Are You Sitting Down?
- By Julie Sturgeon
- February 1st, 2008
When St. Olaf College introduced the custom, oversized Adirondack chairs to its center greens,
officials were taken back at how it changed the lifestyle at this Northfield, MN
“The students spend
more time out there,” said Gregg Menning, the staff cabinetmaker who turned
10,000 bd. ft. of vertical grain fir from the renovated gymnasium bleachers
into 20 chairs. “People take their lunch out to these chairs, and set their
plates on the arm. They curl up in them and nap.” They’ve proven far more
popular than the heavy baked-epoxy-finish steel benches in place — so much so
that students frequently move these chairs closer to their residence halls. The
unauthorized relocating has created its share of damage to the furniture, “but
we feel it’s a worthwhile trade,” Menning said.
What’s more, the steel
benches are getting more of a workout since the chairs came along, as students
suddenly noticed them when they couldn’t snag a seat.
impact has caught more than just St.
administrators off guard. “When people walk into a space, they can immediately
feel comfortable, intrigued, or they can be turned off. Most people don’t have
the design vocabulary to verbalize it, but they know when they are in the right
place,” said Mark E. Hieber, LEED-AP, an associate landscape architect with
Harley Ellis Deveraux in Southfield, MI. “The impact of comfortable settings
for people to exchange ideas — because learning happens as much outside the
classroom as it does inside — is why you want to create these spaces.”
Hieber’s research says
that prospective students will make a decision on whether a campus fits them
within the first five minutes of their arrival to campus. “They have never been
in a building, they have never met a faculty member or anything else, but they
know if it’s right based on the how the campus is organized and the
architecture within the open space settings,” he added.
Yet most campuses find
themselves a bit on the skimpy side when it comes to outdoor furnishings,
Hieber contends. Budget, of course, is the bad guy, but if you choose wisely,
the gain far outweighs the short-term costs, administrators who spiffed up
their campuses say. The trick is to keep these issues in mind.
It goes without saying
that anything sitting outdoors permanently needs to stand up to water, salt,
sun, and human abuse, à la skateboarders. If you select metal that means it
shouldn’t rust, and wood needs to lean toward the harder, non-decay varieties
like teak. Wood/plastic composites will stand up to salt and water, but some of
the blends don’t perform as well when it comes to UV fading, Hieber warns. (Not
to mention, plastics can be uncomfortably warm to sit on in that sunlight.)
Thus, a one-material-fits-all mentality probably won’t work for any campus.
Next, the design needs
to reflect its surroundings. “People equate edgy with certain experiences and
places differently than rustic,” he noted. So, an area near a science lab might
call for more metals, while older buildings with that classic collegiate feel
could beg for wood or stone accents.
From a sustainability
perspective, ask how the materials stack up on sustainable evaluation guidelines
put out by such concerns as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) or the American Society of Landscape Architects’ preliminary Sustainable
Sites Initiative. Additionally, ask:
much recycled materials are being used (pre-consumer content and post-consumer
the manufacturer use certified wood in accordance with the Forest Stewardship
On the other hand,
don’t assume sustainability will be a hurdle — green choices are becoming more
plentiful in the marketplace, Hieber added.
permits, I prefer to use movable furniture over fixed seating,” he added. “It
offers unlimited choice for the user — to be in the sun on a cooler day or the
shade on a warmer day.”
One of the bigger
placement mistakes Hieber sees are administrators who try to make their outdoor
furniture the star rather than an accessory. Comfort, safety, and cleanliness
all rank ahead of the spotlight in his book. This is why he often tries to
include natural seating elements such as boulders and seat walls in the campus
At William Woods
University in Fulton, MO,
dean of student life Venita Mitchell chose to place her furniture around the
residence halls and student center — some of the plastic-coated metal benches
sit just outside these building entrances while others are 40 yards out from
the doors. The ones that snuggle up to the brick-and-mortar structures tend to
attract groups of students who plop down to interact; the far-flung furniture
is the choice of individuals looking to study or use their cell phones. That’s
exactly what she was trying to create when she bit the bullet and brought in
furniture in 2003.
“We have a beautiful
campus, but had nowhere to sit down,” Mitchell said. “We are in the Midwest, so we have long seasons of good weather, so
furniture would be a component of our community building efforts.” She intends
to add more seating around the recreational lake area next, and she’s not
opposed to considering a few pieces around the academic buildings to create
spots where students and faculty can interact.
William Woods wound up
selecting its school colors, maroon and green, not to drum up pride but to
compliment the environment. Missouri
in the fall features spectacular foliage displays that work well with the hues.
“I’m not sure our students noticed they were the school colors as much as they
thought the benches look nice,” said Mitchell.
Hieber applauds this
thinking. Color choices present another big downfall for college
administrators, who see outdoor furniture as an opportunity to reinforce school
loyalty. Others get caught up in the color-of-the-year hype, which quickly
dates the campus. “Furnishings play a background role, so they should be a more
neutral color,” he insisted. Put him down for natural metal finishes, black,
white, or wood tones, as these colors tend to be timeless, and in many cases,
make up the secondary color in a school’s logo anyhow.
“The furniture is not
cheap,” Mitchell agreed. “But it’s not the most expensive thing you’ll purchase
either, and it has paid off for us in building community. When you drive
through campus, you see students sitting outside of buildings, talking. Don’t
underestimate the impact that can have.”
Seating tends to be
the number-one choice in outdoor furniture for campus administrators, but
manufacturers now make an array of complementary pieces. At William Woods
University, for instance,
Mitchell purchased trash receptacles that match her benches.
Recycling bins, too,
can be quite handsome, as opposed to yesterday’s giant green boxes, said
Hieber. He urges administrators to consider these elements as well:
- Flagpoles and banners to lend
animation and reinforce identity.
- Bike racks set within well-organized
and lushly landscaped edges — not right at the door or out in full view in the
central space — to minimize clutter.
- Umbrella tables to lend a sense of
fun to a space.
“In my opinion if
these elements are well built and simply designed, they tend to come off better
as players within a bigger composition, which is really what campuses are all
about,” he noted.