Residence Hall Furniture: The Complete Insider’s Guide

In Blog, Green Manufacturing, GreenCertification, Nontoxic, Wood is Good by Morgan Dix

Are you in the market to furnish your college or university residence hall? Maybe this is your first time buying dormitory furniture for your school’s residence hall or perhaps you’re a seasoned veteran.

Either way, it’s a big job and there are so many emerging trends influencing the conception, design, development, use, and installation of residence hall furniture. So we’ve created a guide to help you navigate the key contexts and questions you should consider.


Because not all dormitory furniture is created equal. I’m assuming you want to get the very best quality furniture for the best price. If that’s true, then we’re on the same page and this guide is going to help you.

What Is The Best Quality Dormitory Furniture?

To start with, let’s talk about quality. When it comes to quality, you need to start thinking about durability and sustainability—two closely related topics.

Ideally, your furniture should last you a minimum of 25 years. As you know, constant turnover and rough handling are hallmarks of life in a higher education residence hall.

That’s why you need furniture that can stand up to “aggressive” use.

dormitory furniture at Plymouth State UniversityIn a word, you need wood furniture. Locally harvested solid hardwood to be precise. It’s the longest lasting and most sustainable dormitory furniture material.

So let’s jump in and start at the beginning. Why should you choose wood furniture?

And a quick disclaimer here. Let me say upfront that this guide is not without bias. We specialize in wood furniture because we think it’s the best choice for all the reasons I’m about to share with you.

But we also build furniture with wood laminate because some schools still need and want that. That’s fine and they have good reasons for that. It’s just that if we had it our way, everyone would use wood.

I’ll explain why below.

Complete Guide To Residence Hall Furniture

Why Not Laminate?

sustainable dormitory furniture materialsFirst, why should you choose solid wood furniture over wood laminate or engineered (man-made) wood?

Wood laminate has its benefits—some of our customers still prefer it over hardwood—but there’s a reason why schools like UCLA and UC Irvine have completely phased out any wood laminates on their campus.

These schools are concerned about laminate’s associated environmental, human health, and quality issues.

Let’s flag a few of the bigger issues with dormitory furniture made from wood laminate.

1. Toxicity

In many cases, laminate wood substrates are heavily processed and filled with chemicals. Wikipedia also notes this saying that:

The adhesives used in some products may be toxic. A concern with some resins is the release of formaldehyde in the finished product, often seen with urea-formaldehyde bonded products. Cutting and otherwise working with some products can expose workers to toxic compounds.

In fact, one study of volatile organic compounds (VOC) like formaldehyde found that furniture made with MDF and laminated wood are dangerous potential sources of cancer-causing VOCs.

And because it contains toxic VOCs like formaldehyde, laminated wood furniture is a serious potential human health liability.

2. Poor Life-Cycle Analysis

Second, wood laminate has a poor Life-Cycle Analysis. According to the Green Home Guide, you should consider the life cycle of this material. For example, what happens when you can’t use your wood laminate furniture any longer?

On that count, it ranks low with an unfavorable impact on the environment. Green Homes points out that:

  • Laminate is easy to maintain but ranks low on the durability quotient because it not easily fixed or refinished if damaged.
  • At the end of its useful life, it gets pitched into a landfill, where its ability to decompose is minimal.
  • It’s difficult to quantify what chemicals, if any, will leach from laminates once they hit the landfill or would be emitted into the air if placed in an incinerator.

It’s worth reiterating the point.

Man-made wood, with its resins and epoxies, can’t organically break down. It will sit in the landfill indefinitely. And you can’t recycle it.

More often than not, it’s throwaway furniture. And some feel that it’s irresponsible to use it in the context of higher education. There’s more to say about wood laminate, and you can read all about it here.

Sustainability: 12 Reasons Why Wood Is Good

green dormitory furnitureWood, on the other hand, tells a different story.

It’s a renewable resource. Wood doesn’t need the intense, carbon-emitting high-energy manufacturing inputs that wood laminate requires to produce. It’s incredibly durable. At the same time, it breaks down organically and can live many lives.

