By Grant Steunenberg, Administrative Vice Principal, Carlmont High School, Sequoia Union High School District and Aaron Buehring, HMC Architects

STEM/STEAM classrooms, maker spaces, and learning labs all have architectural elements designed to help transform the traditional classroom from a static to a dynamic learning environment. And while these built features do play a fundamental role in achieving this change, they don’t get us all the way there. Filling a brand new 21st century learning environment with the old factory model furniture leaves everyone—teachers and students as well as owners and designers—dissatisfied because neither the functional needs nor the educational goals that drove the effort to create a dynamic learning space will have been realized. One could argue that the furniture is equally important to the 21st century learning environment as the space built to hold it. So if this is the case, why does furniture selection so often fall to the very end of the design process or get left out of the design scope completely?

“The physical environment influences our emotions, our behavior, and our ability to work and learn. A thoughtful and deliberate consideration of school furniture will support the learning process that takes place in our schools.”

–Jenny Hannah, Chief Facilities Officer, Kern County Superintendent of Schools and Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H.) Chair

When furniture selection is not included in the design effort, the typical response is to use the district standard, normally a compilation of traditional furniture that was originally selected to work in old-fashioned learning spaces. Relying on the crutch of the district standard furniture is understandable to a degree; furniture needs to be readily available for replacement, available at a low cost point and extremely durable. The battle-tested furniture being used in the existing classrooms across the district presumably meets those standards. But we have found greater overall satisfaction among users when furniture selection is an integral part of the design process from the very early stages. This practice would allow the design team to help the district add new furniture lines to its district standards in time to have the new furniture ready for the new building.

It is one thing to pitch the idea of new furniture with just photos or renderings, but it is an entirely different process to evoke the change that goes with the new thinking with real life samples. In most cases, there are many stakeholders, including facilities and M & O directors, teachers, and education administrators as well as board members, all of whom desire to weigh in on any new furniture line or piece being suggested. And each stakeholder will need a different issue successfully addressed by the new furniture. One way to meet these various demands entails a three step process: reviewing current standards, comparing costs and “test-driving” physical samples.

Step 1: Show me the current
We start by comparing the district’s current standard furniture with photographs of a range of new furniture solutions. If desired, we can also create renderings illustrating the old standards as well as the suggested replacements in the new space to demonstrate the contrast between the two. Showing the old standard side-by-side with suggested new additions makes it easy to see the difference and to understand why the old stuff won’t meet the goals embodied in the newly constructed space. And we can also provide photographs from other campuses across the nation who are using this new type of furniture. This can serve to reassure a not-yet-fully-convinced owner that the design team is not just selecting the proposed furniture because it’s cool. These same sources can also provide information as to the appropriateness and durability of the particular product. Bringing visuals to the conversation early will help the entire project team comprehend the role furniture plays in the design tool kit and to better fulfill the project’s design intent.

Step 2: Show me the cost
This looks really great, but can we afford it? Understanding the price of the current standard will help the design team research other lines at comparable price points. When the baseline cost for comparison is established, comparably priced options can be presented to the owner. We can also work with furniture vendors to create a “good, better, best” furniture catalog to provide a range of solutions at different price points, all of which could meet the users’ needs. Providing this service greatly reduces the decision-making time since the furniture choices are within the district’s budget.

Step 3: Show me the real deal
Once a few furniture lines have been selected for consideration, we bring actual physical samples to the client for that test drive mentioned above. Nothing is more persuasive than interacting with the furniture in your own school. When the staff can see how easy it is to move the pieces around, they see the design intent become reality. The facilities department also needs a chance to “kick the tires.” With the furniture on site, the facilities team can test durability, look at construction and ask the furniture vendor questions about replacement parts. Having the facilities team sign off on the new furniture is one of the most important steps in the process. Most furniture vendors are more than willing to help arrange a furniture mock-up—and even leave the pieces for a few days for the staff to test.

Carlmont High School in the Sequoia Union High School District just went through this process in preparation for the opening of its new science lab and classroom building. The design team designed a large open space for student collaboration but found the current district standard furniture was limiting the intended potential of the space. With the help of Grant Steunenberg, Administrative Vice Principal, the design team was able to start the process of change. Grant noted that, “HMC provided a great hands-on example of furniture options, and it allowed the stakeholders an opportunity to envision potential possibilities for the collaboration space designed for our new building, which was fundamental to the process.”

To change the district furniture standard certainly takes more time and thought than it does to order more of the same old standard, but it requires far less than one might think. With a few extra steps early in the process, the dash-lined squares named “Furniture TBD” on drawing sets can be replaced with real furniture specifications and actual layouts. With the potential reward so great, it is an opportunity that should not be overlooked in the transformation to a true 21st century learning environment.

For more information about modernizing your district’s furniture standards, contact Aaron Buehring.