School Furniture On The Move

As the interior designer worked her way down the furniture punch list at the then new Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, Kan., she marveled at all the furniture moving through the halls. The school was preparing to open (in September of 2003) and the district’s facilities department was swapping furniture among rooms to get ready.

The custodial staff was moving desks, chairs, and storage cabinets out of a classroom and carting it off. Other workers were carrying lightweight conference tables and a wheeling a custom-made console with electrical and data connections into the room.

The school had just inked an agreement to offer students a distance-learning language lab through a university two hours away. Fortunately, the school’s flexible furniture design made it possible to design and build a distance learning language lab in a couple hours.

“They didn’t have to hire anyone to come in and rip stuff out of the wall; they just moved it,” says the designer, Pegge Breneman, IIDA, who heads up the interior design department at the Hollis & Miller Group, an architectural firm in Overland Park, Kan.

Olathe Northwest may have been among the first schools to buy into what has become a modern school-furnishing trend: mobile or flexible school furniture. The furniture budget for the 1,500-student school totaled $1.7 million and included about $300,000 of flexible furnishings made by Groupe Lacasse of St. Pie, Quebec.“We’ve done a lot of business with Groupe Lacasse over the years,” Breneman says. “They are reasonably priced and they will build furniture to custom designs. We do a lot of custom work, and Groupe Lacasse has never told us they produce one of our designs.”

School officials and designers have discovered that built-in furniture costs a lot to move. First, it has to be detached from the wall and floor. This leaves bare spots on the floor and wall that must be carpeted and painted. Then the furniture has to be lugged away.

Historically, moveable furniture was important to open plan schools — schools where there were no classroom walls and moveable furniture was used to define various areas: classrooms, play areas, art areas and so on. Today, walls define classrooms, but mobile furniture has made a comeback because it offers flexibility and helps avoid the costs associated with built-in casework.

“This is a trend,” says Dave King, vice president of Kaestle Boos Associates, Inc. of New Britain, Conn., an architectural firm specializing in school design. “We recently did a magnet school in Bloomfield Conn., called the Metropolitan Learning Center. The client asked us to minimize built-ins in the classrooms and provide flexible furniture that they could reconfigure as necessary.”

Jack Nichols doesn’t think mobile furniture is a trend. As the purchasing agent for the Baltimore County Public School System, Nichols has been buying trapezoid-shaped tables for years. “We use these in most of the classrooms in our 104 elementary schools,” he says. “We also have them in our 26 middle schools — in the classrooms and art rooms.”

Baltimore County also uses the tables for science fair displays, piecing the trapezoidal shapes together into long rows. Nichols says they are sturdy, but lightweight, with aluminum tubing for legs.

Nichols notes that the tables feature adjustable legs, which makes it possible to adapt them to the heights of students in different grades.

By and large, though, most school districts are still discovering the options that mobile furniture can provide.

At the Elkhorn Area School District in Elkhorn, Wisc., Bill Trewyn, the district’s business manager put some flexible tables into the teacher preparation rooms in the district’s new middle school. “This school is designed in pods or house areas where the kids work together for most of the academic day,” Trewyn says. “Within each pod area, there is a room that teachers use for general meetings, presentations, parent-teacher conferences, and preparation work.”

Teachers move the tables into different configurations based on what activities are slated for these rooms. The tables, which have various shapes, can be set up as separate desks for parent-teacher meetings; as a circle for teacher seminars; and as a lecture room for presentations. The tables have castors, which makes them easy to move around.

“We like the concept a lot,” Trewyn says. “We are considering doing something similar in our school board meeting room here at the district office. Right now we have a U-shaped table in the room where the board meets. We think that if we buy some flexible tables that can be shaped as a U as well as other configurations, we can use the room for activities other than board meetings.”

Types Of Mobile Furniture

Mobile furniture designs have gone far beyond tables. “Basically, everything in a classroom can be mobile, today,” says Gigi Szeklinski, an interior designer and project assistant with Epstein Uehn, in Milwaukee. “Nothing has to be fixed, except maybe the blackboard.”

Mobile furnishings include lightweight teacher desks and wheeled chairs. New classrooms generally provide data ports in the front and the back to enable teachers to place their desks where they like.

Student desks come in different shapes, including rectangles, trapezoids, and even puzzle-shapes. Sizes vary from 24-inch long rectangles to 72-inch long trapezoids. “Teachers can configure the desks for one student or two or four,” says Szeklinski. “You can also put the desks together into circles or parts of circles.

Mobile furniture isn’t limited to classroom desks, tables, and chairs, either. “There are storage units of every configuration and height, from counter level to 84-inches tall,” says King of Kaestle Boos. “And there are many specialized pieces such as a science demonstration center.”

According to King, science teachers today can wheel mobile demonstration stations from room to room. These stations have sinks with bottled water and a Bunsen burner connected to a small propane tank. It eliminates the need for permanent casework built into classrooms reserved only for science classes. King says science demonstration stations have proven particularly popular among middle school science teachers.

Mobile computer carts that store laptops are also growing in popularity. “We find that schools opt for buying these carts when they can’t afford to outfit every classroom with computers,” King says. “They might buy one cart per grade, and move the carts to classes that need computers.”

Media centers can also put mobile casework to good use. While the tall bookshelves that line the walls of the library portion of a media center continue to be built in, furnishings out on the floor are mobile. “Some schools use 42-inch high double-sided book cases that hold books on both sides,” says Szeklinski. “They are heavy but they can be moved around to reconfigure the library. You can also make aisles and sitting areas for teaching.”

Custom Designs

For administrators that can’t find what they need in the catalogs available at manufacturers’ web sites, interior design firms will also customize flexible furniture pieces.

Hollis & Miller frequently develops custom mobile furniture for K-12 clients. Take, for example, the firm’s recent work for the University Academy, a charter school in Kansas City, Mo., that received $40 million in private funding. The donors requested that the school contain a corridor of offices for a team of professionals that would be asked to serve as mentors for students.

In designing the offices, Hollis & Miller created unusually thin, mobile wardrobes for each office. The dimensions were eight inches wide and 24 inches deep. “This idea was so successful that we’re using it in another high school being designed right now,” says Breneman.

Economies Of Mobile Furniture

Designers and district officials agree that mobile furniture costs about the same as built in furniture. So the only reason to adopt mobile furnishings is for the sake of convenience. At some point, however, financial economies may start to appear. Take the Olathe school district, for example.

When it opened three years ago, the Olathe Northwest High School set an interior design trend for the entire district. Since then, the district has added a junior high school and three elementary schools. “In these buildings, the district has standardized on a color for their teacher desks and storage units,” says Breneman. “Because of the way the demographics of the area are trending, it seems likely that the furniture needs of the different school buildings will change. When that happens they will be able to pull furniture out of one building and use it in another. And it will all match.”