Moving In

The first day of school is upon you. Your new residence hall is freshly painted, carpeted and wired to accommodate pupils of the 21st century. Students and parents finally arrive, and the oohs and ahhs are deafening – until they try to sit down. As you rush to explain why the furniture is still three days from delivery, the importance of timing becomes abundantly clear. But opening day furniture fiascoes can be avoided. Here’s how.

Most major renovations and new construction projects take place in the summer months, when there are fewer cars, students and distractions to contend with. But that means that everything, including installing the furnishings, must be completed in one short season. "In my weekly meetings with contractors I always say, ‘We have three months to build and three days to furnish,’" says Roger Fisher, director of residence services at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

Out With the Old

Fisher should know. He is four years into a 10-year building program that will renovate or replace 16 on-campus residence halls. He tells of the all-too-common scenario where the last student leaves on Saturday and the demolition crew shows up the following Monday. What does he do with piles of old furniture sitting in a hall that has a 9 a.m. meeting with the wrecking ball?

He sells it. Private schools with residence programs, other colleges and camps are all potential customers. "They have two days to haul it all away," says Fisher. Molly Ranz, acting director, facilities, department housing, food services and event centers for Ohio State University in Columbus, also sells old furniture with old-fashioned garage sales and new-fangled technology - the information superhighway. "We use a digital camera to put our stuff on the Internet," she says. "That has been very effective."

Mattress disposal poses a special problem. In some states they are illegal to resell or landfill. So what does one do with 700 old mattresses? Ranz donates hers to shelters and other nonprofit organizations. Fisher sells his to a refurbisher, which is legal in Texas. The refurbisher also comes and picks up the mattresses, saving Fisher moving costs.

If the furniture can’t be sold off in time, managers have no choice but to warehouse the stuff until a buyer can be found. Always the worst option, warehousing eats budgets three ways: moving the furniture in, the actual storage costs and eventually moving the stuff out. "At eight dollars a square foot, I definitely have a breaking point when it comes to warehousing," says Ranz. "Eventually, it becomes cheaper to give the furniture away."

In With the New

Once your school’s new residence hall is ready, it’s time to move the new furnishings in. And of course everything goes smoothly, from the contractor completing the project in time to the furniture trucks rolling in right on cue. Actually, anything and everything can happen - from atrocious construction delays to furniture factories burning down. How can you protect your investment?

"I build a 10 percent time buffer into my schedule," says Ranz. "So if the project is supposed to take 100 days I add an extra 10." She has had great success with this rule of thumb. Fisher found success by being true to his word. "I kept telling a contractor that the delivery was coming but he still wasn’t ready," he recalls. "He ended up being buried in furniture, and the next year he worked overtime to avoid that happening again."

Incentives work well on both ends of a construction project. Dangling an extra percentage point or two in front of your contractor helps get the job done on time. That same theory in reverse works with furniture. Shaving a point off the final price to compensate for problems will keep manufacturers interested, but adding a point or two to the final bill if you can’t accept delivery as planned is only fair.

Even with all of the planning, monetary incentives and gentle threats, problems do happen. Becky Johnson, associate dean of students/director of residential life at the University of New Haven, Conn., was constructing two buildings. When the furniture came, one building was finished but the other was still a few days out. "The furniture rep loaded the trucks so the first things off were for the finished building," she remembers. "But even after setting up the first building the other one still wasn’t completely ready." The solution? The installers stored the furniture in the public spaces of the first building until the other was complete.

Storing furniture is best done on someone else’s nickel. Ranz writes into the purchase orders that the manufacturer will hold the furniture until the building is ready for installation. "The companies require about two weeks notice to get your furniture on a specific date," says Ranz. Fisher buys and pays for furniture well in advance. But even though his school owns it, the manufacturer still stores and insures the furniture until he is ready for delivery. "This has worked wonderfully for us," says Fisher. "We haven’t paid a price increase in three years."

Sometimes the unthinkable does happen, though. "We had a furniture factory burn down," remembers Ranz. "But the responsibility was still on the manufacturer to provide the furniture, and he came through." Ranz admits that, in extreme cases, she makes concessions. For instance, beds must be there when the students arrive, but she is willing to wait a few days for dressers and other casegoods.

Eventually moving day finally comes, but who does the moving? David Leonard, associate dean of students and director of residence life for Whittier College in California, had his staff assist with installation. With only 186 bed spaces to fill, it was a smart use of his resources. Larger projects, however, might benefit from a professional installer.

At a cost of about five percent of your total furniture budget, professional installers are worth every penny. Efficient, insured and experienced in assembly, installers can set up hundreds of beds, dressers and desks quickly and haul away all the waste when they’re done. Then all you have to do is accept the accolades on opening day.

Amy Milshtein is a freelance writer from Hillsboro, Ore., with experience in higher education issues.

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