Furniture Evolution

Beds that lower into the floor, wardrobes that double as privacy screens, flat-screen information displays, and pre-programmed lighting that comes on when a student enters their room. These ideas may sound like features in the residence hall of the future, but they are actually ideas swirling in the minds of architects and manufacturers today when it comes to designing residence halls.

The design of residence halls has changed significantly through the years, and perhaps no element has undergone a more involved evolution than its furniture. The beds, tables, couches, chairs, and other pieces found in residence halls today are more home-like than what was used years ago. Requirements for flexibility, privacy, aesthetics, and security are only a few of the issues driving trends and the continuing design evolution.

Just Like Home

“Students today are used to better living conditions,” said Christopher Hill, design principal for CBT Architects, Boston. “Most of them have their own bedroom and many have their own bathroom. They expect a certain level of privacy and flexibility regarding their own spaces when they get to college.”

Hill stated that flexibility is a key requirement when it comes to residence hall design and that it includes the furniture provided in student rooms and common areas. “The goal is always to maximize space,” he said. “While some answers like built-in furniture has its advantages, there are also disadvantages to consider. The industry continues to struggle to find the optimum approach.”

For example, built-in closets provide good storage space for students and do not take up valuable floor space, compared to a wardrobe. However, there are code issues regarding the requirement for sprinklers in closets in many states. One answer being employed at some colleges and universities is to build the closet with a corresponding set of drawers, but to then eliminate the door. This approach eliminates the need for sprinklers since the closet is not enclosed. Students can cover their belongings using a drape or shower curtain, which provides additional personalization in the space.

“The words that we continually hear from college and university administrators are longevity, compatibility, flexibility, sustainability, and aesthetics when it comes to furniture,” Hill said. “Furniture today can morph into more configurations than its predecessors, which helps to stretch the budget while meeting furniture requirements.”

One example involves tables that can be specified for a common area or study lounge. Furniture that is durable while easy to move allows students to use units individually or in groupings. This facilitates individual and group study as well as social gatherings or meetings.

Hill and others at his firm have participated in The 21st Century Project, an effort sponsored by the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International (ACUHO-I). The association’s members include housing professionals from more than 900 colleges and universities in 22 countries. One of the organization’s key initiatives is to address the future of residence hall design.

The 21st Century Project, according to the association’s Website, is “a multi-phased program that will culminate with the construction of a brand new, state-of-the-art college residential facility. Experts from academia, design, and manufacturing gather to discuss trends and to generate new designs for consideration and implementation.” The project, which has been in place for several years, continues to broaden the discussion among professionals regarding what is needed to make residence halls as safe, secure, flexible, and aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Meeting the Trends

Mike Gittinger, vice president, Marketing, for Three Mountain Furniture, agrees with Hill regarding the trends that are driving furniture design. His company provides three distinct lines to the marketplace and has clients throughout the country.

“Students and facility personnel want total flexibility,” Gittinger said. “They also want a home-like quality, and sustainability is becoming more important.”

Students spend significant amounts of time in their residence halls, and furniture must meet multiple requirements. If space allows, Gittinger said that some colleges are electing to provide full-size beds, since this is what many students have at home. Beds manufactured from wood are still in demand, but metal beds with solid steel decks rather than spring decks are also popular. The combination of a steel frame with a solid deck provides a durable and sophisticated look while also cutting down on allergens that can become trapped in the springs.
The technology housed in a student’s room is another factor influencing furniture design. “More schools that we work with are asking for locks on media centers, wardrobes, and desks,” said Gittinger. “They want at least one locking drawer or panel so that students can secure their laptops, iPods, and other personal media devices.”

Green and Comfortable

Sustainability will continue to affect the design and manufacturing of residence hall furniture. Gittinger says that facility personnel and administrators must consider the life-cycle cost when it comes to selecting furniture. Green products may cost more initially, but over the life of a product are not much more expensive than their non-green counterparts. It is a balancing act given the current economic climate, but a number of universities are accepting the eight to 15 percent higher cost for green products in order to contribute more positively to the environment. Another option, where existing furniture is concerned, is to see if the original manufacturer will take the furniture and refurbish it to create a newer look. Several manufacturers offer this service on their lines, which keeps older furniture out of the landfill.

New residence halls being built today and the renovation of many existing halls reflect a great deal of design sensitivity when it comes to all building components, including furniture. College life, as anyone who has been there knows, can be stressful. A comfortable place to rest at the end of the day, security for personal belongings, and furniture that reminds a student of home help to reduce stress and contribute to a positive college experience.