So let’s examine why wood is not merely the most sustainable furniture material, but also the most durable and best suited to life in a residence hall.

1. Green Manufacturing

choose wood for dormitory furniture

How is wood furniture made? At DCI, we’ve worked for the last 40 years to hone and develop a green manufacturing process. Because wood is a renewable resource, it lends itself to an extremely clean and waste-free manufacturing process.

You might be asking yourself, what is “green” manufacturing anyways and what does it look like for dormitory furniture? Why is it even important?

These are great questions.

In short, green manufacturing means that we ensure the sustainable integrity of our product at every stage of production.

2. Wood Is A Renewable Resource

To begin with, wood is one of the most environmentally friendly raw materials. It’s renewable.

Can you think of another building material that magically springs up from the ground when you add sunlight, rainwater, carbon from the air, and nutrients from the soil?

With care, it’s a replenishable and renewable resource. That’s amazing when you think about it.

But maybe you’re wondering about deforestation. Isn’t it bad to cut down trees?

Well, the short answer is no. And it depends on how you do it. For example, we work with NH and VT state foresters and use a sustainable approach to tree harvesting which qualifies our wood as FSC CoC.

FSC certified and controlled wood is the gold standard of sustainable forestry.

And more to the point, reforestation in New England vastly outpaces logging. In fact, one media source broadly claims that:

“In the United States, deforestation has been more than offset by reforestation between 1990 and 2010. The nation added 7,687,000 hectares (18,995,000 acres) of forested land during that period.”

A lot of that reforestation happens in the great north country of New England. All that reforestation is happening naturally.

3. Wood Is Climate Neutral

Here’s another great benefit of wood dormitory furniture. Wood products are healthy for our climate and prevent climate change.

How is that?

First, trees absorb carbon throughout their life. They take it out of the atmosphere and store it in their trunks as they grow. But it doesn’t end there. When trees become wood products—like residence hall furniture—they continue to store that carbon.

By using solid hardwood furniture, you’re preventing the warming of our atmosphere. Remember, you’re not compromising here. You’re choosing the most durable and stylish furniture on the market AND sustaining the planet.

4. Renewable Biomass Fuel

Did you know that we can reclaim the solar energy stored in wood at the end of the product life cycle by burning wood for energy? At DCI, we collect all our sawdust and burn it in our boilers to produce the energy that heats our factory.

Re-using wood for energy like this is a great way to displace dirty, non-renewable, and carbon-emitting energy sources like coal, oil, and natural gas.

Wood biomass is a renewable resource because, unlike fossil fuels, no matter how much plant material you use, there is no limit to the amount you can replace.

You can create renewable biomass fuel by making energy from organic material like trees and plants. In our case, we burn wood waste from our industrial processes to power our factory with heat and electricity.

That wood waste is our biomass source. When you buy wood furniture, you’re helping to create a virtuous and climate friendly product cycle.

5. Zero Waste

Want to know another cool thing about green manufacturing? It’s called zero waste.

When it comes to solid hardwood, we reuse and repurpose bi-products from every stage of the production process.

After we harvest the raw timber, most of it is processed into lumber, but we convert some of it into other wood products, and recover more of it for energy production.

But none of it goes to waste.

This is how we sustain a zero-waste policy, and it’s the core of our green manufacturing processes. Here’s how we use the wood that doesn’t make it into our furniture.

  • We use bark for landscaping materials.
  • Our factory collects and burns sawdust for heat and electricity, or we sell it to local farms.
  • Rough wood cuts get re-used in pallets of other building materials.
  • Finally, we use leftover hardwood to build our internal furniture components rather than buying Poplar or other species.

6. Durability

How about the durability of your dormitory furniture? That’s another key consideration.

When you think about the durability of wood, all you have to do is think of a tree. Trees are robust and resilient. They weather the kind of natural conditions that put even the rowdiest college residence halls to shame.

When harvested from standing timber and relative to its weight, wood is the strongest building material on the planet. And it requires little maintenance.

That means big savings for you. You can count on your wood furniture to last a minimum of 25 years and probably much longer.

