Form Follows Furniture

More and more of today’s higher education students take classes online. And why not? The technology creates an inexpensive, effective way to distribute information to a large group. Schools like it because it’s a cost-effective delivery system. Students like it because it’s convenient and they are comfortable with the technology. But what does it mean for the classroom? While the hallowed halls of old will not completely disappear, they will transform into an interactive learning experience that emphasizes leadership, socialization, and group effort. And furniture will drive that revolution.
Yes, furniture. No longer an afterthought, furniture, furnishings, and even the shape of the classroom promise to facilitate the new teaching paradigm. “Learning spaces have become high-tech social settings,” said Jack Bullo, AIA, principal, Harley Ellis Devereaux national education studio. “From the classrooms which emphasize group work to little alcoves and lobbies where students gather, learning goes on constantly and informally. Furniture needs to support that.”
As the “sage on the stage” gives way to a more egalitarian model, the concept of group work takes hold — and that requires flexibility. Bullo reported that he sees more and more classrooms for 30 students that can reconfigure in three or four different ways. Bullo cut his teeth designing conference centers, and he recalls that they were, “ahead of the curve on creating collaborative, flexible spaces. Swiveling chairs and powered furniture are the norm. Unfortunately that is out of financial reach of most colleges. Light, easy-to-move chairs and tables and power from a floor source get the job done on a tighter budget.”
Even the walls are pressed into double or triple duty under this model. By making classrooms square instead of rectangular, Bullo has created four front-of-the-room spaces perfect for breakout activities or group presentations. When all four walls are tackable or whiteboard surfaces, they add even more value — but bring up a different problem: where to put the windows? “Ideally they would be pushed to the side,” Bullo continued. “As projectors have improved there is no longer a need to completely darken the classroom. Perforated blinds cut glare enough and allow some needed light to enter the space.”
Fixed Furniture Doesn’t Work
Fixed furniture doesn’t work in this new classroom. In fact, Bullo postulates that bolted furniture would actually hinder learning. However, he feels that business school settings are one instance where fixed furniture is appropriate. “We are doing an installation where we use a tiered, horseshoe arrangement of fixed tables,” he said. “We also employ loose seating set on large tiers to encourage group work.” The professional, organized yet collaborative and intimate message the furniture sends is not lost on the school or the students. “This would never work at a school of education where the classroom is reconfigured 25 times throughout the semester,” said Bullo. “But they are more concerned with conveying a hands-on, active appearance.”
Under this model, lobby or breakout spaces grow more and more essential. Once afterthoughts to be furnished haphazardly, the alcoves are the spaces that catch students’ eyes and draw them in. They lend much energy and excitement to an interior. “I can envision a day where you design by developing a framework of soft social spaces first and then attach the more formal spaces to them,” said Bullo. “It’s almost like working backwards.”
It’s Electric
Another trend Bullo sees is a lecture hall that looks like an electrified banquet room. In this model, a large room is filled with 10, seven- to eight-ft. electrified tables. Ten students sit at these tables and watch the lecture on their laptops. What sets this apart from solo online learning is that these students can be prompted to stop and work with one another. “The pupils are eye-to-eye with each other,” said Bullo. “They can still share ideas and notes. It’s kind of like a 100-person online class.”
These new models come at a cost to the school in the form of higher square-foot-per-student ratios. “The old guidelines were set for one-way delivery and rows of tablet arm chairs,” explained Bullo. “This model means rooms are getting bigger and it costs more to teach the same amount of students. Of course there is some push back.”
It also means that interior designers have gotten involved in the process much earlier. Much like engineers now join the process early on to supply power to a room, interior designers now come to the table far earlier than before. While this is mostly a behind-the-scenes phenomenon, savvy clients realize the importance of the furniture plan and what to see their options up front.
So their students will have a comfortable seat later.