Furniture: Form and Function

In Ohio, one of the most comprehensive school rebuilding programs in history is underway. Since 1997 more than $4 billion has been spent to rebuild entire school districts. Of the 614 school districts in Ohio’s 88 counties, nearly one-third have now been served by the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s numerous programs. Districts participate with the state of Ohio in the co-funding of their project based on their per-pupil valuation. Those with the less per-pupil valuation contribute less to the total project budget, whereas those districts with the greatest per-pupil valuation contribute the more. In addition to the expected expenses for design and construction of the physical features of the building, the program budget also allows money based on the building’s square footage for supplemental necessities like technology and loose furnishings.

The changes in building design in recent years are reflected in the changes in furniture design as well. The emphasis on ergonomic design has prompted a complete re-thinking of the design of simple chairs and desks. For years, comfort (form) was considered less critical than durability (function). Advances in materials and in manufacturing capabilities are now allowing furniture manufacturers to create pieces that are comfortable, but still durable enough to stand up to the daily rigors of student use. In the past, furniture manufacturers would design and produce a product that end-users saw for the first time when it was ordered and delivered. Manufacturers today are using the latest in computer-aided design to“virtually” test products before a single piece is made. If the design proves worthy in the“virtual” world, prototypes are made and extensive field-testing in an actual school setting is used before a product is deemed worthy for mass production. This process yields furniture that better matches the needs of the end-user.

Furniture manufacturers who truly listen to school district needs are at least partially responsible for recent observed trends in furniture choices. For example, there seems to be a growing desire for student chairs to have larger seats, perhaps a reflection of the fact that the American population is growing physically larger over time. The idea that “one size does not fit all” is recognized and provisions are being made to accommodate the variety of students in today’s classrooms. Another example, as more standardized testing is required in schools, there is a desire for student desks to have larger writing surfaces to accommodate test booklets, answer sheets, calculators and even laptop computers. School districts are learning to be more discerning about their furniture choices to better support their students — both literally and figuratively!

Flexibility

This is a critical factor in building design. School district clients are reminded that they are investing one year in design for a building that will take two years to build, but will be expected to function effectively for 50 or more years. Careful consideration about not only how education is delivered today, but also how it is likely to be delivered tomorrow is paramount. Clients are moving toward spaces that can serve multiple functions effectively. They are beginning to require moveable rather than fixed cabinetry. They are learning to use furniture to define spaces so that they can re-configure the space as their needs change. They are also beginning to consider adaptive re-use of existing spaces. In other words, as educational delivery models evolve and change, how will current spaces be able to be reconfigured to meet the new requirements? For example, what function will hard-wired computer labs of today serve in a totally wireless world of tomorrow?

Speaking of flexibility in design, the term “cafetorium” or “auditeria” is used to describe a space that functions as a performance space when needed for musicals or drama, but serves as a student dining space at midday or for evening banquets. Furniture chosen for such a space must be equally flexible. Students tend to favor round or oval-shaped tables for dining because it better facilitates socialization over lunch — a feature critical to today’s students. Traditional lunchroom tables with attached stools may prove easier for maintenance staffs to clean, move and store, but do not function so well for students desiring interaction with multiple friends at lunch or adults who may be using the space after school hours for banquets. Balancing the form versus function of school furniture requires an intentional collaborative effort from both the client and the design professional.

Through years of experience, school districts settle on certain brands or certain styles of furniture that meet their needs and just automatically buy the same kind each time. While this is a good practice because it allows moving of furniture from space to space or building to building without noticeable difference (function), it may not always be a best practice for student comfort or ease of use (form). Student chairs of varying seat height can be purchased to accommodate different grade levels and the physical stature of students; however, flexibility is hampered because low seat-height chairs would not be comfortable for older students. Districts often purchase chairs of average seat height for multiple grade levels and students simply “grow into them.”

As school district budgets get tighter, administrators are constantly looking for ways to make their limited resources go further. Maintenance staffing is one area where administrators are often forced to make cuts to save valuable dollars. Clients have to be reminded of this inevitability even during furniture selection for their new or existing buildings. Durability and reliability of the furniture chosen becomes very important as maintenance staff dwindle leaving no one to repair or service damaged or broken pieces. The Ohio School Facilities Commission has established strict guidelines for furniture specifications that address not only structural integrity of materials, but also the length of warranty that furniture must carry. School districts are looking for furniture that can meet multiple needs, but still maintain a nice appearance. So many school districts today are partnering with community groups or organizations to stretch their operating budgets. The needs of the school and their students often differ from those of community groups who must use the same spaces for very different functions.

Technology is another driving force in clients’ decisions about furniture selection. Clearly, technology encompasses so much more than just computers. Technology affects every aspect of a school building including heating/cooling, lighting and security to name only a few. Computer tables with integral cable management systems and teacher work stations that accommodate the tools that today’s teachers require (computer workstation, telephone, multi-media controls, etc.) are prime examples. Clients must decide whether fixed computer stations or laptop hot spots will be the desired instructional method for their students. Each requires a different type of furniture solution. Considering adaptive re-use of these spaces as needs change forces designers to consider what other uses such specialized furniture could have in the classroom of tomorrow. What if the “classrooms” of tomorrow are not classrooms at all? How will decisions today translate to meet the needs of tomorrow? Tables and chairs in a classroom are more conducive for group work and activity, but may not work as well for other curriculum. LCD projectors, interactive whiteboards and connectivity can make any classroom into a distance-learning lab thus requiring different furniture solutions. A truly collaborative design process will encourage teachers and administrators to consider these decisions carefully.

As education continues to be redefined and refined, the facilities in which education is done will change as well. “State of the art” is a misnomer. In the time it took to read this article, how much has changed? The role of the design professional is to create spaces that are flexible and can change with it. The furniture chosen for these flexible spaces serves as an interface between the spaces and their occupants. Furniture can be used to define a purpose for a space (function) and to define the space itself (form). Thoughtful consideration of both current and future uses will yield effective spaces furnished with serviceable furniture that can be reconfigured for multiple uses. While it may seem that the debate is form versus function, in reality, the real challenge is to meld form with function effectively and affordably. A collaborative design process will result in spaces that are appropriate in scale and finish equipped with furniture that connects the people in the space effectively with the space itself.

Since the firm’s founding in 1953, McDonald, Cassell & Bassett has completed design of more than 600 educational facilities. In addition, the firm has completed numerous other renovation and rehabilitation projects. The firm has worked in 55 of Ohio’s 88 counties. During that half-century of educational facility design, many changes have been observed in both the form and the function of these facilities.

Jay B. Richards is president of McDonald, Cassell & Bassett, Inc.

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