Furniture Faces the Future

Ah, the fond memories of classroom furniture gone by. Younger students had those wooden-top desks that housed everything from papers and chubby crayons to peanut butter sandwiches and the occasional interesting creature. Then there were the older students, who came into their classroom, shoveled books and notebooks under their chairs, then did a hula hoop hip swivel to plop themselves into those chairs with desktops that looked like overgrown commas.

Bookshelves flanked classroom windows and the teacher’s desk sat in the front of the room, the PA speaker looming overhead. Teachers stood before wall-sized chalkboards, chalk in one hand, eraser in the other, a cloud of dust and a hearty hi-ho … never mind, you get the idea.

In recent years, however, technology has made the single largest impact on the way school classrooms are furnished. The desire to be hooked up, linked to and online has necessitated greater flexibility in the types of furniture chosen.

There are other issues that play into furnishing changes as well, says Paul Drysch, chief sales and marketing officer for California-based KawamaCommerce. Schools needing to accommodate special needs students under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the increased use of audio-visuals in the classroom, lighting in the classroom and the growing recognition of ergonomic issues all have contributed to breaking away from what were once considered traditional classroom furnishings.

Looking at the Options

“Flexibility” is the word most often used to describe the form and function of today’s classroom furnishings. Carl Brockway, vice president for sales for Texas-based Paragon Furniture, says flexibility encompasses not only how the furniture will fit in the classroom, but how many different uses can be made of the same furniture, and if that furniture is expandable.

According to Larry Wonder, vice president of sales for California-based Virco Manufacturing Corp., there is a large demand for furniture that is suitable for classroom computing. Computer desks need to accommodate changes in computer design and peripherals, with monitor decks, CPU holders and keyboard trays. There also need to be larger tabletops, with height adjustability to allow for computing by different age groups, and wire management modules for safety. Placing computer workstations on wheels can create greater latitude.

As with any technology equipment, Drysch says, security requires lock-downs to guard against pilferage. Though traditional student desks still are used, Wonder says the trend is toward tables with larger work surfaces, rather than individual desk seating, for collaborative learning curriculum. This allows for table configurations to support project-oriented lessons.

The white board that replaces the classroom chalkboard can double as the projection screen for audio-visuals. Projection equipment can be located on a mobile presentation cart or on the teacher’s desk.

Even the realm of student assemblies can be affected, says Drysch. The classroom television can be networked for video conferencing, allowing a speaker to address the entire student body, without the students ever leaving their classrooms.

Under the best of circumstances, you’re putting these furnishings into brand new buildings that are constructed to accommodate these tables and workstations. Then comes the reality check -- you have an older building, the parameters are set in stone (maybe literally) and there’s just so much space per classroom for all those goodies.

Making the Furnishings Fit

Most classrooms are fixed in size, with the variable being the number of students per classroom. Creating the same flexible environment requires thinking “outside the box” and finding the furnishings that will afford the greatest number of options.

According to Wonder, if a classroom must function for a larger number of students, you may have to downscale things like student tables or work stations, sacrificing some work surface area to fit the available space. Putting workstations on wheels allows them to be moved as needed to make room for other activities.

Brockway says furnishings that can serve multiple uses, or are modular in design, where pieces can be configured in numerous ways, such as small groupings or in standard rows, can afford flexibility in tight classroom spaces. Modular design furniture often comes with optional add-on items that can expand their functionality.

Determining your furnishing needs and goals requires long-term projections and planning. Budgetary considerations, as well as enrollment fluctuations, have to be taken into account when expending your furniture dollars.

Deciding What to Buy

“These days, they (schools) tend to have shrinking budgets and greater expectations,” Drysch says. The goal is to find a middle ground where those elements can be met successfully.

The usability of the furnishings has to be equal to their durability, says Wonder. Furniture must be functional for educational specifications, but some compromises can be made to deal with budgetary constraints.

Carefully picking and choosing furniture options can save money, Brockway says. Limiting color choices or finishes doesn’t sacrifice quality and can save dollars on the overall purchase.

Choosing items that are slightly less than top-of-the-line can reduce costs without any major loss of quality. Wonder says that most manufacturers offer several levels of furniture and all will meet educational specifications; however, he recommends that, if a cost-reducing decision needs to be made, you should save the money on seating, rather than work surfaces. He explains that seating needs can fluctuate based on student population, but workstation requirements remain fairly static over a longer period of time.

Large quantity purchasing can sometimes net extra discounts and having all your purchases delivered in one truckload to a single location can greatly reduce your costs, Wonder says. Also, transporting items to their specific destinations and doing your own set-up can further reduce the bill. Just make sure that doing it yourself won’t void any warranties.

Yes, everyone talks about “warranties” -- they are a specification in any bid package, but “warranty is primarily a sales tool,” says Brockway. His company offers a two-year standard warranty, yet that is subject to realignment with bid requirements. “We’re in a trusting business,” he says. Warranty enforcement may be negotiable. You’ll also need to know who will be responsible for fulfilling the warranty, the manufacturer or the dealer.

A Little One-on-One

One fairly new element has changed the way schools obtain furnishings -- e-commerce. And it’s opened up new savings possibilities.

KawamaCommerce is one of the pioneers in educational e-commerce, linking buyers with suppliers in the realm of cyberspace, with everything done online. Districts can either enter information online concerning their specific needs and request online submission of proposals from suppliers, or they can go out to bid for items and have those sealed bids submitted electronically through the KawamaCommerce site. The site also offers districts an “eMall” for smaller-ticket purchases.

Drysch says the community segment of their Website encourages and fosters communication between member districts. An offshoot of this communication, he says, has been district-to-district furniture selling and purchasing. While one district may lose students and have a furniture surplus, another may have an enrollment upsurge and need those surplus items. Though KawamaCommerce doesn’t take an active role in these transactions, Drysch says the Web community can facilitate these interactions, opening another means of furniture procurement for school districts.

One admonition to this type of transaction is the matter of warranty enforcement. While Wonder says that his company probably would honor the warranty, so long as it was still in force, even though the furniture changes hands, Brockway said such a transaction would pose problems with warranty enforcement.

Robbin M. Rittner-Heir is a freelance writer based in Dayton, Ohio, who writes frequently about educational issues.