High-Performance Furnishings

Is there any school administration or architect today that does not strive for high performance? Definitions may vary and the word is sometimes overused, but the objectives are valid. For more than a decade, the universe of education has been on course toward a convergence of student, teacher and school building performance.

In the architecture/engineering/construction industry, codes, standards, regulations and initiatives such as LEED, CHPS, integrated project delivery and evidence-based design are realigning every aspect of the built environment and related processes toward higher performance outcomes.

For school buildings, the generally accepted understanding of "performance" includes those features of the physical environment that can be directly linked with both student success and environmental responsibility. There is no single source or definition, but commonly recognized attributes of high performance learning environments include:
  • space/functionality of the building and rooms,
  • acoustics,
  • daylighting and illumination,
  • physical comfort,
  • indoor environmental quality,
  • safety and security,
  • technology,
  • appearance,
  • materials,
  • energy conservation and
  • water conservation.
Various studies have identified correlations between student performance and one or more of these elements of the physical environment. Although the degree of influence may be subject to debate, it is clear that the physical environment impacts teaching and learning for better or worse.

Concurrent with these building industry trends, almost every aspect of education itself seems to be in transition. Instructional innovations are responding to raised expectations for educational performance in the 21st century and are being measured by one or more student assessment metrics. No Child Left Behind is the most obvious of these, but public demand is fueling any number of new and experimental models for teaching and learning.

Central to the many improvements in both the built environment and educational delivery are the concepts of engagement, information-based decision making and accountability.

From planet to pupil, the focus is on performance… with one glaring exception. Curiously absent from all of these advancements are those building components with which students have the most direct and prolonged contact — furnishings.

While myriad processes are evolving toward higher performance, the predominant method for procurement of tables, desks and chairs remains an anachronism. Despite the fact that most of the high performance factors listed above are applicable to school furniture, in the U.S. today, school furnishings are typically perceived as commodities and acquired accordingly. Principal and staff may be involved to some degree, and purchasing specialists may handle the technicalities of procurement, but the overriding selection criteria tend to be price, appearance, personal preference and the inertia of whatever was purchased previously. The students who must suffer the consequences are omitted from the process entirely.

As school designs advance beyond the egg crate, egg crate furnishings continue to fill the new spaces. This arbitrary one-size-fits-all selection method is quite inconsistent with other aspects of the school building process. When it comes to furnishings, the performance-based approach ceases.

Human dimensions and motion are fundamental building blocks of architecture.

Ergonomics link body and environment. The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

Kinesthetics is defined as the link between mind and body. It is the study of human physical and neural responses to the physical environment. The University of Minnesota School of Kinesiology is a leader in this area and offers fascinating research on how the brain, body and environment interact uniquely for each individual. With input from all five senses, our central nervous systems are continuously and unconsciously adapting to our surroundings. These neural connections constitute the very essence of learning.

Howard Gardner identifies bodily-kinesthetic as one of seven basic intelligences. Physical activity is a known factor in student health and performance. Research performed by Miami University of Ohio has demonstrated that intermittent standing enhances office worker productivity. Schools in some states claim improved student performance by simply scheduling recess before rather than after lunch.

When did motionlessness become a prerequisite for learning? If there is any basis for this, perhaps classrooms would be better designed to mimic commercial airliners.

Ergonomics and kinesthetics are the very nexus of people and their environment. Research in this area is quite extensive, but when it comes to furnishings, it is strongly skewed toward commercial work environments. The National Safety Council released a voluntary national standard for workplace ergonomics nearly a decade ago. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published ergonomic regulations and guidelines that apply to employers and employees. Perhaps we need an ESHA to represent the interests of educators and students.

Workplace ergonomics have been associated with
  • absenteeism,
  • blood circulation,
  • cognition,
  • comfort,
  • conduct,
  • cooperation,
  • effectiveness,
  • empowerment,
  • engagement,
  • enthusiasm,
  • fatigue,
  • health,
  • job satisfaction,
  • morale,
  • musculoskeletal wellness,
  • performance,
  • posture,
  • productivity and
  • retention.
Surely each of these issues is equally pertinent to students and schools.

