Creating a sense of ownership with the latest furniture trends

Cathy Parnham looks at some of the emerging trends in furniture fit-outs for the HE sector

Choosing furniture for your university – whether a new-build or updating existing – goes way beyond practicalities such as cost. Today, you need to consider not only shifting trends in terms of design and aesthetics but also in the student and staff experience.

Does it fit with your sustainability strategy? What is the environmental impact and does it have longevity? How will it enhance student – and teacher – wellbeing? How will it enable good learning practices? These are just some of the now common questions your choice in furniture and fixtures will need to take into account.

Engendering collaboration

From adaptable tables and seating to engender collaborative learning to engaging students by ‘placemaking’ – creating a sense of place or ownership – today, the university environs have to deliver a lot.

There has been a shift from traditional-style teaching to a ‘flipped learning model’ and your choice of furniture and fixtures can work hard to enable this. This is where adaptable furniture comes into play with seating and desks moveable to enable students to switch easily between individual and collaborative working.

And it doesn’t stop there – every facet of design from the ground up plays its part to ensure lecturers and students alike – together with key stakeholders – get the maximum versatility from a space, whether that’s shared learning, a break-out area or somewhere to grab a coffee. 

Versatility is especially important, helping to develop a sense of ownership for students. 

According to CDI Spaces ( “A personalised classroom where students decide decoration or seating arrangements helps foster camaraderie and belonging, making the environment comforting and familiar. More importantly, this encourages student participation and their overall experience. Offering choice – different types of seating, options for moving desks, and furniture which allows for different configurations, can create a sense of place and ownership while also addressing a variety of teaching and learning styles.” 

And it is this sense of ownership, together with meeting the needs of students and teachers, that now needs to dovetail neatly into any new fit-out strategy.

All the graphics, design touches and stylish furniture will be forgotten in an instant if users are too cold, too hot or yawning constantly due to lack of fresh air to a space

Case study: STEM building, the University of Bedfordshire

Dr Maria Simon, faculty technical manager, talks to us about how the University of Bedforshire chose iconic furniture for its brand-new STEM building

When choosing furniture for the university’s STEM building, the university adopted a consultative approach, setting up a user group comprising key stakeholders. 

Dr Maria Simon explains: “Stakeholders from across the University of Bedfordshire have been involved in choosing the furniture for the new STEM building through a dedicated user group, made up of staff, students, project managers and architects. A sample area was also set up to allow all students and staff to try out some of the furniture and give feedback. 

“Having recently completed a new library, the project board had a good steer on what worked well, what is durable and what students and staff like. Specialist knowledge of staff, along with consultation with external stakeholders, has enabled us to make informed decisions for the new building. 

“Extra care has been taken to ensure laboratory furniture is fit for purpose and complies with relevant legislation, especially around biological and chemical health and safety.”

The new STEM building

When planning any new fit-out, there are many factors to consider, such as:

Sustainability and environmental

Dr Simon says: “In addition to considering how to reduce its carbon footprint as part of the build – eg with lighting sensors, carefully managing air changes, even in laboratories and environmental control – the University of Bedfordshire has taken into consideration where more can be done, such as using variable air volume fume hoods.

“We have built up a good understanding of furniture and furnishings that have a good level of longevity, and this knowledge and experience will be utilised in the new STEM building.”


“Many of the activities within the STEM building are an extension of current activities at the university, so there is already considerable experience of what works and is comfortable for staff and students.”


“The overall aesthetics of the new STEM building have been a collaborative effort between the vision of the architect, management and the university’s user group. We have had discussions on a variety of areas, from colour schemes to materials, and made our decisions in agreement through our user group.”


“Cost is always a challenging area to quantify and, in our case, this was based on a process which started from assessing what was needed for a space, and then identifying what a typical cost for an item might be (based on quotes) balanced against aesthetics, ergonomics and staff and student feedback.”

Longevity and value for money

“Costs and budgets for the STEM building are based on internal stakeholder knowledge and external guidance with all spend being subject to university financial processes and regulations. Universities have a key role to play in sustainability and this is something which we are wholly committed to. How universities spend the money they receive is always under close scrutiny and we must demonstrate that what we purchase is not only fit for purpose but that it possesses a suitable durability, all while evidencing value for money.” 

Industry comment

Louise Walker, public sector sales director at Interface, comments on the trend for biophilic design in education

We’ve seen a real shift in the approach towards designing learning spaces recently. Gone are the days of dark, cramped libraries where students work quietly in isolation. Universities and colleges are now hubs of creativity, with vibrant spaces which are both engaging and inspiring. 

