As expanding curricula place new demands on students, the school facility is increasingly becoming a crucial part of the learning process. One educational approach even considers the physical environment the “third teacher.”
Choices of school furnishings and finishes play a greater role as a result, says Phil Wasta, vice president with furniture dealer Tallgrass Business Resources.
“Everything must be integrated – pedagogy, curriculum, technology, and facility. You can’t change one without committing to changing all of them.”
Mobile and Multifunctional
A growing trend across classrooms, lecture halls, and computer labs is the collaborative learning environment, says Doug Oswald, architectural market manager with American Seating. Collaboration often means moving furniture to suit multiple teaching styles or outfitting an auditorium with flexible furnishings.
“Select furniture with multiple uses,” advises Boyd Petterson, AIA, an associate with MGA Partners Architects. “Durable and lightweight rectangular tables can be lined up for a lecture setting or grouped together for seminars and workshops.”
New facilities like Aurora Elementary School in West Fargo, ND, are even “eliminating built-in furniture, making additions or reconfigurations easy,” says Earl Luckes, a representative with furniture manufacturer Smith System.
Adds Diane Bjornson, Aurora’s media specialist, “We didn’t have old furniture configurations to work with, so we started with a blank canvas.”
Right-Sized and User Ready
Musculoskeletal disorders are on the rise in school-aged children due in part to poorly designed furniture, concludes a study from Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The findings show that seat heights are inappropriate for most students and ergonomic differences between boys and girls are widely ignored.
Look for sit-stand options for work areas or fixed seating that can be adjusted for height and position with auto-return functions, Oswald says.
To improve circulation and comfort, furniture manufacturer Virco recommends pieces that offer support for these areas:
- A gentle swell in the chair shell reinforces proper spinal curve and makes it easier to sit upright.
- Reduce pressure on the sensitive ischial tuberosities bones by choosing seats with ample curvature.
- The sacrum and coccyx zones can be hollowed out or relieved to avoid pressure and discomfort.
- Sculpted contours at the seat edge, centerline, backrest, and thigh areas minimize pressures and promote relaxed posture.
Diverse and Diverting
“Why not make schools into places that not only help the community learn, but are welcoming, inviting places where people really want to go?” asks Kelly Eastes, chief public relations officer for Natrona County Schools in Casper, WY. The district’s new Summit Elementary School reaches out with colorful islands of ottomans and storage units on casters.
“To create a more engaging environment, select varied furnishings, including a few prominent pieces that are fun,” says Petterson. “Let the majority be durable workhorse-type pieces in the background.”
“Selecting a high-quality, long-lasting product can greatly reduce the overall repair, maintenance, and replacement expense on the backend,” Oswald explains.
Petterson recommends durable furniture that is also repairable, which provides a better long-term value.
Also look for opportunities to refurbish existing furniture for reuse. MGA Partners, for example, recently revamped 1970s-era sofas in resident rooms at a Philadelphia college.
Healthy and Sustainable
Educational furnishings should also meet standards and certifications for sustainability, such as low levels of VOCs. Ask if the product contains recycled content or is recyclable, recommends Oswald. Look for green certifications, such as GREENGUARD, FSC, and NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde).
These environmentally sensitive materials not only contribute to better IAQ, but they can earn points for programs like LEED for Schools and Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS).
C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is a marketing communications consultant and writer specializing in architecture, design, and construction technology.