A Second Chance

It certainly was Lambuth University’s lucky day. The Jackson, TN, institution had a donor step forward with funds to upgrade the furnishings in its residence halls, a project that involved replacing 600 bed frames, mattresses, and chairs, plus some assorted sofas, end tables, and lamps from the floor lounges.

Hello new look — and hello storage problem.

It’s a dilemma many campuses struggle with: exactly what do you do with the old furniture? Institutions like Georgetown University, the University of San Diego, the University of California system, and Stanford University, to name a few, have turned to an answer Mario Insenga, president and founder of The Refinishing Touch in Alpharetta, GA, has devised. A specialty furniture refinisher, he first started solving this problem in 1977 for the hospitality industry — and universities quickly latched on. Their main motivation has always been return on investment. For instance, if a residence hall room features built-in desks or cabinets, the cost for removal and replacement involves substantial labor. In that case, “why would you want to throw this good stuff away when we could restore it and get several more years or life out of it for 10 to 20 percent of the replacement cost?” Insenga noted.

But in 2008, new motivations are emerging. Campuses are discovering the green benefits to the reuse option — and students in 2008 respond favorably to earth-saving initiatives. “It’s a very clean, non-toxic technology, and you’re not throwing this stuff into a landfill or taking new hardwoods out of the forest,” he explained. Not to mention, chances are high that new furniture isn’t made from solid wood, which reduces its lifespan to one-third of what administrators could expect from previous purchases.

“This means that in less time than the new goods can be depreciated — Federal tax laws estimate about seven years — they will need to be replaced,” said Insenga. He estimates reuse will squeeze another 20 years from serviceable pieces of furniture. His company alone has saved approximately 2,250,000 lbs. of wood from landfills in the past 30 years.

He can even provide the carbon footprint breakdown a university will use in the manufacturing and shipping processes to deliver the new furniture — on average, figure 125.32 tons of carbon per 100 rooms.

Some universities also buy into his point that many of the new furniture manufacturing dollars are being sent to Asian economies — not always a politically expedient move if the funds stem from taxpayer dollars.

Making the Change
When administrators decide to take the salvage route, about half decide to remove scratches and clean the piece, perhaps reupholster a seat, or change out the hardware on dresser drawers. Insenga’s crew can do this on site, moving along at a focused process with a timed agenda so they can complete the work while students are on summer break. “It looks new when we get done, as opposed to refinished,” he said. “If it was built 10 years ago or longer, it’s a good product — it was specified, well thought out, and manufactured very well. There’s a lot of good product sitting in the marketplace that needs to be cleaned up, fixed, or repaired, and then it can be used again.”

Recycling, on the other hand, completely re-engineers the furniture for another purpose. Insenga is seeing requests to do exactly that when it comes to transforming the bulky TV armoires in lounges into valuable drawer space — but most universities lean toward defining “reuse” as moving the updated furniture to a different location.

Finding New Homes
Then there’s Lambuth University’s choice. The city of Jackson, TN, sits in a tornado belt, where every spring the storms devastate families in the region. So Director of Residence Life Anita King contacted a regional interfaith association and the American Red Cross to offer both organizations the furniture. They were thrilled to accept, and it was just in time. They collected the pieces in the fall of 2007; on February 5, 2008, a massive tornado struck, killing 23 people and destroying hundreds of homes in the north Jackson area. Reports are all of the furniture has found new homes.

“You don’t want to say, ‘I hope it’s all been used’ because of a disaster, but you hope it’s all been put to good use,” King said.  “Donations also help to build good community relations within the school. One thing I’ve learned over the years working in education: It’s not just about teaching students. It’s about being goodwill ambassadors.” Additionally, Lambuth shared some of the furniture with Hiwassee College, a private two-year institution in Madisonville, TN, for use in their residence halls.

Likewise, Lynchburg, VA’s Liberty University in 2005 donated four complete residence halls’ worth of furniture to Gleaning for the World (GFTW, www.gftw.org), a management service that matches donations to end users. In this instance, the furniture went to a group called World Emergency Relief and was used to open a 384-bed orphanage in Kenya. This year, GFTW is expecting a yet-unnamed university to donate 32 complete rooms of furniture, designated for Food for the Poor in Central America.

No matter which route they take, officials need to plot timelines carefully. Lambuth, for instance, had to arrange for furniture pick-up before the new pieces arrived, lest they have pieces stacked on the lawns. In many cases, because the University was hosting conferences during those summer months, they had to coordinate delivery and pick-up on the same day. And even with this careful planning, they ended up stuffing corner rooms and common areas with furniture either on its way in or out. That’s why King recommends bringing more than one charity on board, “in case one location runs out of space. You can break down beds and stack chairs, but it’s still bulky.”

Currently, Insenga has begun the presentation circuit, talking at the state and regional levels of government to help them see the business strengths behind recycled furniture. “Unfortunately, their green thoughts are about dollars and cents, but anyone who is interested in the budget process can see that replacing a room of furniture vs. restoring that room is a huge difference,” he said.