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Furnished With Class

A graduate student who is attempting to earn a degree in medicine, business or law may sit on the same piece of furniture for eight or more hours a day. Often already a part of the workforce, these students are accustomed to sitting in nice, comfortable furniture. As a result, they will expect the same from their classroom furniture; after all, they are paying for it.

In contrast, a lecture hall at a major university may hold up to 350 students in one-hour blocks over the course of a day, five days a week, year round. In this case, aesthetics may not be a top priority in choosing furniture to fill the classroom. The rooms will need durable furniture that can withstand constant wear and tear from the continual use of students.

Kindergarteners through high school students present another perspective in the furniture area. Elementary school furniture is more susceptible to damage by young students; while high school students may only sit in a desk or at a table for a period and then move to another classroom.

In these scenarios, the same factors — comfort, aesthetics and durability — rank differently in priority in purchasing furniture for classrooms. When it comes to purchasing furniture, it is wise to first determine what the needs are for the particular classroom. Different classroom environments require different furniture. Making the wrong furniture decisions can put purchasers in an uncomfortable seat.

Balancing act

Post-secondary classrooms have three basic requirements in furniture specification: comfort; flexibility to adapt to technology; and durability, according to Joseph Tattoni, associate principal at Hillier, Princeton, N.J.

“If you look at the decision in the form of a triangle with the budget, durability/quality and aesthetics at opposing corners, each factor can slide up and down on the scale, depending upon your priorities,” says Tattoni. “For example, if you have a fixed budget, either the quality or the aesthetics must be reduced in order to have a stabilized result.”

If the priority of the project is to have high-quality furniture and very aesthetically pleasing furniture as well, and the budget is very small, the triangle would have to adjust. One of the factors would have to give, and in most cases, it won't be the budget.

Tattoni says that typically furniture that is more durable, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing will be more expensive. Durability is more objective — either it will last or it won't. Aesthetics and comfort, on the other hand, are matters of opinion.

“Comfort is subjective,” says Tattoni. “What one person thinks is comfortable someone else may not.”

Tattoni says that it is helpful to get feedback on what works for different classrooms by having a mock-up of the classroom presented to teachers, students and faculty.

“By doing this [mock-up] we can get a lot of positive feedback as well as negative feedback on the furniture,” says Tattoni. “In one case, we were able to relay that information back to the [manufacturer] and they were able to better customize the line for the client.”

Many schools are faced with finding the best furniture on a limited budget. They would like to be able to meet all of their needs, and sometimes this is not possible. There are other alternatives according to Sue Herrington, director of interiors at DLR Group, Minneapolis.

“When a school is on an extremely tight budget, it is a difficult situation,” says Herrington. “What we typically suggest is to spread out purchasing furniture over a long period of time.”

What to look for

As the old adage says, nothing is more expensive than a cheap item that has to be replaced in a few years. Sandy Kate, director of interiors at Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., Dublin, Ohio, says that there are many factors schools should consider when determining furniture for K-12 students. Some of these are durability, flexibility, ergonomics, how the furniture interfaces with technology, and whether it meets ADA guidelines.

“You need to look at the gauge of steel that is used, the different methods of attachment, and bracing and the way a caster or a glide is attached,” says Kate.

Some teachers like a combination desk-and-chair setup for their classrooms. Kate suggests that this is often not the best choice for all students, especially middle-school students.

“At that age, students have different heights, weights and body types that don't always fit in the combination desk and chairs,” says Kate.

These types of desks also come up short in flexibility. While they are great for an orderly, lecture-presentation style, they do not promote group learning and table setups in the classroom.

“Ideally, independent chairs and student desks are the best choice for classrooms at the K-12 level,” says Kate. “Desks should have flat tops for laptop usage.”

Open communication can be hampered when the teacher's desk creates a barrier between him or her and the students.

“When we ask teachers what they really use their desks for, we often learn that storage is the primary purpose,” says Kate. “If this is the case, we suggest implementing storage areas on the walls and a smaller mobile unit that can be used as a multipurpose piece.”

A mobile unit can be used as a place for grading, a podium, or even as a supplemental workstation for students. If a teacher has a personal computer, it should be placed against a wall in order to prevent the wires from becoming a hazard.

DLR Group's Herrington notes that markerboards, chalkboards and other presentation materials often are placed on several walls. This presents a challenge when desks must be moved around or students have to stretch their necks to see the material.

“The furniture industry seems to be going more mobile,” says Herrington. “Being able to easily rearrange the furniture allows more flexibility in the classroom.”

As students begin moving from classroom to classroom at younger and younger ages, the need for permanent desks seems to be descreasing. Elementary students are presented with storage options that were once only available to their older peers.

“Currently we are working on a project where we are putting in lockers for a K-6 school,” says Herrington. “This changes the needs for desks in the classroom.”

After the school day ends, schools often are used by the community for meetings and other activities. In this case, adjustable tables in the cafeteria need to have hydraulic lifts to adjust for larger chairs and even wheelchairs for adults. Tables need to have the ability to be broken down and placed against the wall for more room.

“We try to look at all the issues and suggest pieces that will provide variety in the classroom while meeting the most needs,” says Kate.

What costs more?

By square footage per student, elementary schools are more expensive, according to Kate.

“They require more loose furnishings and support tools, such as cubby trays, books, reading tools, and overall have more classroom space and a larger concentration of storage.”

High schools may have more overall square footage, but a great deal of it is included in the auditoriums, gymnasiums, locker rooms and other non-classroom areas. “These spaces make the square footage larger, but it doesn't include as many loose furnishings as the elementary schools,” says Kate.

Tattoni says that post-secondary classrooms such as those in the graduate level are more expensive due to their aesthetic and comfort demands.

“The more comfortable it is and the nicer it looks, the more it is probably going to cost,” says Tattoni.

Hale, assistant editor, can be reached at [email protected].


Joseph Tattoni

AIA, Associate Principal, Hillier, Princeton, N.J.

“If you look at the decision in a form of a triangle with the budget, durability/quality and aesthetics at opposing corners, each factor can slide up and down on the scale, depending upon your priorities.”

Sandy Kate

Director of Interiors, Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., Dublin, Ohio

“When we ask teachers what they really use their desks for, we often learn that storage is the primary purpose.”

Sue Herrington

Director of Interiors, DLR Group, Minneapolis

“When a school is on an extremely tight budget, it is a difficult situation. What we typically suggest is to spread out purchasing furniture over a long period of time.”

SIDEBAR: Not to be overlooked

Experts agree that some factors can't be overlooked when deciding what kinds of furniture to purchase for a classroom. These include:

  • Durability.

  • Flexibility.

  • Aesthetics.

  • Ability to accommodate technology.

  • Comfort.

  • Price.

  • Ergonomics.

  • ADA.

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