School Planning & Management | December 2006

From durability to design, there are a variety of factors to consider when selecting fabric for campus furniture

By Thomas G. Dolan

In comparison with other materials that go in building and finishing campus facilities, such as those used for floors, walls, or ceilings, the fabrics that go onto the furniture may seem to be a secondary consideration. For that reason, furniture fabrics may not get the attention they deserve. But they are still an important part of any educational facility design decision.

Here are some of the basic factors to consider in choosing furniture fabrics: durability, cost, cleanability, environment, color, and design.

Bill MacLeod, director of Business Development for the Grand Rapids, MI-based Irwin Seating Company - a manufacturer of fixed seating, such as that used in auditoriums and lecture rooms - said, "There are all kinds of different standards for durability. It's not uncommon for a heavy-duty rating for office chair coverings to be applied to auditorium cushions, which require a much different and higher rating. A campus administrator may talk to a jobber and choose a fabric suitable for an office chair but not appropriate for auditorium seating. The administrator should research the matter enough to make sure he is making an informed decision."

The key standard for the industry is a term called "double rubs," the number of which indicates how long the material will last, said Rich Morrow, executive creative director for Design Tex. "In our industry, 30,000 double rubs is considered heavy duty, but many manufacturers try to get from 50,000 to 100,000, depending upon the usage and to protect against wear and tear."

Dean Lindsley, vice president of Operations and Product Development for Pallas Textiles, a division of KI out of Green Bay, WI, pointed out that there is always a choice between natural fibers - such as cotton, wool, and silk - and artificial synthetic products, which often petrochemica-based. The problem with the former, he said, is that the natural products have a limited capacity for wear and tear. "They look old and used very quickly." The corresponding problem with synthetic products is that they can have adverse environmental effects.

One solution to this dilemma, Lindsley continued, is the use of the trademark process of Crypton, a three-part process which can be added to all types of fabrics, and so qualify them as performance materials. The use of Crypton is widespread throughout the industry.

Also related to durability is fire resistance, said MacLeod. He explained there are two basic fire standards - one common to all the states; and the second, which can vary from state to state (California, for example, being more stringent than others). Check to make sure the fabrics you choose adhere to your local and state requirements. This will dictate, to a degree, your choice of materials. One option is adding fire-barrier foam to some materials, which also adds to the cost. And, sometimes, even more stringent regulations are waived in areas that have a sprinkler system.

Fabrics used in schools fall in the medium range of $25 to $40 a yard, said Lindsley. For other venues, the textiles used might cost much less or much more. "Some 80 to 90 percent of the fabrics in schools fall within this medium range. Sometimes, when schools have special upscale needs, they'll cost a bit more." Lindsley explained that the more utilitarian seating, such as in auditoriums, is closer to $25 a yard, while public lounge areas or libraries maybe closer to $40 a yard. This estimate includes the cost to incorporate the Crypton high-performance process.

All three sources cite cleanability as being a criterion almost as important as performance. In fact, the two characteristics are related. The same factors that contribute to durability - such as Crypton - also lend themselves to cleanability. By the same token, said Lindsley, "Materials that don't clean well, like those that can't withstand wear and tear, also look used and old very quickly." He mentioned that just as there are standards for durability, there are also standards for cleanability. So be sure to find out what these are specific to different types of furniture and different usages.

"Different natural fibers, such as wool and cotton, as well as different petrochemical materials like nylon and polyester, have different wear/cleanability characteristics, all of which have an impact on costs," said MacLeod. "You want to choose fabrics that have anti-microbial characteristics and moisture barriers to protect against mold."

There are several different ways fabrics are constructed for cleanability, Morrow said. Many products made for healthcare have great stain repellant and moisture barrier characteristics that can be adapted for school seating. He explained that his company has developed an adaptation of nano-technology that works with a smaller molecular structure that is commonly used. It can then be incorporated into a fabric such as nylon without changing the positive characteristics of the latter, while giving it more cleanability and durability.

"One of the most recent changes is that furniture fabrics are becoming more environmentally friendly," said Lindsley. "You have more good choices than before, with the prices for environmentally friendly textiles close to those that are not so friendly. Ecology and performance are being wrapped up together, and ecology considerations have become more prominent in designer specifications."

"The trend is to use more material that is recycled or is recyclable," added MacLeod, "particularly those that can help result in a LEED certification. Furniture fabrics are not as big a factor in environmental considerations as some other material, but can still play an important role."

Products such as vinyl, polyurethane, and PVC-treated fabrics have been chosen in the past for cleanability and performance," said Morrow. He still offers these materials, "but we are always working with fabrics and looking for more ecology-based alternatives. People want a story of sustainable materials today, along with other values." Morrow mentioned that Crypton has launched a green variation. "It's not completely green (it still has some chemicals), but it is improved." He added that fabric manufacturers are generally working with mills to make their textiles more environmental friendly.

"Color varies from project to project," said Lindsley. "Each and every institution has its own brand and color range. The majority are in the saturated, dual-color range."

"Color always influences furniture fabrics," said Morrow. "Schools always want their own colors, which can be demanding. But you should use the school colors only in selected areas where you feel they're really important. Sometimes it's better to go with darker colors, with more patterns, so if something happens to the fabric it is a little more hidden."

The visual impact, or aesthetics, of the fabric design is an entirely different form of criterion that factors such as how much abrasion it will withstand and how easy it is to clean, but it's still very important. In evolving the design, you may be working with three different companies, and three different points of view - the manufacturer, the jobber who represents many manufacturers, and/or the designer.

MacLeod, as a manufacturer, said he likes to be included in the decision, since he's aware of quality and delivery issues in ways that the jobber may not. The advantage of a jobber, on the other hand, is that he is not limited to a single manufacturer. So, the best advice seems to be to check out all of your resources and compare, so you can get the best furniture fabrics to meet your school's needs.

Thomas G. Dolan is a Washington-state based freelance writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.

View the article from School Planning & Management's December 2006 Issue

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