Are You Sitting Down?

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, campus.

“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.

Outdoor furniture’s impact has caught more than just St. Olaf College 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.

Materials

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:

  • How much recycled materials are being used (pre-consumer content and post-consumer content)?
  • Did the manufacturer use certified wood in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council?

On the other hand, don’t assume sustainability will be a hurdle — green choices are becoming more plentiful in the marketplace, Hieber added.

“When security 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.”

Esthetics

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 landscape.

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.”

Outdoor Accessories

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.

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