Classroom furniture has evolved a lot since the days of heavy-gauge steel desks arranged in straight rows all facing the front of the classroom. Furniture is changing to reflect new, more flexible teaching styles and the realization that there's no such thing as "one style fits all." As educators foster a more cooperative approach and greater community as ways to boost student achievement, it's essential that the classroom environment - including furniture, fixtures and equipment - keep pace.

Sustainable furniture has also demonstrated its value to achieve productive learning environments with ample light, high-quality acoustics and air flow that is safe to breathe. Incorporating the benefits of the latest trends in green furniture products can promote good indoor environmental quality and support areas properly equipped with comfortable, functional furnishings.

Charleston County School District in South Carolina sought to take all these factors into consideration when it began the "21st Century Classroom Modernization Program" five years ago in conjunction with a capital building program involving construction of 18 schools between 2005 and 2009. Leading the classroom modernization initiative, the district's construction procurement team developed and established standards for sustainable furniture, fixtures and equipment for elementary, middle and high schools. The new standards are geared to support the learning and teaching climate and classroom activities for existing and newly constructed facilities. "We knew we needed to get out of our comfort zone for the project to be successful," remembers Tammie Yeadon, Construction Procurement Supervisor.

Developing new standards

Charleston County School District undertook classroom modernization to ensure that physical settings are conducive to the continuous and changing needs of the learning community. The technical infrastructure must support current and future mobile and fixed technical equipment and enable the sharing of all data types. All learning spaces must provide the necessary elements that allow for instruction and learning at all times and be mobile and flexible to adapt to changes in the teaching and learning activities.

To develop new standards, the construction procurement team held focus group meetings with stakeholders (maintenance, procurement staff, information technology [IT] staff, education staff, parent volunteers) to learn about evolving classroom needs. "It's important that we include stakeholders in the process," said Yeadon.

A dozen or so focus group meetings were held in 2006 and 2007, including five to 10 people in each group. Discussions centered around what furniture would support education needs, what's comfortable, and how furniture can impact the learning climate. Attention also centered on minimizing variables to achieve more equity across the district while still allowing each school to maintain its individuality. The district also emphasized lower per-unit costs while maintaining good quality.

"We asked ourselves questions such as how would the classroom be used? Would the furniture support a student-centered classroom? Would it be appropriate given new trends in technology? Would it accommodate new teaching technologies such as iPads and smart boards?" said Yeadon.

The district also released a Request for Information (RFI) to the public inviting suppliers across the nation to submit green furniture products. The selection team narrowed the products to those with the desired specifications, i.e., those that are sustainable, flexible, adaptable, safe and lightweight. The district held its first Furniture Vendor's Fair at the 2008 Summer Leadership Conference, when District staff was able to examine the quality and functionality of more than 250 pieces of equipment provided by manufacturers for office, classroom, media center, computer lab and miscellaneous spaces. Participants evaluated the furniture using a rating system. Yeadon said her department also visited other education furniture exhibits to get a broader view of what's available in the market, talking to various manufacturers to assess their quality and flexibility.

Also considered was how well the furniture could hold up to possible rough treatment by students: would it bend or scratch? The realities of classrooms today require desks to be moved around by students, so the new furniture had to be lightweight and easy to move without creating a safety issue.

Ergonomics were also considered. A doctor was invited in to speak about the value of sustainable products and the role of ergonomic furniture to encourage students to pay better attention and to focus. The district became better educated about the value of collaborative learning environments.

"You have to have a holistic point of view," said Yeadon. "You don't want anything that is toxic in your environment, but you also want to look at materials, how the furniture is built, what's inside the laminate tops. We looked at samples." Suppliers also did presentations about their manufacturing methods to enable comparison.

Formulating the acquisition strategy

Based on the research, Charleston County School District adopted "Seven Essentials of Learning for the Sustainable Furniture Approach." The essentials include a learner-centric environment and the abilities to adapt to programs and personalize learning conditions. Other factors are community connections, aesthetics, safety and collaboration. The District's Sustainable Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment Standardization Approach also meets the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) and the district's stakeholders' expectation of achieving savings. Suppliers were evaluated based on GREENGUARD certification and adherence to ISO 14001 environmental standards.

An acquisition strategy position paper, approved by district management, guided the selection of furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) to modernize Charleston's school facilities.

The district proposed using the Invitation for Bid procurement method. Construction procurement formulated standardized "packages" of furniture, fixtures and equipment for elementary school, middle school, and high school, defining all the components and facilitating the bulk purchase process. There were also an office package, a music package, a science and art package and a cafeteria furniture package. Item numbers of approved products were specified, along with the make and model, a picture of the product and the quantity of the bulk purchase. All bids included costs such as delivery and installation and project management services.

"We look at the value for the money, the suitability, the durability, the safety, the ease of use," said Yeadon. Factors also include the possible effect of furniture on the schools' flooring - lightweight furniture must have castors or the ability to glide across vinyl composition tile (VCT) floors without damage. Chairs need to be stackable and/or easily put on top of the desk to clear way for the cleaning crew. "Testing the little things can help avoid a big issue," she said.

These standards were used for purchasing furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) for all school levels, supporting the learning and teaching climate of classroom activities for existing and newly constructed schools. Buying the furniture in "bulk" took advantage of the larger buy to receive better pricing. Comparison between submitted prices and catalog prices show FF&E group price savings ranging from 50 to 56 percent. Bid prices include the cost of shipping and installation, whereas list prices do no. At the end of the Capital Building Project Closeout, the District saved approximately $4 million of FF&E with the bulk purchasing bid.

Still work left to do

"My job is more than just purchasing the furniture," said Yeadon. "I try to get the best value by looking at the total concept. I connect the focus groups with the manufacturers. We have to be able to identify and assess trends."

Yeadon is proud that Charleston is ahead of the curve related to classroom modernization and on par with forward-looking districts nationally.

Classroom modernization in Charleston also extends to existing schools, which are progressing based on availability of funds. "We're strategically focused on upgrading various areas that are approved by Charleston County School District," said Yeadon. Current furniture purchases across the board are being made according to the established standards. The effort is five years old now, and Yeadon says there is still work left to do.

"You have to engage your staff and stakeholders and make them a part of the process," said Yeadon. "As procurement, we are there to make sure the money is well spent and there is quality and value. You have to engage stakeholders to make real changes." She acknowledges the role and support of other departments, including the academic team and the capital building team, in implementing the program.

"Some people have ideas and don't know how to get them implemented. You have to have support around you on a senior level," Yeadon said. "We're customer-focused. The academic team and the procurement department work together to identify trends that exist out there and identify other possibilities being offered in the education market."