Tug of War

In the early 1990s, students began to demand living space more closely tailored to what they had enjoyed at home. Colleges and universities took these demands seriously and began to refer to dormitories as residence halls. Student lounges became living rooms. Different furniture choices followed the changes in terminology. Traditional bulky institutional styles lost favor, and residential lines of furniture grew in popularity.

As colleges steered away from institutional-looking furniture, they found that residential- and hospitality-grade furniture came at lower costs. “This trend blossomed through the mid-1990s,” says Alexander L. Murog, marketing manager for York, Pa.-based Blockhouse Furniture. “The colleges were providing what the students wanted. The schools were saving money.”

Trouble in Paradise

Then a problem began to develop. Administrators realized that the residential- and hospitality-grade furniture wasn’t holding up to the demands of a college environment.

Hospitality-grade furniture features stapled joinery. Inexpensive softwoods usually form the material base of this furniture. As a result, the quality of hospitality-grade furniture, while adequate to the needs of the hospitality industry, proved lacking in a residence hall environment. “Facility managers were getting a functional life of three to four years and an aesthetic life of even less,” says Murog. “Broken furniture was not easily repaired, and exact replacements were difficult to buy because models and fabrics changed almost yearly.”

Saving the Day

In the past two years or so, furniture manufacturers have begun to address this problem, developing lines of residence hall furniture that combine residential styling with institutional durability.

This kind of residential furniture does come at a premium. Cost may run higher than that of residential- and hospitality-grade furniture. “But it lasts longer,” Murog says. “The life-cycle is much closer to that of institutional furniture. And maintenance costs are reasonable, especially when you compare the costs of replacement fabrics with professional reupholstering.”

As an example, Blockhouse’s Regent series features rigid frames bolted together with steel brackets. Instead of staples, dowels hold side arm panels in place. Cushions lock into place and cannot be removed by students for, say, pillow fights. When the cushions begin to show wear, the maintenance crew can unlock them, turn them over and gain another cycle of useful life.

Putting It to the Test

Facilities decision makers at both Binghamton University and SUNY Cortland are putting this type of residence hall furniture to the test.

“We have always favored durable, heavy-duty furniture over residential styling,” says Jean Brown, housing coordinator with SUNY Cortland. “In the last three years, though, we have been trying to make things look less institutional and more homelike, especially in our common area lounges. This past summer, we bought new furniture for six study lounges in our low-rise residence halls. We put in study tables and chairs, study carrels and some soft seating. We’ve also put some cushioned seating into the living rooms of our student apartments.”

SUNY Cortland has also decided to try the concept in another renovated residence hall.

“We’ve just begun a 10-year renovation plan for our residence halls,” Brown says. “Each year, we plan to take one building off line and renovate it. Our plans include renovating each building in a way that gives each its own character. That may mean varying the design of the rooms and the style of the furnishings.”

Paul Stroud, associate director of residential life operations at Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., has taken an approach similar to SUNY Cortland in fitting out a recently completed residence hall. “We opened a new facility this past summer,” he says. “We were looking for furniture that would help our facility make a statement. We wanted to say to students that this is your home. We did this with modern colors and real woods. We were also looking at fabrics that are more student friendly. Traditionally, fabrics for college furniture have been prosaic. Today, the manufacturers seem to be getting away from that and introducing more exciting fabrics in terms of prints and colors. This is a departure for us. We don’t have a lot of it. But the response from students has been positive.”

According to Stroud, a handful of manufacturers have come out with furniture lines designed to combine residential styling with institutional durability. “As we find these manufacturers, we have been buying the furniture,” he says. “For the most part, this issue arises in living areas, not bedrooms. In this category, we’re interested in sofas, settees, side chairs, ottomans and other kinds of living room furniture.”

Furniture featuring both institutional durability and residential styling costs more, but Stroud hopes to get more useful years from the purchase. “Furniture durability varies,” he says. “I’ve had furniture last for 12 years in some of our apartment communities. In our freshman and sophomore residence halls, the furniture receives a different kind of wear and doesn’t last as long. If this furniture gives me four more years of use than normal in these different residential housing categories, I’ll be happy.”

Both Stroud and Brown have been pleased with the reaction of students to the styling of the new furniture. Next, of course, comes the real test: Can the furniture survive a decade or so of exuberant students?

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