Furniture and soft furnishings can make a difference to how staff and students feel about the spaces and hence make a positive contribution to learning and teaching.
It’s important to make sure that you don’t just replicate what you have in place already. It is fine to do this if you are convinced that what you have got cannot be improved on but if this is the case it is unlikely that you would be embarking on this type of project in the first place.
If properly designed and placed, furniture is more than a place to sit; it can be a strategic asset
Paul Cornell (2002)
Think about your current lecture theatres for instance and how they could be improved to increase flexibility of use as well as to support better communication within classes and improve the learning experience. Jamieson et al (2005) suggest that if you are going to go for traditional stepped seating then make sure it is designed to rotate so that students can easily turn around and work with the students behind them – thus enabling more interaction and discussion. This type of approach can offer much more flexibility for classes of all sizes.
A key to academic engagement is to minimize the separation between living and learning
Hunley and Shaller (2006)
The ubiquity of technology has implications for the types of furniture you require. Consider health and safety aspects for furniture that will specifically be used with technology – you want to try and avoid an outbreak of back and posture problems in your users. Tables for monitors and other equipment should be of an appropriate design to cope with the myriad of cables that might be connected to the equipment – avoid trailing wires. You may like to consider using ‘power furniture’ – innovative seating that allows the user to plug electrical equipment directly into it.
It is important when buying furniture to ensure that you bear in mind what it is going to be used for and the extent to which it is likely to be used. Those chairs may look very state-of-the-art and those tables may be very groovy but there are a number of questions you should ask. Are they durable? Are they comfortable? Are they the correct height (for use with laptops if required)? It is easy to have your head turned by the attractiveness of something only to find out after delivery that it’s not really fit for purpose. Similarly with regard to durability you should give consideration to the materials used – are they easily maintained? Are they washable? Food and drink is becoming much more acceptable in learning spaces so you need to consider the potential implications of spillages.
You should think about how often you expect to replace pieces of furniture and budget accordingly. Some organisations keep replacement furniture in stock but you may not have the budget or the space available to do this. You don’t always have to buy new furniture. If your budget is tight you may want to recycle furniture you already have, if it is suitable for the new space. There are creative possibilities for recycling furniture from elsewhere too. Edinburgh’s Telford College, for example, has recycled furniture from the old Scottish Parliament Building for use in the College’s library space.
The University of East London uses a variety of furniture throughout its Library and Learning Centre. General bench type furniture is provided for IT areas with provision for the tidying of cables and the off-floor storage of PC base units underneath. Benches with power points give students the potential to plug in laptops and other equipment. Round tables are provided for group work and these can be cordoned off by students using the ‘Space Oasis’ furniture with built in screening which provides comfort as well as privacy. In-floor power points provide extra flexibility for the students in the space. Seating is varied from individual chairs on wheels to soft sofa-type seating, to more traditional computer chairs – all available in a range of bold colours.
North Hertfordshire College offers a great deal of flexibility in some of its furniture. A mix of computer and funkier cafeteria-style chairs can be seen in areas that offer the opportunity to both work on PCs and sit in a more social café-style environment. Other seating is provided in a variety of colours and shapes; portable pouffes can be moved easily and curved sofas provide opportunities for more comfortable discussion. Flexible screens can be moved and placed around tables to provide privacy for group work or one-to-one discussions. Tables of differing shapes are used, some of which offer cable holes for tidying of hanging wires. Power points in floors allow maximum flexibility for use of the furniture.
Putting furniture in ‘difficult’ spaces does not have to be a major problem for you. Don’t despair if your space has pillars scattered throughout, for example. There are workarounds – Northumbria Universityhas built furniture around the pillars in its library building. The library has a variety of seating, including couches and pouffes on wheels, ‘funky’ stools and a mix of chairs and bean bags. All of the seating is easily moved so that students can use it in a variety of formations to best suit their particular requirements.