7. LifeCycle Assessment

When considering sustainable furniture for your residence hall, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is another key consideration.

What is LCA? It’s a:

“…holistic, scientific approach that considers the resources consumed and the emissions released during a product’s manufacture, use, and disposal.”

And according to LCA studies, compared to non-wood products (see wood laminate above), wood consistently comes out on top. The one area where wood falls short in LCA is kiln drying.

We’ve got you covered. At DCI, we mitigate this energy-intensive process by powering our kilns with renewable biomass fuel—our own sawdust.

8. Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle

Unlike furniture made from manmade wood, hardwood furniture lends itself to all forms of reuse, recycling, upcycling, and repurposing.

If you’ve read everything up to here, you already know that we’re passionate about preventing waste and giving furniture a second life to keep it out of the landfill.

And the beautiful thing is that, with a little planning, you can give wood furniture a second and third life.

As we’ve already seen, that’s not the case with residence hall furniture that’s made with cheaper materials like laminated wood, which—although attractive—you can’t recycle or easily repurpose.

Wood, on the other hand, is easy to repurpose. We work directly with all our clients to develop a tailored plan for sustainably repurposing their old solid wood furniture.

And over the last several decades, we’ve repurposed enough furniture to fill well over three hundred 53-foot containers. That’s all solid hardwood furniture that we diverted from the landfill.

Bottom line, you can have a clean green conscience when you buy solid wood furniture. We’ll make sure that it gets delivered to Habitat ReStore, recycled, or broken down and used for component parts in new furniture.

9. Domestic Sourcing

Sourcing is another facet of furniture manufacturing that you need to factor into your finding. Where is your dormitory furniture made? Do you know where the raw materials come from?

Most importantly, what are the attendant social and environmental impacts?

Unlike our competitors, who source wood panels and other hardwood components from vendors outside the United States as far away as Indonesia and China, DCI owns and operates a sawmill in South Royalton, Vermont.

We control our timber selection, how that timber is processed into lumber, and how that lumber is assembled into furniture through our green manufacturing processes.

As a vertically integrated company, we own every step in our supply chain and consequently we can guarantee the sustainable sourcing of all our materials.

10. Chain of Custody

Speaking of supply chain, let’s talk about chain of custody. What is chain of custody and why is it important? According to Wikipedia, it’s used:

…in supply chain management, e.g. to improve the traceability of food products, or to provide assurances that wood products originate from sustainably managed forests.

At DCI, we own our own sawmill. That lets us control the entire manufacturing process of our furniture from forest to floor. And it’s why our furniture boasts FSC controlled timber as the raw material for all our hardwood furniture.

Why is chain of custody so important?

Because it allows us to monitor quality and maximize efficiencies and sustainability at every stage in our process—from the trees we select to the recycled sawdust we use to fire our kilns and heat our factory and offices.

Furthermore, it means that every aspect of our production process is truly local, which is a key tenet of sustainability. And finally, because we don’t pay any middlemen, we can pass those savings on to you in the form of affordable solid hardwood furniture.

11. Locally Crafted

At DCI, we keep our labor and our supply chain completely local. This benefits local communities, wildlife, the planet, and our customers.

As you well know, small town American manufacturing is on life support. The thriving industries that once powered small town economies in New England are sparse at best.

At DCI, we support the local economies of the North Country of Vermont and New Hampshire, employing 200 local men and women. This is a huge boon to local communities.

In contrast, many dormitory furniture manufacturers outsource their labor and operations to Asia with little accountability.

Furthermore, it’s healthier for the planet and the biosphere to use locally crafted goods.

That’s why we maintain operations in the Northeast, Southeast, and West Coast. From our regional bases, we can manufacture, assemble, deliver, and install your furniture from a local source with the lightest footprint.

12. Nontoxic

One thing you might not have thought about yet is toxicity. Is your furniture made without toxic chemicals?

You might be thinking, “Wait, is that still something I need to think about?” Unfortunately, yes. You do.

It’s important for anyone who is buying residence hall furniture to gain clarity around volatile organic compounds (VOCs) before you commit to buying any furniture.

You may be surprised to learn just how important your choice of wood finish is for the health of your students and the quality of your furniture.