The increasing diversity of the student population compounds the complexities of ergonomics and kinesthetics in educational environments. In 2010, the ranges of student sizes, proportions and weights vary more than ever.

Age correlates somewhat with student dimensions, but grade levels correlate less and less with age, especially as grades are combined or reconfigured to correspond with innovative curricula or revised policies toward social promotion. Gone are the simple times of clearly delineated elementary, middle and high schools. Today we have PK, primary, PK-6, K-5, K-8, K-12, 6-8, 6-12, PK-12; magnet, charter and new combinations continue to be developed. The complexities of ergonomics are exacerbated in such environments.

Inclusion or mainstreaming of special needs students further diversifies the student population. It does not take much sophistication to comprehend the ergonomic and kinesthetic implications of furnishings for ADD or AD/HD students, yet as the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches its 20th anniversary, furnishing options for this very important demographic still lag.

Flexibility is a much-used term in the design of school buildings. With furniture, flexibility is commonly interpreted to mean reconfigurability into various arrangements such as rows, clusters or circles.

Certainly, furniture must be flexible for a variety of curricula and learning activities, but little consideration seems to be given to the flexibility needed for the furniture to be ergonomically appropriate for both a diminutive 9th-grade female and a senior linebacker. Unfortunately, the only time most schools consider individual student proportions is during cap and gown fittings.

High performing furniture includes individual controls to adjust, swivel, tilt, rock, alternate sitting/standing, reconfigure, move and store.

Such individualized adjustability is increasingly available in office furniture but much less so in educational, despite the wider diversity of ages, body types, sizes and disabilities of the student demographic. Overseas manufacturers of school furniture seem more attuned to these variabilities. In the US, ergonomics and kinesthetics tend to be addressed through matrices of seat and table heights correlated to student age groups, but this is simplistic. Are limited options the cause of, or response to, our outdated school furnishing procurement practices?

Beyond ergonomics and kinesthetics, performance issues for furniture extend into facility management and operations.

Architectural floor plans and furniture arrangements correlate directly with capacity. Simple area calculations are not adequate. Room capacity can vary more than 1/3 depending upon specific room dimensions, shape, furniture type and configuration. These matters become operationally critical in areas such as the cafeteria. If specific furnishings are not carefully coordinated with architecture during the design phase, room functionality can be compromised to the point where additional lunch sessions may be required to accommodate enrollments.

Furniture types and layouts also have an obvious impact on safety and security, particularly in emergency egress situations.

The ergonomics of sightlines and audibility need to be aligned with ever-changing instructional technologies. For the most distant students, the ubiquitous classroom television monitor can be eclipsed by holding a tiny cell phone at arm’s length and audibility of the tiny speaker is equally compromised. Larger interactive whiteboards and sound field enhancement are steps in the right direction, but glare and background noise can undermine the best intentions.

Because of extensive direct contact by multiple users, furniture plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy school environment. The U.S. Center for Disease Control has suggested that shared equipment may be a route of bacterial disease transmission in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regular cleaning of all areas of the environment that are regularly touched by students.

Sustainability and performance objectives do not always align. Recycling old furniture into new buildings or new programs is certainly the green thing to do but does it make sense when such furnishings have questionable ergonomic/kinesthetic performance?

OSHA identifies six steps for implementation of effective ergonomics in the workplace:

  1. leadership, management;
  2. participation of those affected;
  3. information, reporting;
  4. analysis, control;
  5. training; and
  6. evaluation/feedback.

It is not difficult to argue that the principles of ergonomics and kinesthetics are as important to student performance as worker performance. Furnishings are critical, perhaps more critical to high performance schools than any other element of the built environment. If we are committed to higher performing schools, furnishings need to be brought into the conversation. According to OSHA, step one, word one is “leadership.” Who will it be? For which project? The rest will follow.

Robert T. Matschulat, AIA, CSI, CCS, CEFPI, NCARB, CEFPI, is founder/principal of edutecture, LLC, in Lakewood, Colo. His career has been equally split between the public and private sectors, and his experience includes the definition, development and/or management of projects that were coordinated into some of the largest and most successful public school capital improvement programs in Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected]