College furniture: Who took my chair?

Tracking and managing the campus stock of tables, chairs, desks and more is key to making the most of existing assets and smart purchasing decisions

Sprucing up a campus building’s interiors need not involve buying loads of new furniture.

Just ask officials at Georgetown University. The institution recently refinished and reupholstered a variety of public space furniture in Alumni Square, an apartment complex on the Washington, D.C. campus.

It also had loveseats, sofas, arm and lounge chairs, and other pieces refurbished at Harbin Hall, a freshman dormitory. And furniture in storage was restored to be used as replacement stock throughout the academic year.

Georgetown reduced its total expenditure an estimated 55 percent—from $36,526 to $16,241—by recycling assets instead of purchasing new furniture, says Clarence Flanders, residential services coordinator.

And the entire project took less than two weeks.

Georgetown and other institutions have prioritized furniture asset management. Facilities managers say inventory tracking, storage, and reusing or repurposing every piece of furniture an institution owns are keys to the process.

Repurposing involves shifting furniture from one building or department to another to meet needs, with or without refurbishing it. Maria Bimonte, director of shared services at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, says most universities recognize the value of reusing furniture, and that impacts what furniture is bought in the first place.

“We purchase high quality, long-lasting, functional furniture,” she says. “We don’t buy trends; we don’t buy fads.”

What officials at schools that track furniture do buy is that, when done successfully, the practice is an efficiency win. Furniture asset management results in budget dollars saved for when buying new furniture is unavoidable.

Asset trackers

At many institutions, administrators don’t have a good handle on their furniture inventory, says Mario Insenga, owner of Georgia-based The Refinishing Touch, a provider of on-site furniture restoration services. “They know the age and size of a building, but they don’t know what they have in units or the value of those items.”

Iowa State University is an exception. The institution has an asset recovery unit, where a department can purchase chairs, desks or other furniture, says Cory Harms, associate director of purchasing. “We try to utilize as many surplus items as we can on campus first.” A reused desk, computer or microscope can sometimes be a much better value than buying new, he adds.

Asset Recovery picks up a department’s unneeded furniture, then restores and resells it. The money is sent back to the original department.

At Grand Valley State University in Michigan, giving products new life through reuse is a priority, says Jim Flanders, project manager in the facilities planning department. He established furniture purchasing standards that emphasize consistency in size and style.

Georgetown is reorganizing its 13 storage facilities so it can more quickly access furniture when replacements are needed on campus. Clarence Flanders oversees an operations crew of student workers who sort through the inventory, making sure there are enough items in stock to keep up with demand. The most requested items tend to be more fragile furniture, like lamps and bookshelves.

In the future, tracking may involve affixing barcodes to furniture, says Larry Shapiro, national sales manager for Higher Education Markets at CORT, a Virginia-based furniture rental company that also provides asset management services.

Software now being developed (by a company unrelated to CORT) will link the barcodes to a database that lists the vendor the furniture was purchased from, how much it cost and its location on campus. A facilities employee with a scanner could regularly inspect the furniture pieces to verify their placement and evaluate their condition.

Furniture requests

At Iowa State, repurposed furniture plays a key role in departments’ purchasing decisions, Harms says.

“First, we have them look at what’s available in surplus that matches [the style of] what they have and might be a fraction of what they would have paid if they bought it new,” Harms says.

And when the university does make purchases, it looks for furniture that will last and is well-suited to learning purposes, he adds.

At Grand Valley State in 2013, some refinished chairs manufactured in the 1960s that had been located in its old library were moved to the Richard M. DeVos Center, an academic building focused on graduate studies and professional development offerings.

Early in the process of gutting the library, staff identified where salvageable inventory could be used elsewhere on campus, Flanders says. “I can’t dump a bunch of furniture into storage. A piece is only there long enough for me to know I have it for another project.”

Repurposed furniture is a big help in making furniture purchasing decisions at Iowa State, as well. “When we do bid for a contract for furniture, we look at useful life, life-cycle cost and, design-wise, what people are trying to do,” says Harms.

Asset problem-solving

Effective asset management is essential when planning new learning spaces across campus, says Jeff Vredevoogd, director of Herman Miller Education, a Michigan-based furniture design and research company.

“It makes sense that the more I know what assets I have, the better I can solve the needs of my stakeholders and customers,” Vredevoogd says. “As campus leaders increasingly look to improve performance, they have to have a better sense of desired learning outcomes and the spaces needed to facilitate them.”

Grand Valley State’s Flanders says that budgeting repurposed furniture into a new project is difficult because he doesn’t always know what his inventory will contain. “Assets don’t drive the project, but you try to put them in a savings account,” he says.

Officials will divide a project into smaller pieces rather than one large one. It’s like putting together a puzzle.

“It’s confetti when you first look at it,” he says. “It takes some imagination, patience and time to repurpose furniture into a solution that, ultimately, appears planned and well organized, and that meets the end user’s needs. If one piece doesn’t fit, search for one that does.”

How does used furniture really go over among faculty and staff? At Quinnipiac, from where Bimonte sits, faculty are satisfied with their ‘new’ furnishings, functionally and aesthetically. If necessary, a minimal amount of matching product might be purchased to augment an installation.

Quinnipiac recently renovated its student media center, where repurposed furniture was used exclusively, saving at least $40,000.

“I’ve not had to ‘sell’ surplus furniture—to the contrary, we always get inquiries about what pieces might be available,” Bimonte says.

In fact, even decades-old chairs and tables that might be considered well past their useful life are used by various departments and clubs, she says. “Our community appreciates the value—at no cost to their budget—the quality, prompt availability and bonus that comes with reusing and recycling. It’s a win-win.”

Ultimately, repurposing has a campuswide impact because of the cost savings, says Harms. “The ability to repurpose with quality furniture can save a significant amount of money which can then be used for areas that it is harder to skimp on, like research.”

Chuck Green is a Chicago-based writer.


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