    This is designed to hold computer equipment off the work surface.


    With an attached seating cushion, these can be stored under the desk or pulled out for additional seating.

ADA compliance in the residence hall

One of the most important quality-of-life issues to consider when planning residence-hall furnishings is that of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Many institutions fear that equipping all rooms with compliant furnishings will greatly increase the cost of furnishings; they therefore choose to furnish only select rooms with accessible furnishings.

However, some ADA-compliant furnishings can be of great help to the majority of students. For instance, drawers that can be opened and closed with a clenched fist meet the ADA requirement and are easier for all students to use. This is accomplished easily by properly designed drawer pulls. Adjustable height desks — whether hang-on versions or crank-, pin- or electric-adjustable tables — are an excellent option. They can be adjusted and reconfigured to accommodate wheelchairs, as well as varying body types and heights.

Equipping all rooms with ADA-compliant furnishings also means that disabled individuals no longer will be confined to only the area of the residence hall that features special ADA furnishings. Rather, they will be interspersed with the rest of the students in the residence hall, diversifying both groups' school experience.

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