Manufacturers balance aesthetic appeal, safety and durability
Physical environment has long been tied to mental health. In fact, industry guidelines advise behavioral health organizations to strive for decor that appears "comfortable, attractive, and as residential in character as possible."
As facilities continue to shift away from elements deemed "institutional" in appearance, demand has grown considerably for lurniture that is not only built with safety and durability in mind, but also with a sense of style.
"Over die last year or two, we've seen a move away from the cold, institutional look mat many facilities have had for so long," notes Janet Costin, director at This End Up Furniture Co. "They realized that it can cause angst for their patients, so now they're moving toward a much more homelike atmosphere."
Of course, safety is still the top priority. So while manufacturers are designing furniture with greater visual appeal, the structural requirements of institutional furniture remain. Essentially, according to Keith Voigt, president of Furniture Concepts, the trend is for furniture that "looks like it belongs in a home, but is built to take a beating."
While the design of mental health facilities continues to evolve, their focus on safety never changes. Furniture manufacturers are continually challenged rebalance form and function.
"It's a fine line to walk, which makes it a difficult challenge," notes Mike Heintzelman, factory representative for Blockhouse Contract Furniture. "But improving aesthetic appeal doesn't mean you compromise durability, because durability equates to safety in a behavioral health environment."
For Blockhouse, that equation translates into features such as dressers and desks with cubbies instead of drawers, and cabinets and closets with either sliding doors or none at all. "We also added supports and beefed up the construction of each piece," Heintzelman explai'ns, "because we know how this furniture is going to be used."
This End Ups "Safe and Tough" line includes features with similar goals in mind, such as rounded corners and edges, slope-top wardrobes, recessed drawers, and floor anchors. "Its designed for critically ill patients who also may be violent," notes Costin. "The pieces don't have any open areas they can get into, on top of or behind - the design allows items to be secured to the floor, preventing patients from harming themselves or members of die staff."
According to Mike McLean, U.S. marketing and sales for Spec Furniture, pieces should be "indestructible, weighted, constructed with tamperproof fasteners, without grab points or large edges, and built on a sled base or soft bottom."
"Essentially, you're combining institutional attributes that are still required in these areas, but still moving toward new design criteria - softer, warmer and more like home," notes McLean. "Finding the right balance can be difficult."
Introduced in 2010, Spec Furniture's "Dignity" line features solid, one-piece molds around each arm. And while soft to the touch, McLean notes that each piece is still tough enough to prevent materials from being peeled off or ripped apart. They have tamperproof fasteners throughout, so nothing can be taken apart, weigh over 90 pounds (made heavier on request), and also can be fastened to the floor.
While die shift toward greater aesthetic appeal has required some "out of the box" thinking, traditional considerations like material selection are still critical. According to Voigt, solid wood (as opposed to particle board or MDF), plus the right kind of joinery, makes furniture more durable and joints less prone to coming loose.
"Any joint is going to be subjected to lots of movement, pressure and potential for failure, so the more they are beefed up with traditional joinery, glue, L-brackets and other reinforcements, die better," explains Voigt. "Age-old techniques like dovetails and mortise and tenon may not create much of a visual, they definitely help make furniture more durable."
Wood finishes also have come a long way. Today, most lacquered finishes are lowmaintenance, fairly impervious to damage, and beautiful. In most behavioral health settings, Heintzelman says lighter stains and finishes are typically preferred.
"They tend to hide marks - whether it's a scratch, a scrape, a bump or a bruise," he explains. "Obviously when you scratch a piece of dark-stained furniture, you're going to expose bare wood. With a lighter stain, those sorts of things aren't going to be as noticeable."
Another "incredibly important" consideration, McLean points out, is cleanability, which is essential to infectious disease control. "That's why features like side-panels and wood grain laminates have become popular. They look soft, warm and visually appealing, but riiey also are easy to clean."
When furniture gets extensive use, usually nothing shows that more than the upholstery. To handle incontinence, spills, and destructive behaviors, vinyl upholstery has been the standard for years. But with the relatively recent advent of "cryptonized" fabric, a new standard is emerging.
In fact, die fabric treatment is widely regarded as one of the industry's most significant developments. "Crypton makes fabrics almost impervious to moisture and staining, but you get a much more aesthetically pleasing look," notes Heinnelman. "You get the same results as vinyl, but it looks and feels like fabric."
Even with "cryptonized" fabrics, experts agree that it's still important to select fabrics that are woven to hold up to group living environments. According to Voigt, checking a fabric's rub count (determined in tests simulating wear and tear) will help you predict how well a fabric will hold up.
"Typically there's a certain rub count that buyers want to see," Voigt explains. "The fabric content (for example, percentages of synthetics, blends, cottons or wools), as well as the weave, plays a significant role in determining much how the fabric wears - whether it's cryptonized or not."
Of course, simply keeping upholstery clean will also make it last longer. Manufacturers urge customers to follow cleaning instructions properly, especially when it comes to cleaning solutions. Using the wrong cleanser can not only decrease a material's protective properties, but in some cases can eliminate those qualities completely.
Another way furniture is made easier to clean is by making parts of die furniture "field replaceable."For example, Blockhouse installs cushion key locks, which lock cushions into the frame of a sofa, chair or loveseat, but provide an easy way to remove, reverse, or replace a cover or the entire cushion.
In the end, it's important to remember that every facility's needs are continually evolving. And what is classified as "institutional" today was once the alternative. "We look to current styles and try to translate those to the group living industry, but it's still totally subjective," notes Voigt. "What's considered warm and fuzzy today may end up looking institutional 10 years from now."
To move away from "institutional" aesthetics, manufacturers like This End Up (above) and Furniture Concepts (below) are making pieces that add a new sense of style, but still incorporate critical features such as fluid resistance, solid wood construction and durable joinery.
Softer and warmer designs are gaining popularity, as seen in bedroom furniture made by This End Up (left) and Blockhouse Contract Furniture (right).
Spec Furniture's "Dignity" line (pictured) is soft to the touch but also prevents materials from being torn off.
For infectious disease control, cleanability is essential to Spec Furniture's "Dignity" seating (pictured).
Breaking the mold
Facilities each have different needs. But when patients can turn violent, it becomes essential to "keep furniture from turning into a weapon," notes Ron Schräm, market manager for Norix Group. To meet a facility's need for furniture that can be fixed in place or weighted down, Norix introduced its Attenda line ot rotationally molded high-impact polyethylene furniture.
A key idea behind the design was first conceived during the production of a previous line (designed for suicide resistance), which was constructed with fiberglass. According to Schräm, the material wasn't suitable for long-term use, because "if a patient kicked it long enough, it was bound to fracture." The realization led R&D in a new direction.
"We were already making rotationally molded chairs, which results in a hollow product." explains Schräm. "So we decided to weight those chairs inside with sand. That gave us a chair that weighs 75 to 100 pounds and is pretty difficult to pick up."
The Attenda line now features a variety of beds, chairs, tables and other pieces with double-wall construction and rigid urethane in between. Each piece is meant to be bolted in place, preventing patients from using the furniture as a barrier or battering ram. As a result, many have found their way into some of the most demanding and intensive-use environments imaginable.
"This was a dramatic change from what was offered in the past," notes Schräm. "The [polyethylene] construction is strong, durable and won't absorb fluids: it's also easy to wash down or steam clean. It gives facilities a cost-effective option that they never have to worry about."
BY NICK ZUBKO, ASSOCIATE EDITOR…