My advice about school furniture design was featured in an article called 'Take A Seat' by Carrie Service in Education Executive in May 2012. The following are my 10 'top tips' to schools about innovations in furniture design and how to get the most value for money.
For a while, furniture was a forgotten part of school design, but now furniture, its design and its configuration is becoming integral to the design of learning spaces. For clients 'an inside out' approach is often the starting point for any size or scale of building project. This is due in part to a trend in 'personalised learning' - that education and therefore school design should focus on the learner and cater to their specific learning needs. The cells and bells layout of 20th century schools is giving way to open plan learning with a variety of spaces and places for learning.
Different timetables also have major implications for furniture and their impact on the design of the learning environment. For example, there is more of a 'blurring' between spaces for study, socialising, reading, collaborating - a dining hall can serve all these functions plus eating when timetabled right. This is a cost-effective way of allocating space, but it means that the selection of furniture needs to cope with a variety of functions and use. When I advised school designs at CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) the configuration and selection of furniture made a big difference in making a space inviting and effective for learning opportunities.
2. More versatile configurations of furniture.
School furniture needs to be flexible to respond to a wide variety of activities, for instance - a 1:1 meeting between a teacher and an individual student, small groups of students working together on a project to form a cluster, or larger groups sizes of 30, 60 or 90 students. You may have arrangements of classrooms in rows, clusters, horseshoes - there are so many possibilities when you select the right type of furniture. Also the classroom is a 360 degree learning space, not focused necessarily on the smart board, and this means that you might have a number of configurations of furniture throughout the school day. The furniture should not be difficult for a teacher to move around between lessons for this to work.
3. Test it out - and engage the people that will use it.
You should get a few pieces to test. Highfields School in Wolverhampton created a prototype space to test out different types of furniture and arrangements along with ICT (information technology.) The teachers and students led this project - they created a new space in a redundant corner of their old buildng - tried out the furniture in different ways and even tried a new colour scheme. This experience helped them to select the furniture that worked better for them when their new school opens, which they applied across the whole school. See this article I wrote about it for CABE.
4. The right furniture will make a big difference on the way you teach.
Especially in a refurbishment project or a project with a very limited budget, new furniture makes a big difference. Small details quickly make a big impact on the overall experience of learning and can revitalise tired, run-down spaces. But it is important that you take the time to select the right pieces and colours. Don't feel rushed into the decision - it's an important long term investment for your school. Engage your students and make their comfort and well-being a learning project in ergonomics and manufacturing!
5. Be wary of investing in moveable partitions.
They are expensive and not necessarily acoustically-sound. They can enable a lot of flexibility in group sizes, but they may not be effective on an every day basis.
6. Be wary of gimmicks.
The growth of technology in the classroom has created a market for more 'sophisticated' school furniture, and many gimmicks. It is important to stay away from these because technology is constantly changing, and furniture should be selected that will adapt to changes in learning and teaching. It's best to work with an independent advisor on your furniture strategy and not a furniture company per se.
Furniture that is simple, easy to clean and is robust will put less strain on your operation budget over the long term. You should focus on selecting furniture that will support your learning activities - helping you teach in new ways but not teaching for you!
Some schools in Scandinavia have shown that simple Ikea-type of furniture can add a domestic feel to the learning enviornment, making students and staff more comfortable and 'at home' at school. For instance Ordrup School in Denmark used simple furniture and bright colours to create a pleasant environment for learning on their own and interacting with others. The lesson here is that innovation can be found in using existing or inexpensive furniture in a thoughtful and creative way. Expensive furniture is not necessarily best! And there is a lot of opportunity for creative uses of furniture for a whole range of learning activities.
7. Furniture is an important investment for a school.
Most importantly furniture needs to be comfortable for both teachers and staff. There is a difference between built-in joinery and loose furniture, and if you are planning a building project you should consider these aspects from the beginning to ensure that your furniture budget will not be sacrificed and where possible it is ring-fenced. Joinery can be very useful for tidying things away, particularly in primary schools when classrooms are 'owned.'
Easily forgotten when it comes to budgets, book, equipment, specialist technology equipment and also personal storage is critical. Furniture also should be easily stored when needed, and the amount of storage that you should consider should not be underestimated. When you think about storage, the 'rule' is take the minimum amount of storage that you need, double it and add some more - okay this might be a little joke, but it will never be enough. Also think about incorporating display cabinets to show off students' work and prizes that they have won.
8. Think about the community and social areas.
Furniture in community areas and staff rooms says a lot to visitors and your staff about your school's ethos. Use your furniture to show pride in your school, and your care and respect for the students and staff. You may not be able to afford upscale furniture all around the school - so prioritise what spaces will make the biggest a difference and accessible to all.
9. Make it vibrant - not necessarily colourful.
Colour can be the one issue in a refurbishment that becomes emotional - everyone has their favourite colour. A good learning environment is not dependent on whether the walls are green or yellow, however colour can add to the learning and spatial experience and therefore it should be selected in a considered and uncluttered way. For instance, creating a simple system of colour carefully applied across the building can help students and staff find their way around the building. Perhaps the colour palette you select reflects the specialism or 'house' organisation - each wing of the school might have a different colour.
Special needs spaces for students with autism, for instance, may need to be plainer and calmer and colour may be kept to a minimum.
Also try using patterns, textures and enlarged graphics, instead of block colours, which can create an interesting effect and help the school feel less 'institutional'. For instance, you could use a motif that is symbolic of the school's specialism in a consistent way around the building. Symbols instead of words can be helpful to engage parents who may not speak english; using quotes can also help to inspire children.
The interior design of the learning spaces needs to be as inclusive as possible - the best thing is to get the school involved. Creating a comfortable environment for staff and students can promote comfort, motivation and confidence in the school - and potentially improve learning outcomes as a result. Furniture is a small but important step in this ongoing journey.
10. Use what you have
Many schools have too much furniture stored in containers outside the building. Before buying new furniture, carry out an inventory of what you have got. Think sustainably (environmentally and economically) when planning a furniture strategy. And most importantly, have a strategy!