Keeping up Appearances

Feb. 1, 2003
Residence hall furniture should look good, and be able to stand the test of time.

Before deciding how to fill a house with furniture, a homeowner has to walk a fine line between the desire for things that look good and things that will last.

Colleges and universities strive to achieve a similar balance between aesthetics and durability when they decide how to furnish their residence halls. Aesthetics are important, but officials also want items that will last beyond the first midterms of fall semester. Schools try to choose furniture that is pleasing to the eye, and that will stand up to the rough treatment that many students will inflict on it.

“Students want it to look nice,” says Elizabeth Cross, facilities project coordinator with the University of Vermont's Department of Residential Life. “Keeping it that way is our challenge.”

Comforts of home

College students move into a residence hall with higher expectations — and a lot more gadgets — than their counterparts of previous generations. Throughout the nation, schools have been upgrading their residence halls to make them less institutional and more homey.

“When someone walks in, I want it to feel less like a dormitory and more like a residence,” says David Kennedy, director of residential life at California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif. “For me, the biggest aspect I look at is aesthetic.”

Furniture choices can help create a more appealing ambience in a room.

“A lot of furniture that is marketed for residence halls looks like it belongs in a barracks,” says Kennedy. “It's very durable and functional, but it doesn't look like home.”

Items made of solid wood offer durability, but still can be attractive.

“We have a lot of maple and oak furniture, things with a long life,” says Cross.

To account for the tastes and desires of hundreds of different personalities, schools also strive to provide furnishings that students can arrange and rearrange to their heart's content.

“We want items that are functional and durable — things that are multi-functional that you can move around,” says Kennedy.

That means forgoing large items like armoires in favor of smaller bookcases, cabinets and shelves.

Flexibility is the overriding characteristic of the furniture in the new 350-bed Simmons Hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Each of the rooms is outfitted with modular furniture pieces — shelves, drawers, desks, beds, cabinets — that can be set up in countless permutations. It gives students the flexibility to arrange their rooms to suit their own tastes.

On many campuses, schools are building or renovating student housing space to create apartment-style living opportunities. Those units typically will include living rooms or other spaces shared by several students and require furniture choices that may not be found in a double-occupancy residence hall room.

“We want it to last,” says Cross. “We try to have no removable cushions on the furniture. We also have done a lot of refinishing and re-upholstering of furniture.”

Uncluttered connections

When the parents of today's students were in college, computers were bulky machines they might encounter in a lab setting, if at all. Now, students arrive with their own array of the latest technology, and they expect to be able to connect their computers to the outside world from their own desk.

Housing officials try to outfit their facilities with desks that can accommodate computers and the tangle of wires that accompanies them without cluttering the scarce space available. Cross says many rooms have desks with pullout drawers for keyboards, and some have computer stands on casters, so that students can have access to their machine without using up all the desktop space and can move it to where it can be used most comfortably.

Down the hall

School officials want students living in a residence hall to become a community. But that's not likely to happen if students spend all their time confined in their rooms. So, colleges work to make the common areas of residence halls comfortable and enticing enough to pry students from their rooms.

“You want to have things that make students feel comfortable, so that it is less like a waiting room,” says Kennedy. “You want places where students can chat and have coffee, where they can study or work on computers, or watch television.”

That often means a student lounge will be outfitted with a variety of sofas, chairs and tables that can be shifted to accommodate student activities and interests. It also can mean big-ticket items such as a big-screen television, a pool table or ping-pong table, microwaves or other kitchen appliances, and a bank of computers.

Having more appealing furniture and decorations in residence halls also may give colleges an opportunity to use housing space more efficiently. With more appealing furniture and amenities, schools can attract groups interested in using the facilities in summer months when students have returned home.

“You can schedule business conferences or different things for people who wouldn't feel comfortable staying in typical student housing,” says Kennedy.

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

SIDEBAR: A lofty proposition

On most college campuses, it's not unusual to find residence hall rooms outfitted with wooden beams supporting beds placed near the ceiling. Schools may discourage them or merely tolerate them, but over the years lofts have proven popular with students trying to eke the most living space out of the often cramped quarters of a residence hall room.

For the 150 students who live in Jeanne Mance Hall on the University of Vermont's Burlington campus, housing officials have decided to resolve questions about lofts once and for all. The school has installed them in each of the rooms.

“Students have always preferred lofts,” says Elizabeth Cross, facilities project coordinator with the university's Department of Residential Life. “So we thought we would go ahead and provide them.”

The university has an additional motive for providing the lofts. The rooms in Mance Hall had been converted from singles to doubles, so the lofts helped persuade students to give the new setup a chance.

“Since we doubled up the rooms, we thought this was something that would encourage students to sign up,” says Cross.

One difference from the typical loft is that the Mance Hall lofts are made of metal instead of wood.

“Wood is subject to gouging, and we wanted to avoid the maintenance of keeping the wood up,” says Cross. “We expect the beds to last 25 years.”

The lofts are adjustable so that the beds can be lowered to conventional heights for students who don't want to spend so much time close to the ceiling. Most students, however, take advantage of the lofts.

“They seem to like them,” says Cross. “It gives them a lot more space in the room.”

NOTABLE ▪ 83.5

Percentage of new residence halls that are air-conditioned.

▪ 291

Median amount of square feet per resident in new residence halls.

▪ 46.2

Percentage of new residence halls with shared lavatories.

▪ 40,000

Median size, in square feet, of new residence halls.

Source: American School & University, July 2002, 13th Annual Residence Hall Construction Report

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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