Form And Function

by Katie Sloan

Following trends for home furniture, student housing sees products that are modern and sustainably built, and durable if properly maintained.

Student housing furniture design has gone from boxy and strictly functional to contemporary and, more often than not, luxurious. Today’s students want modern, environmentally friendly furniture that makes their apartment or dorm feel like their parents’ house. Furniture today is lighter, customizable and practical, yet stylish. Manufacturers have moved toward building with sustainable materials and responding to today’s styles with finishes like leather, metal, wood and sustainable fabrics.

Off-campus owners and operators have been faster to adopt contemporary styles, but on-campus housing is not far behind. As room sizes continue to change, manufacturers are finding new ways to create additional space and maintain durability at the same time.

Style Shift

The furniture student housing owners and operators are gravitating towards has a modern, metal and leather look, similar to what would be found in the living room of a high rise urban apartment or a popular coffeehouse. This is a more modern shift from the bulky, industrial and utilitarian looking furniture used in the past.

“We have tried to add style and flair to the furniture by lightening up the frames, using steel rather than wood, offering color variations and laminate,” says Paul Dougan of University Furnishings (a sample of University Furnishings’ furniture is pictured at right).

Additionally, there have been requests by owners for glass tops on tables and desks, which Ashley Piercey, manager of student housing for University Loft Company, says is a relatively new demand.

“The modern-looking furniture will continue to become more popular,” adds Jeff Zeng of Blue Furniture.

The reason this style of furniture is well liked by students is that it imitates the kind of furniture commonly seen in homes today.

“Our feeling is that as the students leave home, they want a comparable look where they’re living on campus or at the universities to the environment they came from,” says Alan Pactor of Campus Design Group.

Peter Englin, director of residence for Iowa State University, agrees that on-campus housing tries to imitate the feeling of home as well. “The biggest trend has been to move towards a more residential type of furniture,” he says. “We really want it to look more like what they might have experienced at home.”

Furthermore, the accessibility of major retailers through catalogs and websites has been a reason for the style shift. Stores like IKEA, Pottery Barn, Z Gallerie and Crate & Barrel have made everyone aware of what’s in style, says Curt Christian of Curt Christian Designs.

Another trend furniture manufacturers are seeing is a demand for furniture with green or sustainable elements.

“We have experienced a lot of customers who are inquiring about green furniture, trying to understand what it means and ultimately what it costs,” says Brian Hunt of FOB Charlotte. “‘Green’ has become a very common word during the last few years. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it really means.”

Bill Shaub, national director of sales for Ecologic says that as time has gone on, sustainability has become a part of every conversation his company has had with private developers, both on- and off-campus.

“People are very concerned that the make of the product they are looking at is sustainable,” he says. “When we first started touting that we were green, we didn’t get a fuzzy reception from buyers. As time has gone on, it has become a part of the conversations we have, both off- and on-campus.”

Ecologic goes beyond just making the product sustainable. The company is making sure its manufacturing facilties have green features. It works to employ systems like rainwater recovery and low waste manufacturing so that the impact is felt beyond the furniture.

“Students also want to live in a sustainable environment,” says Ken Klein, president of Ecologic. “Even in public-private partnerships, the universities want LEED certification and they want the interior products, like furniture, to be from sustainable resources.”

Green is definitely a trend that’s here to stay, says Hunt.

Both on- and off-campus housing owners and operators are starting to move towards a more contemporary and sustainable furniture design, although on-campus housing has been slower to adapt. Off-campus housing owners generally replace furniture at a quicker pace because of the need to attract residents and keep the properties current.

“Off-campus is a more competitive industry,” says Christian. “When a student comes into a place and they feel like they are in a cool environment filled with product that is representative of their lifestyle, it helps to sell them on that apartment community. On-campus is more of a reaction to what off-campus is doing.”

Off-campus started to make the shift to a more updated style during the last five years and on-campus has begun to move that way as well, adds Dougan.

Selection Process

When it comes to the furniture selection process, no two properties are the same. In some instances, the decision falls solely on the operator but in others, a variety of opinions are taken into account.

“You have to look at each job and the project needs,” says Zeng.