One key trend architects and designers are adopting more and more is biophilic design, and when you consider the benefits of incorporating natural or nature-inspired elements into an education environment, it’s easy to see why. 

Biophilic design is proven to boost the physical and emotional health of building occupants and users. In fact, our Human Spaces report showed that those who work in environments that incorporate elements such as greenery and sunlight report a 15% higher level of wellbeing than those who work in spaces devoid of nature.

What’s more, bringing biophilic design into learning environments doesn’t need to break the bank. It can be as simple as integrating accent shades or subtle patterns into a flooring scheme. With
some careful consideration and subtle changes, it’s still possible to make a significant impact.

Interface is committed to sustainability and minimising its impact on the environment. For information, visit

Key considerations

We caught up with Richard Turner, director at Claremont, to find out what key trends are influencing space design 

University of Wolverhampton

What are the priorities universities need to consider when fitting out a new space?

“It may sound obvious, but one of the biggest priorities for universities when undertaking the design and fit-out of a space is clarity about its use – how will the space be used and what does it need to facilitate for users? Knowing the answers to these questions can help to inform the choice of furniture and finishes and ensure it provides the right visual cues as to its intended use.

“A lot of our work is in refurbishing tired and out-dated reception, communal hubs, public areas and refreshment spaces that should be acting as important ‘shop-fronts’ for students and parents. Collegiate, creative and modern design can make these spaces more compelling, effective and attractive.

“The integration of technology, power and data in furniture and Wi-Fi accessibility are major considerations. Universities increasingly expect a ‘bring your own device’ approach which requires easy connectivity and access to charging. While buildings generally support this, if it is not transferred through the furniture as well, users do not have sensible access at the point of use. Consequently, there is increasing focus on choosing furniture that can house power and data points.

“With spaces being used potentially for different types of activity, lighting and acoustics should be considered. A fully controllable LED lighting solution with multiple room settings and feature elements is a must. Similarly, acoustics will play a very important role in the effectiveness of a space. The trend towards exposed services and the industrial look and feel leads to a lack of building fabric with any sound absorbing qualities. The addition of acoustic products and furniture can dramatically enhance a design and provide visual interest in otherwise quite empty spaces. 

“Flexibility of space is a growing consideration, too. Areas such as lecture theatres, cafés and public spaces are generally larger proportionally and, as such, need to pay back for the space they enjoy by supporting the primary use, as well as meeting secondary needs in evenings or at weekends by other stakeholders. 

There is increasing focus on choosing furniture that can house power and data points

On a recent project, we designed the post-graduate lecture, breakout and refreshment areas so they could be easily reconfigured to provide a lounge with contemporary presentation spaces and areas for catering and networking. By designing flexibility into these environments, which includes giving due consideration to lighting, temperature and acoustic control, it’s possible to derive even greater value from capital expenditure.

“Of course, an amazing, inspiring design and fit-out that supports the practical and innovative use of a space is important, but it will be completely useless without a robust and fit-for-purpose M&E installation. This has to be one of the most important considerations when designing and fitting out a new space and must provide controllability, adaptability and future-proofing all while being as cost effective and environmentally friendly as is possible. All the graphics, design touches and stylish furniture will be forgotten in an instant if users are too cold, too hot or yawning constantly due to lack of fresh air to a space.”

What major shifts in furnishing the learning environment have you noticed?

“Over the last five years we’ve seen a move to making more sustainable furniture choices as well as giving much greater consideration to the design aesthetic, with spaces given a more relaxed, informal and social look and feel. As part of this, educators are choosing interior designs and furniture that have synergy with modern office environments in a bid to make students work-ready and replicate the professional spaces they will occupy. There’s also more focus on deriving extra value from space, which has led to universities requiring greater flexibility in their furniture if they are to accommodate multiple uses and this empowers lecturers and students to make the spaces suit their needs.”

What has been your latest fit-out?

“We have recently completed a £550K furniture installation project for the University of Wolverhampton Business School, which was installed in a 64,500ft2 space over a four-week period. This client embodied many of the trends we’re seeing across the sector, with a requirement for a wide range of furniture options to support different settings and for flexible and durable furniture that would be appropriate for use by students and the wider business community. 

“We were instructed on a fee basis while the building was still under construction, a year earlier, in readiness for the furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) install. We undertook the design work which included interior finishes, floor coverings, feature wall coverings, feature lighting, furniture and furniture finishes.”

You might also like: Furniture for active learning spaces


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