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Are you sitting comfortably?

The correct furniture and spatial design can greatly enhance a learning space, writes Simon Fry

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 01, 2015 | Facilities

According to research from Uniplaces, ‘having furniture included’ tops the list of what makes the perfect student accommodation. However, while students’ focus may be on their personal living space, the universities they attend are increasingly interested in installing learning-enhancing furniture throughout their premises – particularly new-build developments. Furniture manufacturers are also reacting to – and anticipating – how new technologies are impacting on the positions adopted by their users.  

A recent example comes from JPA Furniture, which completed work on the UCL Cruciform Hub earlier in 2015 in association with UCL Library Services and Burwell Deakins Architects. This provided a new medical library hub within the lower ground floor of the Grade II-listed Cruciform Building.

The brief called for a welcoming and vibrant student hub, which provided exemplar student and academic-orientated space conducive to learning, contemplation and collaboration. The project includes a library, study space, group workspaces, computer clusters and teaching/seminar rooms. Following extensive stakeholder consultations, an operational strategy was developed to enable new working methods and spatial aspirations to be achieved, whilst also accommodating higher-than-expected brief occupancy requirements during periods of peak demand.

In advance of the main project, JPA supplied a variety of furniture modules to part of the existing library which was used as a pilot room to test various spatial configurations and prototype group working furniture, to establish whether proposed modes of learning and study would be appropriate to the way medical students work. Library Services collated student feedback and the comments received informed the final design solutions.

South Wales-based furniture solutions provider bof were awarded the contracts for the provision of furniture and soft seating to Swansea University’s Science & Innovation Bay Campus in March 2015 following a competitive tendering process. They worked in partnership with Buro Four Project Management and B3 Architecture, who designed the new campus.

A large percentage of the soft seating products specified were manufactured by Orangebox: bof have a longstanding, close working relationship with Orangebox which has been further developed through this project’s execution. Over 29,000 furniture items for 10 buildings across the new campus were supplied by bof.   

  

ABOVE AND BELOW: JPA supplied a variety of furniture models to UCL's Cruciform Hub

The campus also has the distinction of being one of the few global universities with direct access onto a beach and its own seafront promenade, construction of which is underway. The Bay Library is located on the beach side of the campus with views over Swansea Bay and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Orangebox’s soft seating range at Swansea includes Yolo, a reinterpretation of the classic deckchair where the solid wood frame can be made in oak, beech or walnut. The seat and back cushion provide a refined level of comfort at a more upright position. Swansea’s chairs incorporate a form of the traditional deckchair stripes, ensuring students enjoy being beside the seaside, benefiting, as they do, from the ultimate chill-out zone.

Insights drawn from Steelcase’s ‘Global Posture Study’ have led to the development of the Gesture chair – the first task chair designed to support our interactions with technologies.

While our mobile devices have continued to advance, no one has designed for the impact of these technologies on the human body, or for the physiology of how work happens today. The use of new mobile devices combined with new behaviours have led to nine new postures based entirely on the use of mobile devices not adequately addressed by most seating solutions. There are ergonomic implications to these postures that, if not addressed, cause pain and discomfort.

The Draw posture relates to users of small and mobile technology pulling back from their desk while using it, drawing the device closer to maintain an optimal focal length while the Multi-Device posture is representative of multitasking, such as the use of a phone and laptop simultaneously. The Text posture is indicative of workers bringing their arms in close when keying and gesturing on smartphones. Similarly, people reclining and drawing their smartphone or tablet in close results in the Cocoon. Conversely, people in ‘surfing mode’, operating a device with one hand on a work surface will adopt the Swipe posture.      

 The desire by mobile device users to temporarily ‘pull away’ from others (to glance at incoming texts or emails, for example) results in the Smart Lean posture while the Trance is a long-duration posture observed when people were focused on a screen and using either a mouse or touchpad to navigate on it. The user reclining to view content on a large display or sitting back to contemplate (rather than generate) such information results in the Take It In. The study’s final posture is the Strunch, a stretched-out hunch very common with laptops associated with fatigued users pushing their laptop further from the edge of the work surface.   

"Students are encouraged to change position frequently to prevent the problems associated with prolonged static postures such as muscle imbalance, muscle fatigue, and spinal problems due to increased disc pressure" 

Endorsement of Steelcase’s findings comes from Kathie Drinan MCSP, who says, “The Association of Paediatric Chartered Physiotherapists support any initiative to improve the posture of young people in higher education. The nine new positions multiple electronic device users adopt identified by Steelcase’s Global Posture Study may lead to musculoskeletal problems due to asymmetry and the lack of postural support. It has also been widely reported that the incidence of repetitive strain injury has increased due to overuse of electronic devices. Physiotherapists advocate a symmetrical posture for any activity that involves being static for long periods of time. Maintaining a good posture will help to avoid injury and reduce pain thereby enabling the individual to increase their productivity and improve their concentration. However, we recommend students are encouraged to change position frequently to prevent the problems associated with prolonged static postures such as muscle imbalance, muscle fatigue, and spinal problems due to increased disc pressure. Physiotherapists also recommend regular breaks from a repetitive activity to prevent overuse strain of muscles and tendons. 

ABOVE: The nine new positions multiple electronic device users adopt, identified by Steelcase's Global Posture Study, may lead to musculoskeletal problems

We anticipate the seating manufacturers will begin to design furniture that is able to adapt to the multiple changing postures identified by the Global Posture Study.”

KI Europe is producing and supplying furniture able to meet students’ present and future requirements, according to education sales director Kevin Geeves. “Furniture plays an important role in optimising learning environments. As technological advances shape the new generation of students entering our classrooms, the furniture provided must be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of both teachers and students – transitions from lecture, group study, presentation, discussion and individual work time.

"In the past, the classroom environment was central to the learning process. Now, with near-ubiquitous connectivity, ‘homework’ is taking on a new dimension. Rather than delivering subject matter, the classroom environment is increasingly taking on the role of a forum.”

KI has been involved with several education establishments looking to future-proof classrooms for the students using them 10 years from now. Ideas incorporated include seating and flip-top castors which can instantly transform a space; tables that can accommodate two students working side-by-side when free-floating can be combined with others to create small-group work spaces, large conference tables and donut-shaped class discussions. 

"As technological advances shape the new generation of students entering our classrooms, the furniture provided must be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of both teachers and students – transitions from lecture, group study, presentation, discussion and individual work time"

City of Glasgow College’s huge revamp included installing classroom seating with bag storage racks under the seat such as the Learn2 and Intellect Wave chairs, keeping students’ resources close-at-hand and minimising trip hazards. University College Birmingham recently ordered hundreds of KI’s high-density stacking Strive chairs for their classrooms while London Metropolitan University created a still more dynamic learning space with KI’s Torsion on the Go! chairs, the folding tablet arms of which eliminate the need for space-hungry tables. With statistics suggesting 5–13% of the population is left-handed, KI recommends at least 5% of tablet arms to be so-specified. 

New furniture creates a natural ‘wow’ factor when seen by prospective students and their parents on open days, but its benefits are far more than aesthetic. Ensuring students are engaged, attentive and receptive while learning will enhance their educational attainment, while providing an environment in which they can switch off and recharge their batteries – metaphorically – keeps minds fresh and focused. New technologies changing the way we sit when learning have the potential to harm students’ postures, but Steelcase’s research – endorsed by a professional body – has already brought a solution. Further future-proofing in the classroom, thanks to KI Europe, means flexibility enough for the teaching of tomorrow’s curricula.

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