Furnishings With Flexibility

Flexibility of space and furniture are rightfully at the top of every university and college facility’s design criteria. As buildings age, budgets tighten, and tuitions rise, colleges and universities need to stretch their dollars through dual-purpose solutions that create environments to attract and retain students and faculty. The design of educational facilities is shifting from faculty-centered to student-centered solutions, recognizing that a college or university that provides a comfortable and dynamic learning environment for students is more likely to produce loyal and successful alumni.

Today’s students are tech-savvy, astute, and more in tune with their needs and what competing schools are offering. Moveable furniture is a good first step, but furnishings should be carefully considered during programming and design as another tool to enhance the learning environment.

“Colleges and universities are facing increasing competition for quality students and faculty,” states John Strybos, associate vice chancellor of Facilities Operation and Construction Management for Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, TX. “Providing comfortable environments that satisfy a variety of learning styles and teaching methods helps with our recruiting efforts.”

A Good Fit for the Body

Campuses are typically filled with Generation Y, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. With a wide range of ages and body types, furniture must have flexibility to adapt to different bodies as well as different ideas of comfort. With adjustable tables and chairs, students are able to exercise some control over their environment, further supporting the feeling of “home” on campus.

Ergonomics has long been a key criterion in creating learning environments that keep students focused and comfortable, but in the past it was thought that too much body movement resulted in loss of focus. Studies now show that providing flexibility or rocking features within the furniture supports the body’s natural inclination to shift and vary postures. As new teaching pedagogies emerge and classrooms become more dynamic, furniture needs respond.

That research was considered when planning the new San Antonio College Nursing and Allied Health building for Alamo Colleges. Faculty members told the design team that lectures could last up to four hours, so careful consideration was given to selecting student chairs. The faculty realized that limiting the natural movements of students would create body fatigue, loss of focus, and ultimately, stress. To provide the comfort and movement needed, seats with large cushions and a flexible back that could rock were selected.

A Good Fit for the Mind

Research indicates that providing a sense of mental comfort and relaxation is also important. Once again, the key is providing options to meet the needs of different students. Younger students were born in a digital age and require furniture that supports their technology needs. They tend to prefer lounge pieces that support relaxing and the use of laptops and other technologies. Non-traditional students may prefer more conventional furnishings, such as work surfaces they can spread out on, and spaces designed for self-study or quiet reflection. Facilities can accommodate both by offering seating options that can serve as lounge pieces in active areas and soft seating in quiet zones. Work surfaces that are mobile, height-adjustable, and inclinable can also fit multiple scenarios.

Form Follows Function and Beyond
Many higher education programs provide real-world learning environments meant to mimic the professional or technical workplace. Hands-on classrooms are used to help students develop the practical skills needed for technical or clinical career paths. A student role-playing in a clinical situation optimally should have furniture and equipment that is similar to what they will be using post-graduation. Conference rooms and meeting spaces can help students become comfortable in the corporate world.

Students in the Mortuary Science program at San Antonio College learn the technical, personal, and business skills needed to work in the funeral industry. During the renovation and expansion of the Mortuary Science Department, the design team worked with faculty to select furnishings that could support both hands-on and classroom studies.

One example was in the merchandising room, where students practice consulting with family members and performing mock funeral services. In this situation, the typical student chair would not work. The faculty requested wood tables, fully upholstered chairs, and an altar and kneeling bench. With a little research and creativity, the designers were able to find all of the components within a mainstream contract furniture line the college was already using. The furniture can serve as realistic props for the mock services, but can also be repurposed to work in a traditional classroom setting.

“Alamo Colleges is committed to providing educational programs that prepare students with the knowledge and skills needed in today’s workforce,” explains Strybos. “Providing the furnishings and equipment that are similar to those used in the workplace our students will one day occupy is critical to our ability to prepare them for future success.”

As campuses try to utilize every square foot, spaces become dual functional and need furniture that can follow suit. At the San Antonio College Nursing and Allied Health Building, common spaces were created for both faculty and student use. High-end glass conference rooms on the third floor are open to department chairs for meetings, as well as to students for group study or presentations. Furniture in the conference room includes task chairs on casters and tables with plug-and-play capabilities. Students become comfortable working within a professional environment similar to what they may encounter after graduation.

The same task chairs used in the conference room were used in the building’s labs. In addition to being moveable, the chairs are equipped with mechanisms to support the body and include a mesh back and vinyl seat for durability. Providing the same chairs in the same finishes and using the same furniture for both faculty and students increases flexibility within the building and makes it easier for the College to replace or purchase additional chairs.

Furniture of the Future
Manufacturers are actively studying and supporting the push to create more effective learning environments. The industry is helping to provide students spaces that support their style of learning while also reducing costs for universities and colleges.

“Through collaboration and thoughtful selection of furnishings, designers can reinforce the goals of colleges and universities in satisfying their students, faculty, and bottom line,” states Richard Burnight, AIA, a principal of O’Connell Robertson. “As teaching styles and learning spaces evolve, so does furniture.”

Jennifer Hoskins, IIDA, LEED-AP, is an interior designer for O'Connell Robertson, an architecture/engineering firm with offices in Austin and San Antonio, TX. Founded in 1950, the firm specializes in the design of higher education, K-12, and healthcare facilities and has completed more than 1,000 projects throughout Texas.

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