As he works on the renovation and expansion of the Center for the Arts at Towson University in Towson, Md., academic facility planner Kris Phillips is reminded continually of the importance of choosing the right furniture for the center.

Much of the furniture still being used in the existing facility was purchased when the center opened more than 30 years ago. The lesson? The furniture Phillips is helping to select for the renovated center needs to be around not just for today's Towson students, but also for their children — and beyond.

“For us, it's a longevity issue,” says Phillips. “With the capital funding available, we have a once-in-a-lifetime shot to buy furniture. We need to make sure we make a wise institutional choice.”

For education institutions, many of which are coping with stagnant or shrinking budgets, issues such as style and aesthetics may play some part in deciding what furniture to buy, but the overriding characteristic sought in chairs, desks, tables and other furnishings is durability.

“It doesn't have to look pretty, but it has to be durable,” says Dominique Laroche, assistant director of university physical planning at Arizona State University. “You may even go further on cost to get more durability.”

Heavy traffic

Anybody looking to buy furniture is seeking products that will last a long time, but what is considered durable in the reception area outside the chancellor's office might not qualify for that designation in a classroom where hundreds of students climb in and out of chairs and desks throughout the day and night.

“It just gets abused,” says Laroche. “You don't have the luxury of replacing the furniture. You need things that will last and things that have parts available for repair.”

Furniture on campuses accumulates wear and tear not only from day-to-day student use, but also from the need to reconfigure spaces and relocate furniture. Workers moving the pieces often are not inclined to treat items delicately.

“We try to avoid products with particle board or with dowel rod connections,” says Phillips. “Some of the faculty may see some furniture they like at (a furniture store), but it's made of laminate chip board and it wouldn't last. We have to get 15 to 20 years out of them.”

In public spaces where prospective students and their parents are likely to visit, aesthetics may take precedence, Phillips adds.