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Built to look good, built to last

May 1, 2010
by Dennis Grantham, Senior Editor
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Preserving the homelike look and comfort of quality institutional furniture is easier than you think

High-quality institutional furniture is an important investment for any behavioral health facil-ity. According to experts, institutional furniture incorporates thoughtful design with material, construction, and finish features that make it easy for owners who appreciate its value to maintain its appearance, comfort, and safety over an extended lifespan at a minimum of cost.

The durability and value of institutional furniture “starts with the customer,” says Stephen Perko, president of Blockhouse (York, Penn.), a maker of commercial and institutional furniture. “Every customer has a unique set of problems or concerns. And to them, they're the toughest set of problems out there. So, we're always asking, ‘What's the scenario in this location? What are the furniture users like? What are the behavioral or health concerns involved?’”

While questions like these help to narrow the field among various designs and styles of furniture, the key to understanding the long-term durability and value of a product is based on one final question: “What's the worst thing that can happen?”

The answers always vary, but institutional furniture manufacturers have, over the years, used thousands of customer answers to build furniture that is designed to solve a wide range of tough customer problems. “It's impossible to custom-build for every situation,” says Perko, but institutional quality furniture makers like Blockhouse have, over time, found what he calls “the common threads for most people and situations.” Among the key issues to long-term durability and value are:

CS casegoods from blockhouse feature sturdy oak construction and a home-like feel, but incorporate safety features like 270 degree piano hinges, non-removable drawers, and j-shaped garment bars. panels and other components can be replaced to preserve a like-new look and prolong furniture life
CS Casegoods from Blockhouse feature sturdy oak construction and a home-like feel, but incorporate safety features like 270 degree piano hinges, non-removable drawers, and J-shaped garment bars. Panels and other components can be replaced to preserve a like-new look and prolong furniture life.



Materials. Perko explains that basic differences between “residential” and “institutional” quality furniture come down to material quality and finish. Generally, residential quality furniture is built from cheaper materials, but covered with what he calls “these remarkable, expensive, 20-layer finishes.” By contrast, institutional products are typically built with the best quality of base materials, with simple, tough finishes-often as simple as water-based stains or oils. “The basic materials are going to be good quality stuff,” he says.

Construction and repairability. Residential furniture is built to look good, but the details of its construction-screws, dowels, and glue-do not lend themselves to easy repair. By contrast, institutional quality furniture-for example, case goods like dressers or cabinets-are built with the worst-case scenario in mind: slamming, bumping, dropping, or other incidents that dent or mar drawer faces, door fronts, shelves, or surfaces. Some institutional furniture incorporates a solution by making damage-prone panels, drawers, doors, or other surfaces replaceable. These components, secured in place with mechanical fasteners, make it easy to disconnect a scratched or damaged part (using a special tool) and secure a matching, replacement part in place.

Finish color. For wood furniture, experts like Perko recommend natural or light finishes over dark finishes:

  • Dark stained furniture makes rooms look smaller. Clear finishes on natural woods, such as oak, make rooms look larger and warmer.

  • Though rich and attractive when new, dark stained furniture that is inevitably nicked or scratched exposes lighter colored wood beneath. Over time, even minor damage or scratches can accumulate, making darker furniture look worn and old. Even with a similar degree of wear, light finished furniture still looks relatively fresh, because the slight contrast between base wood and finish color makes surface damage difficult to see. “Your eye doesn't race to the problem,” Perko says.

  • Dark finished furniture tends to be much more difficult to repair or refinish, due to the contrast with the base wood and the need to match shades-if a modular replacement isn't offered.

  • Dark finishes often need more attention. In an institutional environment where time to polish or “baby” furniture is rare, lighter finishes tend to look better longer.


Furniture concepts' “tuff stuff” line (top) and new “safe and tough” bedroom furniture from this end up (bottom) combines all-wood construction with neat, open surfaces that make it impossible to conceal contraband
Furniture Concepts' “Tuff Stuff” line (left) and new “Safe and Tough” bedroom furniture from This End Up (right) combines all-wood construction with neat, open surfaces that make it impossible to conceal contraband.

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