Residence Hall Furnishings

Today’s student wants privacy, flexibility and value from the residence hall experience. Furnishings play a vital role in how well university residence hall operations will be able to meet the needs of today’s student - and tomorrow’s. Here are 20 tips on how you can make the most of your efforts to meet the furniture needs of your residents now and in the future.

1 Prepare for the buying boom. Manufacturers say that they expect a groundswell of orders in the next few years as enrollments increase. Many institutions will retire debt and look to use the freed-up cash to upgrade facilities and aging residence hall furniture. Establishing a multiyear furniture replacement schedule can position institutions to maximize their advantage in a seller’s market.

2 Start with the specifications. Specs should be clearly stated and rigidly applied. Be precise about exactly what you want the vendor to provide, including framing, finishes, materials, fabrics and delivery. If you include alternates or substitutions, be sure that all bidders have an equal opportunity to respond to those, provided they also respond to the initial specifications.

3 Consider fire safety. How important is compliance with the highest flammability standard, particularly when there may be a significant upcharge? The highest standard is designed to minimize damage from open flame; the lower standard addresses damage from smoldering cigarettes. Decide if the higher standard is the cost of doing business or if the lower standard can be justified.

4 Will you reupholster and/or refinish? Many institutions buy with an eye toward using inhouse resources to extend the useful life of furnishings. This means specifying removable components and ease of disassembly. Of course, the furniture should not be so easy to take apart that students begin the process prematurely! Also, consider that any life-cycle savings achieved by inhouse repair must be balanced against the costs of the repair shops.

5 When do you want delivery, and when can you make a commitment? Most colleges want delivery in the summer. The earlier you can commit, the greater the likelihood that the vendor can fit you into a crowded production and delivery schedule. Early typically means fall, with delivery the following spring or summer. Waiting until spring to order can be costly; it could even result in the manufacturer turning down the order. If your academic calendar permits, consider a delivery from stock in the middle of the year. It could result in real savings.

6 Consider life-cycle costs. Sure, the furniture may be a swell deal today, but how long will it last? What are the weaknesses of the furniture you are replacing? Did the drawer glides last? How about the pulls and hinges? Did the fabric maintain its color and texture? Did the finishes stand up to everyday use and periodic deep cleaning by the housekeeping staff? Willingness to pay more upfront for durability can reduce pesky - and costly - maintenance later.

7 Who will help you make the purchasing decision? Housing directors who buy with little consultation do so at their peril. Student input is critical, as is input from staff, who clean, fix and move the furniture. Finally, don’t forget summer conference users.

8 How will you gather input from stakeholders? The process is important. Stakeholders need to feel that they have been heard. Pencil-and-paper surveys can help gather data from a large number of people. Balancing surveys with face-to-face time can help you discover the feelings behind the written responses.

9 Check the references. Virtually all manufacturers will provide a current client list along with their proposals. Dig deeper. After calling the references provided, check with an institution that has purchased similar furniture from the same supplier a few years ago. Ask about product durability and supplier responsiveness.

10 Consider ADA. Furnishings are an integral part of making reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. The current legislation does not, however, include strict standards for furniture compliance. Talk to residents with disabilities about their needs, and expand your definition of disability beyond those who use a wheelchair.

11 Consider lease/purchase. Rather than buying furniture outright, many colleges and universities take advantage of lease/purchase agreements that allow many more student rooms to be furnished in one contracting period. Life-cycle costs are particularly important here - the useful life of the goods should extend at least through the lease period and probably well beyond.

12 Maximize the comforts of home. Recent approaches to residence hall common space interiors stress a residential rather than institutional look. Gone are the bulky cushions and the heavy wood. Manufacturers are offering refined finishes that do not sacrifice durability. Look for lounge furnishings that invite students to sit down.

13 Movable is better. Students want to be able to vary their living environments. This can be a tough chore in a double room in Oldstyle Hall. Bed systems have replaced traditional lofts with multiple configurations designed to maximize privacy and available floor space. And many systems do not require tools to take advantage of the flexibility. It’s a far cry from the built-ins of old.

14 Standardize where you can. Many institutions have standardized bed ends that serve as either a head or footboard. This eliminates the inevitable (and often fruitless) search for the missing bed end. It also allows for easier bunking and greater flexibility.

15 Don’t forget the bed rails. Many students have never slept in a bed more than two feet off the ground. Providing a bed rail can give them added security when they are faced with using the top bunk or lofting their bed to get more floor space.

16 Flat surfaces need to get bigger. It’s no news flash that students are bringing more stuff – stuff that is finding its way to the desktop. As more residence halls provide computer connectivity and cable television, the demand for secure, flat surfaces for computers and televisions increases. Be mindful of tradeoffs between the bigger desktop and precious floor space.

17 The chair is the thing. Is the two-position chair the best way to go or is a slightly larger combination desk/lounging chair a better buy? Most student rooms do not have space for two chairs per resident. Comfort and flexibility are the watchwords. Get precise feedback from students about the kind of chair they prefer.

18 Consider softer lighting. Improper lighting can make the living room feel of a residence hall lounge seem more like a gymnasium. Sometimes a better lighting solution involves track or recessed lighting.

19 What about the wardrobe? No, not the clothes, the piece of furniture that stores them. Most new construction will likely include sizable closets. Remodeling, however, can introduce flexibility and floor space by substituting a movable wardrobe for the built-in closet.

20 Pay attention to color and finish. The trend toward more residential-looking furnishings has brought darker, richer colors. Finishes are more durable now, so you need not rely on light colors to hide scratches.

Done right, the buying process - from specs to unpacking the boxes - involves no small commitment of a precious resource, your time. The Top 20 can help you make the most of it.

Dale R. Tampke is director of housing at Ohio University in Athens.

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