Finding Your Seat

May 1, 1997
The typical classroom does not exist as it once did. New program requirements and technology demands are forcing many schools to abandon the traditional

The typical classroom does not exist as it once did. New program requirements and technology demands are forcing many schools to abandon the traditional chair-and-desk design for more flexible furniture combinations. Among other things, schools are finding that as computers become commonplace in classrooms, they must provide furniture to accommodate them. That is not always easy.

"Technology really makes you think," says Jere Smith, architect and project manager for Atlanta Public Schools. "Now that you are adding technology, it kind of forces you to think the classroom layout out in more detail. We typically have three to four computers per classroom, and the most economical and flexible solution often is to put the computers on a table. That may seem simple, but it works."

For high-school and college students, the classroom often looks a little different than at the elementary-school level. While Mohnaz Laighat, interior designer, Burt Hill Kosar Rittlemann Associates, Butler, Pa., agrees that the current classroom includes a desk and a chair, she sees that rapidly changing.

"I can envision in the future, with everything becoming computerized, the classroom being more freestyle," she says. "Students will sit down, but not really at a desk. Instead, they will sit at a conversation gathering area and everybody will have chairs to sit in and maybe some kind of support area for taking notes, if they need it. Many students already are beginning to take notes with laptops, and they need a space for that."

The teacher's area is no different. Classrooms 20 years ago featured a wooden teacher's desk in front of a chalkboard. While some schools still have that arrangement, many schools are finding that this scenario is not necessarily the best for learning.

"Classroom space must be larger to accommodate technology," says Andy Kitsinger, architect, BASCO Associates, York, Pa. "The teacher's desk is changing, too. They need additional space for a computer. We are starting to see the combination classroom and lab area. As schools change to block scheduling, they have to have a lecture and practical area; classrooms become multi-functional."

Outside the classroom It is not just the typical classroom that is changing; it also is the specialized rooms, including science classrooms.

"Most of the work surfaces are still built in," says Smith. "The perimeter of the rooms feature science-type casework with acid-resistant tops. We still have the four-legged table with acid top and two chairs. The teacher's demonstration table has power, water and gas."

Computers are invading the science labs as well, making design changes a must. Laighat has found that even schools that currently do not have computers in the classroom, they are planning for their inclusion when designing and purchasing.

"The next couple of years will see rapid changes," says Laighat. "We really don't need to have the lab as the traditional lab anymore because of computers. By doing experiments on the computer, students can see changes more quickly."

Kitsinger also is seeing movable lab stations and movable storage. "This is mainly because of changing technology and the needed flexibility for long-term use," he says.

Card-catalog of the future When it comes to furnishing a school, the media center is a large project, both in terms of furniture and decisions.

"Technology has had an impact on the library, too," says Kitsinger. "As more students are getting on the Internet and card-catalogs are becoming computerized, everything is electronic. We are not necessarily seeing a reduction in book space, but the library is becoming the center of information and technology."

Laighat notes that the furniture in most media centers is still traditional, with wood being the number-one choice. "Durability is an issue. Solid wood is indestructible; as it gets older, it still looks nice. Schools like the basic classic look."

In the Atlanta Public Schools, students are able to sit in reading areas. "We have nice wooden bookcases and wooden tables and chairs. In our high schools and middle schools, we often have some upholstered reading areas," says Smith.

Same model, new look The key to purchasing, then, is to demand flexibility. While Laighat admits that the initial cost may be higher, the long-term benefits will make it worthwhile. "Specify furniture that you can make higher, lower, longer, attach two of them, make it wider, put it against the wall or in the middle of the room, fold it, run wire to it or a light fixture to it, the whole nine yards.

"You can spend a little money and get the basics or spend more and make it look better and last longer," continues Laighat. She suggests purchasing furniture that can be changed by taking a face panel out and replacing it with a new one. "Schools often get tired of a look and want change."

Another good idea is to purchase furniture that can be moved from school to school. In the Atlanta Public Schools, whenever possible, furniture is standardized. "We bid out our casework as a sole-source item," says Smith. "We get standardization in color and quality; therefore, I can pull something out of one school and take it to another and the finish color will match."

Team learning is becoming a buzzword at many universities.

"There is a strong move away from tablet-arm chairs," says Dick Rittlemann, vice president, Burt Hill Kosar Rittlemann Associates, Butler, Pa. "Very few people are buying anything new in tablet arm; instead, they are going to some form of table arrangement.

"One of the reasons is a very distinct departure from theory-based learning to project-based learning," he says. "This suggests a team relationship in the classroom, and the furniture to accommodate project-focused learning and team-focused learning is movable tables."

This philosophy is flowing into research labs, too.

"We are trying to talk our clients out of the rigid, fixed-based cabinetry approach," says Rittlemann. "Labs need to be more flexible. Twenty years ago, I could tell what kind of lab I was in by the way it was designed. Today, I can tell by the way it is equipped."

Lab design should be driven by equipment. "We get into this old routine of buying bench casework and covering it up with electronic equipment," he says. "Now, we are encouraging a more ergonomic approach to lab design."

Instead of thinking of the lab as a 3-foot-high work plane, designers should consider the entire workspace. For example, consider racks for electronic equipment, and round, movable trays. This would give labs the ability to hook-up electronic equipment without crawling all over the tabletop or running cables across work surfaces.

In days past, labs were equipped with desks for researchers to take notes. Now, many universities are moving report-writing out of the lab and into separate work areas.

"You can monitor things electronically from your office on your computer now," says Rittlemann. "Also, as there is a gender shift in lab employment, with more and more women in laboratories, we are wondering what the prenatal effects are from many experiments, which is a strong argument for moving report-writing out of the lab."

At some institutions, glass-enclosed alcoves are located near the lab for writing. This allows a separate space within close proximity of the lab environment.

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