Bottom line, furniture has a huge impact on indoor air quality. And historically, most wood finishes were filled with VOCs, to say nothing about the glues and epoxies in man-made wood.

According to the Green Home Guide:

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are carbon-containing substances that easily become vapors or gases. They can be present in paints, coatings such as varnishes and cleaning products.

VOCs can have all sorts of deleterious effects on human health. And in general, VOC concentrations are as much as 1000 times higher indoors than outdoors.

Based on a study out of Harvard’s school for public health, students exposed to normal furniture that emits standard levels of VOCs performed half as well as students who were tested in an environment that was free of VOCs.

In case it’s not clear, that’s a huge difference.

This is one of the main reasons why DCI uses a finishing process that emits zero VOCs. Instead of using a solvent-based finish like nitrocellulose lacquer, we apply a UV-cured finish. This kind of finish is odorless, clean, and non-toxic.

It’s also why our preferred product choice is always solid hardwood.

Finally, this National Institute of Health study on volatile organic compounds in furniture looked at rubberwood, MDF, and laminates—some of the most popular raw materials used in residence hall furniture—and showed that they still emit high levels of VOCs.

Wood-based panels, wood-based composites, laminated office furniture, laminate flooring, and engineer flooring are the common form of furniture products made by MDF, HDF, and PB. The results showed that a large number of VOCs can be emitted from the furniture made of such materials.

VOCs are a serious health hazard and a known carcinogen. In terms of the health of your students and residents, you need to take this research seriously and follow up.

Certifications: MAS, LEED, FSC

To ensure that you’re getting the best dormitory furniture with the most sustainable pedigree and to safeguard student health, your furniture should come with the following certifications.

1. FSC

When it comes to green furniture, as we’ve discussed above, solid wood is by far the most sustainable. And in terms of solid wood, there is only one undisputed gold-standard for certifying sustainable wood building materials.

It’s called the Chain-of-Custody FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certification, commonly referred to as FSC C-o-C or simply FSC.


The LEED green building certification was developed and is currently administered by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)—a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable building design and construction.

LEED certification is the recognized standard for assessing and measuring your building’s sustainability. Buying sustainable furniture is a reliable way for you to earn points towards the LEED certification of your residence hall.

With DCI furniture, you can earn four different LEED credits towards certification.

3. MAS

We touched on the dangers of VOCs above. So how can you be absolutely sure that your furniture contains safe levels of VOCs?

Your furniture must be MAS certified green. What is that?

According to the MAS website:

MAS is an emissions testing laboratory specializing in helping companies enter the green market with low VOC emitting products. Only products that pass the MAS stringent tests can display the MAS Certified Green logo. This logo is your assurance the product is certified for low VOC emissions.

To quickly reiterate, indoor air quality is incredibly important for students. A 2015 study from Harvard’s School for Public Health showed that poor indoor air quality can have a dramatic impact on students’ academic performance.

The findings suggest that the indoor environments in which many people work daily could be adversely affecting cognitive function—and that, conversely, improved air quality could greatly increase the cognitive function performance of workers.

The implications for student wellness are massive.

I can think of few other places where the implications of these findings are more important than a university residence hall. Ensuring that students study and work in green buildings that support learning is a cornerstone of environmental wellness.

And because dormitory furniture is a major—if not primary—determinant of indoor air quality, it’s important for student health and performance that you insist on getting furniture that is MAS Green certified.

The dramatic findings in the study support this assertion.

They found that cognitive performance scores for the participants who worked in the green+ environments were, on average, double those of participants who worked in conventional environments; scores for those working in green environments were 61% higher.

This is why we are MAS certified green and use VOC-free UV-cured water based wood finishing processes for all our furniture.

Choosing Your Dormitory Furniture Style

There are a lot of styles to choose from when you’re selecting your residence hall furniture. In general, the larger styles include modern, contemporary, transitional, and mission.

Of course there are others, but most of the furniture you find in residence halls falls into those categories.

We’ve written extensively about these different styles. Here’s a quick synopsis below with links for deeper reading to help you find the best choice for your residence hall.

