Residence Hall Furniture: What's on the Horizon

Residence hall furniture design is almost as varied as the students who use these pieces. Fabrics, frames, colors, materials and other factors combine to give college and university officials numerous choices. Throw in custom-designed pieces and the selection could become almost overwhelming.

The market will continue to evolve and will offer even more choices in the future. Here’s what representatives from some leading manufacturers are saying about the future of residence hall furniture design.

What the Market Wants

Four words guide every decision -- durability (which includes maintenance considerations), flexibility, mobility and cost.

“The market for attracting residence hall students is very competitive,” says Jeff Carlson, vice president of Business Development for University Loft Co. in Indianapolis. “Administrators compete with on-campus housing options, such as sororities and fraternities, while also competing with off-campus options. Residence halls must offer amenities and aesthetics that can be found elsewhere, and furniture is certainly a big part of the equation.”

Carlson says that students want a look that is upscale and flexible, sentiments that were echoed by other contributors to this article: “Our clients have gone to retail stores, such as Crate & Barrel, to get ideas. Clients today are very sophisticated.”

In the past, furniture was often secured in place -- the mobility and flexibility part of the equation -- so that it could not be easily moved. Today, users want items that can be moved to create different configurations or accommodate special events -- a consideration in lounges.

Purchasers must compare the investment in residence hall furniture to the long term -- the life-cycle cost, which relates to durability. Furniture that is built totally of hard woods may cost more up front but may last longer than a composite material. Administrators must decide if they want to invest in an item that may last three to five years or eight to 10 years.

One final note: Sustainability is becoming a deciding factor in more purchasing decisions. “An increasing number of college and university administrators are seeking to develop sustainable or ‘green’ projects,” says April McKeel, marketing manager for Blockhouse in York, Pa. “Furniture will increasingly be made of recycled or more environmentally friendly products. This, combined with paint, flooring materials and building systems, will result in buildings that are sustainable, which is of growing importance.”

Upholstery

“Strength is critical,” says “George Zaki, president of ERG in Oxnard, Calif. “Fabrics must be tightly woven so that they do not wear easily. Upholstered components must be supported by strong frames to increase the item’s life.” Zaki further notes that upholstery comes in a wide range of colors and prints so that custom-designed projects, which cost more, aren’t necessary to achieve the desired look. “College and university administrators can get what they want without investing in custom upholstery.”

In addition to fabrics, leather and vinyl are also considerations. Krypton, a breathable fabric that is impervious to moisture, is growing in popularity with many furniture manufacturers. The material won’t stain or retain an odor, and it is offered in a wide variety of patterns and colors.

When it comes to upholstered furniture, there are two schools of thought. Some administrators may prefer firmer cushions while others go with more over-stuffed options. This varies based on use, on the fact that a couch has larger cushions than a chair and on how much administrators want students to truly lounge on an item. Fortunately, again, the market has numerous choices in this area.

Room Furniture

Technology has significantly impacted residence hall furniture, says Barry Swanquist, vice president of Institutional Markets for KI in Green Bay, Wis. “Residence hall rooms must accommodate technology as never before. Cabling and power demands for computers, printers and other items can be extensive. Desks must accommodate cabling requirements to make the area as clean as possible. Keyboard trays are also important. A large number of desks purchased today are more computer-oriented rather than what we could consider a traditional design.”

Rather than four-drawer bureaus, a number of institutions are using stackable units: two units of two-drawers each. This gives students greater flexibility in configuring their rooms to their personal tastes.

Finally, numerous administrators are purchasing full rather than twin beds. While space is obviously a consideration, this factor relates to the amenities part of the equation.

Frames

“Frames today are either all wood, a wood combination or metal,” says Judy Fister, vice president for August, Inc., in Centerville, Ohio. “Wood frames, which we deal in, are versatile, strong and easy to adapt. What we’ve seen across the board is that the level of design has increased, which is particularly important for graduate students. In addition, administrators want durability that is reflected in a progressive and sophisticated design.”

Swanquist says that there are three levels for wood frames: pine, for those who are more budget conscious; multi-ply, which involves a combination of plywood and veneer; and hardwood, which is the majority of furniture that is purchased. The advantage of wood, according to Swanquist and others, is that damaged areas can be refinished to bring back the piece’s original look.

Follow Your Goals

Fister states that college and university officials should start from a list of goals that they want to meet for their residence hall projects, a procedure that most surely follow. This allows administrators to keep to their concepts and to select the best furniture options available based on cost, durability, mobility and flexibility.

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