For some, the best way to figure out what students want is to go directly to the source.

“All of our furniture purchases and layout within common spaces and student rooms is done in consultation with our students,” says Englin. “We create a couple of spaces where we set up proposed furniture for students to walk through and give suggestions.”

Piercey believes student housing owners and operators are most successful when input is received from a variety of different people before a final decision is reached.

“We see sometimes someone in accounting or a CFO making decisions about furniture, when they’re not necessarily on the frontline seeing what students want and need,” she says. “On the other side, sometimes the people on the frontlines don’t see the business model as a whole that the organization is trying to accomplish.”

“Cost is a huge driver of their decision-making,” says Ecologic’s Klein. “When you are building student housing, furniture is only one component of the cost, and they are watching every penny.”

For properties being built from the ground up, Pactor says developers should begin to consider furniture as early as possible because it allows design and manufacturing companies to have more time to create a strong and cohesive product (an example of Campus Design’s living areas is pictured at right).

“When we work with developers early in the process and take a consultative approach, we can maximize room layouts and have more creative ideas,” says Shaub. “We customize our furniture for the project, so manufacturers are more successful when we get an early start. It also ends up as a more cohesive effort between the owner-developer, designer and us. It is a very collaborative process.”

“Developers benefit from choosing companies that will go to the facility and help plan out what the best use of space is to make furniture both aesthetically pleasing and cost effective,” adds Christian. “That’s the more profitable approach to get the best bang for their buck.”

Furniture inventory can be a daunting task for many student housing owners, especially larger owners with portfolios spread across many states.

“We have many customers that have multiple projects around the country,” says Klein. “With five or 25 projects, we are called on to help our clients with inventory needs. If they have projects in Texas and North Carolina, and have different vacancy projects, we can inventory their furniture in our warehouse to help them optimize their inventory levels among all their projects. That brings the overall cost of furniture way down.”

Problem Solving

Durability and shrinking living space are still two of the biggest problems student housing owners and furniture manufacturers face.

“As a manufacturer, you have to start with durability in mind and center design on that,” says Dougan.

Barring vandalism, durability is the biggest concern universities have with furniture, says Englin. He says common room furniture at Iowa State has a lifecycle between 10 to 12 years and bedroom furniture can last longer than that.

There isn’t one solid lifecycle across the board, because furniture is treated differently by each student.

“You’ll have one apartment where after four years the furniture looks immaculate and in the apartment next door, the furniture is the same age but it’s missing, broken or scratched,” says Hunt. “Lifecycle depends greatly on the everyday use, but it also depends on the material used and the quality of the construction. It is important for manufacturers to understand that upfront so we can use material and construction methods that will stand up to a reasonable amount of wear and tear.”

Zeng says one way manufacturers can improve durability is to create a product that has parts that can be replaced instead of having to buy a whole new piece of furniture (an example of Blue’s student housing product is pictured at left). Additionally, student housing owners should be upfront about abuse policies and replacement cost expectations should a student destroy furniture.

Piercey agrees that communicating with students is important. “Some properties don’t want to charge students, but [the cost] shouldn’t fall back on the student housing company or university, it should be the student’s responsibility,” she says.

Although many manufacturers offer warranties, there are ways owners can help to extend the lifecycle of furniture, such as flipping cushions, cleaning thoroughly and supplying basic maintenance as soon as a problem occurs.

Another industry concern is that the size of student living space continues to get smaller and smaller, which must be taken into account when furniture is being created.

“The space students are living in is becoming smaller and smaller,” says Hunt. “Customers are coming to us with the limited space being offered, wanting to maximize the furniture. Student housing furniture has got to be specifically designed and built for its intended use.”

Dougan says one way University Furnishings is attempting to combat the lack of space is through the use of ‘nesting’ furniture — or furniture that can be easily stored when not in use.

“We are creating ways to make the furniture not take up so much space,” he says. “Now students have the ability to nest items they are not using into each other to maximize space.”

As a whole, manufacturers, designers, owners and operators are working together to create furniture students will like to use and to solve problems surrounding durability and space.

— Savannah Duncan

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