1. Modern

Let’s start with modern design because it’s made a big comeback over the last few decades.

When modern furniture came online, it was pretty revolutionary for the time. In the early 20th Century, modern design made a clean break from the ornate, heavy, and history-laden furniture design paradigms of the past and highlighted functionality, lightness in form, and geometrical lines and planes.

In essence, the form of the furniture emerged as the no-frills heart of the design. Form followed function.

DCI Vice President Amos Kober describes it this way:

The core principles of this style make it ideal for residence halls, minimizing bulk to make small spaces feel more open. It allows us to mix materials and finishes while creating the clean lines of elegant beauty found in our Martinez and Paseo collections.

You can read more about modern design here.

2. Contemporary

Now let’s take a look at contemporary design. A lot of people get confused between modern and contemporary styles.

Remember, modern design belongs to a set period in time from the late 1800s to the mid-1900’s. Modern furniture design, which was heavily influenced by the modern art movement, is defined by that period of time and it will never happen again.

Furthermore, modern furniture design adheres to an explicit and strict set of stylistic principles.

Contemporary, on the other hand, means “of the moment or current”. It’s happening right now, and it will always happen right now. And that’s what defines a style as contemporary.

Unlike modern design, contemporary design is always evolving. It draws from (and is a response to) a variety of historical styles, and it has the benefit of integrating emergent technologies and materials.

You can read all about contemporary furniture design here.

3. Mission

Whereas modern and contemporary furniture have some overlap stylistically, Mission furniture is completely distinct from those styles.

Simple, durable, and functional, mission furniture emerged in the late 19th century and enjoyed a surge in popularity from about 1900-1915. It came back into vogue in the 1980’s and remains popular today thanks to its sturdy elegance.

That durable quality also makes it a perfect fit for residence hall living.

Mission style was pioneered by the architect, publisher, and furniture maker Gustav Stickley. His inspiration came from the furniture he observed in turn-of-the-century California Franciscan missions.

But the name also reflects Stickley’s belief that all furniture should have a clear purpose.

Mission style, which is sometimes referred to as Craftsman style, is well suited to life in residence halls for a number of reasons. Read more about it here.

Custom Solutions

When it comes to your dormitory furniture, I’m guessing that you have a unique set of needs you need to satisfy. If you’re like most of our higher education buyers, you need some measure of customization.

Maybe you need a completely customized solution. We’ve got you covered.

DCI specializes in engineering solutions to some of the stickiest furniture snags you can imagine. That’s why I’d love to solve your furniture problems with a custom solution.

The truth is, we haven’t met a challenge we couldn’t overcome with some creative thinking, savvy engineering, and world-class craftsmanship.

You see, a lot of companies can offer you cookie cutter furniture collections with no real room for deep customization. And still others have overseas operations in China and Southeast Asia with less flexible manufacturing capabilities.

But what are we talking about exactly when it comes to custom solutions?

Sometimes it can be an interior design issue and other times the problem might just require some innovative thinking.

Yes, we have established and time-tested furniture collections favored by many of our clients, but we also embrace the fact that every school is unique with distinct conditions, contexts, challenges, and opportunities you need to address.

That’s where we come in. It’s our job to tailor a solution that works perfectly for your context.

You can read stories about some of our higher education custom solutions here.

Informal Learning Spaces

When it comes to custom solutions, we must spend a little time on the topic of informal learning spaces.

As you probably know, schools are using dormitory furniture in new ways to create novel and compelling environments while solving tricky space issues.

Beyond mere functionality, the right furniture in the right place can foster collaboration, bring students back to campus, create compelling destinations, or liven up an old lounge.

There’s a name for this trend and the benefits it bestows on bastions of higher ed.

It’s called, “The Furniture Effect.”

And more specifically, the name for these configurations is “informal learning space.”

Indeed, this approach to the informal learning space is providing schools with an affordable alternative to new construction while solving perennial issues related to budget constraints, limited and underutilized space, retention, and student engagement.

We work with schools to design inspired informal learning spaces, and we’d love to help you customize furniture that solves your respective space issue.

