All Tricked Out

“Ten years ago the solution for classroom furniture was obvious,” reminisced Nat Porter, vice president education markets, KI. “Tablet arms or some other fixed desk and seating combination were the only options. Today it’s a bit unclear.” What is clear, however, is that teaching styles in the classroom are changing. How can furniture support the need for flexibility, power delivery, address a variety of pedagogies, and still be comfortable, environmentally sensitive, and stylish to boot?

“We continually hear the request for flexibility first and foremost,” said Kelly Hayes-McAlonie, associate vice president, Cannon Design. “One professor may use the ‘sage on the stage’ method of teaching while the next employs more of a seminar style set-up where students break into different groups.” To accommodate both styles, Hayes-McAlonie and her peers are specifying lots of separate tables and chairs. “This offers plenty of flexibility.”

Even connected tables and chairs morph to accommodate this new demand for flexibility. “We have a desk/table combination unit that features a graduated potato-chip edge,” explained Rick Creel, president, Infinite Furniture Solutions. While it may sound delicious, that edge has nothing to do with snacking. Instead it allows students to turn to the peer sitting next to them and work easily. “The chair has a pitch to it that keeps students comfortable yet awake and engaged,” he said. The units also connect head-to-head or in a circle formation so students can see and work with each other easily.

Freestanding tables themselves are changing as well. “Hard edges have given way to more organic shapes,” said Porter. “Curves invite people to work collaboratively while the softer edges offer more ergonomic comfort.” The tables also move on wheels or flip up to stack quickly in a corner. “The ability to re-configure a classroom quickly, quietly, and without too much disruption is paramount,” said Christine Soto, ASID, Cannon Design. “You don’t want to have to make a big, distracting production out of reconfiguring.”

While specifying tables and chairs instead of fixed tablet-arm seating seems like a no-brainer, it has downsides that must be considered. “This configuration takes up more spaces than its predecessor,” revealed Hayes-McAlonie. “The old rule of thumb was 20 sq. ft. per student. This new model requires 25 sq. ft. to accommodate.”

Accommodating Technology
Aside from taking up more space, flexibility can also work against technology. Surely wireless connectivity rules the day; however, students still need to power up. “Power routing is the critical issue,” insisted Sascha Wagner, senior associate, Huntsman Architectural Group. “Unfortunately, you lose some of your flexibility when you wire a table for power.”

Wired tables mean that students themselves cannot quickly move furniture around. Luckily a maintenance crew can still reconfigure a room in between classes. “It’s not like you need an electrician to come in and do it. They snap apart and together easily,” said Wagner. KI’s Porter points to a future where even power is delivered wirelessly. “I’ve spoken to R&D people who say that is about five years out,” he said.

Students aren’t the only ones in the classroom both wired and flexible. The teachers themselves are also reaping the benefits of this revolution as their podium becomes more and more advanced. “Everything from PowerPoint presentations to light levels can be controlled directly from the lectern or remotely while the professor moves around,” said Gabriel Yaari, associate principal, Anshen + Allen.

Yaari reminds us that in spite of all the cool electronic equipment, there will always be a need for whiteboards in the class. “They will never be replaced,” he said. “Large ones can also be recessed and controlled from the lectern.” Hayes-McAlonie concurred. “The teaching wall should contain as much whiteboard space as possible,” she said. “Some classrooms now have two teaching walls to accommodate projection screens and large whiteboards.”

Moving Outside the Classroom
The new teaching model means that the classroom isn’t the only place where students learn. “Lounge and breakout spaces directly outside the classroom are growing in popularity too,” said Wagner. These interactive spaces resemble the red carpet clubs found in airports and should be furnished accordingly. “Soft seating on casters, ottomans, and even upholstered chairs with fold-out tablet arms work well in these areas,” continued Wagner. Hayes-McAlonie sees the same trend. “Learning happens in every space of the building at all times,” she said. “Comfortable furniture and lots of outlets are needed throughout the interior.”

Designers still remember for whom they are designing, though. “College kids are as hard on furniture as five-year-olds,” reported Soto. “Even though it is comfortable and flexible, the furniture still has to be durable.” Creel’s company answers this call with flexible soft seating that features a tight slipcover that can be removed for cleaning or replaced entirely.

Despite this new comfortable, flexible model, large old-fashioned auditoria lecture halls will never go away. They are, however, shrinking. “You don’t see 200-seat halls being built anymore,” said Yaari. “Now schools want halls to seat 80 to 90 people, with the largest ones topping out at around 130.” Porter agreed. “It’s popular to bash lecture halls, but they will never go away. They’re the best way for one person to impart information to many,” he said. “Crescent-shaped rooms and swiveling furniture still allow peer-to-peer eye contact and collaboration in this large setting.”

Sustainability Matters
Environmental concerns are trickling down to surround classroom furniture as well. “Furniture materials and manufacturing practices are being re-engineered to be as green as possible,” said Wagner. “But it can be a bit of a trade-off. A typical classroom chair has chrome legs that can withstand the abuse of ganging and stacking, but the chroming process is environmentally damaging. Powder coating is a better choice but that has to be repainted every five years.”

Some companies are manufacturing furniture that allows for less waste during its life. “We offer a chair where a damaged seat can pop off and be replaced easily on the perfectly good frame,” said Creel. “The old seat is sent back to us and re-ground into a new product.”

Which sounds like a fresh idea.