Last but Not Least

You’ve hired your architect, oftentimes worked months or even years, programming, designing and building your facility with them. When the time comes for furniture, complementing your facility with the right furniture is as important to its function as its planning and programming. If the thought and care put into other aspects of design are also spent selecting the right furniture, it will benefit the ultimate function of the building.

Typically, school districts work with specific vendors to procure furniture, without involving their architect. Unfortunately, the person in charge of procuring furniture isn’t always a part of the design process and may not even be an occupant of the building. This disconnect between design and furnishings can be detrimental to the educational mission of the facility. If the furniture isn’t healthy, flexible and appropriate to the space, the goal of the original design is undermined and, ultimately, it is the teachers and students who are affected.

A Case Study
We will look at the new Early Learning Center in Barrington, Ill., to understand the unique way that Community Unit School District 220 took on the furniture procurement challenge. The project is a 38,000-square-foot replacement facility for three- to four-year-olds, with a student population largely composed of special needs students.

Sustainable materials in a warm color palette were specified to provide a comforting experience for the children, especially those with special needs. The lighting was specifically designed for children with autism, avoiding direct fluorescent fixtures and incorporating indirect light wherever possible. Because the building is located on a natural, wooded site, careful consideration was given to providing windows at student height.

Natural daylight is incorporated throughout the building, including corridors, to continually maintain a connection to nature. In this case, the owner and the architects worked with vendors to select the furniture that took into account the educational goals, sustainability, design, budget, comfort and productivity.

Understanding and Engaging Your End Users
During the early phases of the building design, the architects met with the individual users to determine space requirements and ideal adjacencies. As the idea of the building developed, furniture was test fit into the spaces, and the users reacted to the items and their placement. After several meetings, the architect arrived at the right concept for the furniture, and a deeper understanding of the way each space was intended to be used. During construction, the principal of the Early Learning Center, Barbara Romano, was continually involved with the architect and construction manager, ensuring the original design intent was realized. As the building began to take shape, furniture vendors were in contact with the district.

Involving the Architect
It was at this time that District 220 decided there was value in the architect working with the district for furniture selection, to ensure that the end products would be efficient and flexible, functional for the users and complementary to the design intent. The principal and the architect met together with vendors to understand availability, cost and various types of products. One of the values added was the ability of the architect to understand flexible ideas for furniture that complement built-ins and work within space constraints. The architect can bridge the gap between what is being constructed and the needs of the users for furniture.

Choosing the Right Furniture
Bright colors outside of the classroom spaces provide identity to each of the four classroom villages; however, unlike many early childhood facilities, the colors within the classrooms were intentionally neutral to provide a calming, non-distracting atmosphere for the children. Another important design feature was to provide a physical and visual connection to nature and natural lighting throughout.

By choosing wood furniture where possible, and neutral colors for other furniture items, the spaces are warm and comfortable for both adult and child occupants. Furnishing and design decisions were made with the students’ well-being in mind. As an example of this, during the selection process, the physical therapy staff at the Early Learning Center had a particular vision for the right type of chair to be ergonomically correct for their students.

Various sizes were selected to accommodate growing children of different sizes. They were able to determine their selection first hand with multiple samples to compare. Children’s and adults’ chairs were brought in from multiple vendors for user testing prior to specification.

Bidding and Logistics
To prepare the documents for bid, the architect worked with the principal and the vendors to make final furniture selections. Adding a level of complexity to the process was an inventory of existing furniture that would move to the new facility. For the bidders, unit costs were required for each item so the district could have the flexibility to choose items individually.

After carefully analyzing the bids, the principal and the architect worked together to finalize the selections and stay within the budget. In working with the district, further analysis indicated there would be approximately $10,000 of additional savings if the low bid for each individual item was accepted. Because it was a significant savings, the district proceeded with this option.

The architect analyzed each piece of furniture to ensure that individual pieces from multiple bidders would work together. With four vendors, and movers from the existing facility, it was essential to have a clear plan for move-in day. Color-coded furniture plans were created to aid the individual bidders and movers.

The Furniture Procurement Process for the ELC
  1. Use programming information to work with users to determine furniture needs. If possible, involve your architect.
  2. Contact multiple vendors for variations of your furniture options at different price points. Make them aware of the building aesthetic and color palette.
  3. Have vendors meet with the users and architect to understand and refine the selections.
  4. Make sure users and architect review and revise selections, if needed.
  5. Architect is now free to assemble bid documents.
  6. After bid opening and analysis, award to one low bidder OR ensure furniture items from multiple bidders complement each other, and award low bid per individual items. The architect can continue to be the point of contact for the bidders.
  7. Draw furniture plans to describe where each item goes, and who will be providing it, for installation day.
To make sure that your dynamic facility program is reflected through dynamic furniture, it’s important to have user-driven selections. Involving your architect can add value this process through their understanding of the facility design and construction and ability to analyze multiple options for the budgeting and selection. By using this unique procurement process, District 220 was able to able to purchase quality furniture, within budget, that enhanced the educational mission of the facility.

Aimee Eckmann, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, is with the firm Perkins+Will. She has more than 11 years of professional experience in a wide range of project types. Her project involvement ranges from the planning and concept states to full construction documentation. She has developed a specific expertise in educational facilities planning and design, where her involvement has been integral as both a planner and a client liaison. She plays a leadership role on the board with the ACE Mentor Program in Chicago.