And I can’t emphasize enough the creative potential in this approach.

As architect Jane Smith notes in an article for College Planning & Management:

The results also set the stage for amazing, popular campus destinations in unexpected places, as in a boiler-room-turned-classrooms at the University of Hartford, or the unassuming loading dock at the School of Visual Arts [in Manhattan] that now looks like a fine-arts gallery.

Learn more about The Furniture Effect here.

Sustainability & Spaces for Informal Learning

Colleges and universities have undergone dramatic shifts in the last ten years. Along with the rest of culture and society, the missions and modus operandi of schools are changing in response to the online revolution.

How students learn. Where they learn. With whom they learn. All of these things are quickly changing the character if not the core of the college and university experience. Perhaps more than at any other time in history.

As with all big change, this poses both challenges and opportunities.

These days students are mobile. They’re less likely to learn lessons in a 100-300 seat auditorium as they are clustered in collaboration around ad-hoc study nooks with peers and professors.

This makes residence halls the sweet spot for designing niche environments of impromptu learning. As we discussed above, the name for these knowledge nurturing nooks is informal learning spaces.

You can read more about informal learning spaces and sustainability here.

Fusing Dormitory Furniture & Technology

Let’s explore the real opportunity around informal learning spaces—integrating technology.

Today’s students can go online anywhere to do research, connect with peers and professors, watch a lecture, or write a paper. For all intents and purposes, students have a limitless mobile reference library at their fingertips at all times.

This affects where, when, and how students study and learn.

University libraries—traditionally the hallowed home for nurturing the growth of knowledge—are no longer necessary anchors for ongoing research and study.

Many classes are now online, further de-emphasizing the brick and mortar classroom experience.

As the designers at Clarknexsen point out:

Studies are showing that informal settings are better for college-level learning than the traditional academic setting alone…by infusing collaborative study areas throughout a predominantly residential building to provide students with easily accessible study amenities. And if you’re someone who’s responsible for planning and designing the type of sticky informal learning spaces that students love, then you need to consider where they’re going to put their laptops, where they’ll plug in, and how they’re going to collaborate.

You can read more about the relationship between dormitory furniture and technology here.

Can Dormitory Furniture Improve Retention?

You might be surprised to learn that a lot of people are talking about how furniture can actually help you improve student retention.

When we first started to hear about that trend, we were impressed if not a little skeptical.

But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to support these assertions. And in fact RealPage, which collects data on this topic, has some numbers to back it up.

How is furniture helping schools increase their retention rates by contributing to the development of sticky social spaces?

In one example from RealPage, the University of Kentucky saw the following result from renovations that aimed to provide “the amenities and study space that students typically seek.”

One of the major benefits that the university saw in this initiative was the improvement of student recruitment and retention and the creation of a sense of community by providing the amenities and study space that students typically seek. The university’s freshman retention rate has increased from 81% in 2012 to 83% in 2017 and its graduation rate has grown from 56% in 2012 to 66% in 2017. Its latest on-campus housing delivery contains all the amenities that the school was envisioning for their students.

You can read more about the positive impacts of furniture on retention here.

How Dormitory Furniture Increases Occupancy

Increasing occupancy is another challenge that good furniture design can solve.

A lot of schools struggle with limited space and capital. So it makes sense that more and more of our partner schools are asking us to help them increase occupancy through innovative design solutions.

According to the Hechinger Report, college and university enrollment is down across the United States for the 5th year in a row. Schools are looking for fresh ways to save money.

Instead of investing in huge capital projects, they are capitalizing on underutilized space by increasing occupancy.

And instead of spending precious dollars on new construction to attract students, many are adding amenities like upgraded lounges, gaming rooms, and tech-friendly furniture to existing residence halls.

So how can your school augment occupancy when you don’t have more buildings or budget to shelter your swelling student body?

There are different options available to you, but engineering integrated solutions with your furniture, floor plan, and storage is one innovative way to resolve the problem. That’s how we’ve solved this stumper for a number of schools.

You can read four examples from our higher education partners here. In each case, we helped schools house more students in the face of surging enrollment and waning resources.