Colleges and universities across the country are increasingly investing significant resources in the design of environments supportive of how students learn. An example of this trend is the University of Rochester’s $5-million renovation of Rush Rhees Library at the heart of its River Campus. An underutilized portion of the library’s 1969 addition now serves as a multi-functional learning space responsive to the needs of today’s students. The adaptable design created by Ayers Saint Gross has proven popular on campus, increasing traffic to the library and its resources.
This 24-hour study center, now called Gleason Library, allows students to collaborate in groups, research online or off, concentrate in a study carrel or stretch out to read a book. “The goal was to create an open and active environment that is both varied and flexible to best support the academic mission of the university. We wanted to allow students to choose from the greatest number of study areas possible,” explains Ayers Saint Gross principal Sandra Vicchio. “Traditionally these study venues have been separated in different rooms or unavailable in a library.”
Vicchio and her team developed the project in collaboration with faculty, students and staff, including Dean of Libraries Susan Gibbons and university anthropologist Nancy Foster who researches the ways students study through their daily habits. Aiming to reach beyond conventional approaches, the group projected scenarios for the library as if the challenges of the design had already been met. This problem-solving method, called Future Pull and developed by furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, equalizes all the voices in the room so every idea is considered relevant.
Through the process, the group identified key attributes that guided the renovation. Words such as “hub,” “democratic,” “seamless integration of tools,” and “timeless” surfaced to describe how the team pictured the ideal library setting. They inspired the architects to create a collaborative learning space filled with the constant hum of students at work.
Instead of lining up tables and study carrels in neat rows, Vicchio and her team organized the open space as a series of varied, interconnected places for study and research. These areas range from a quiet zone with outlets for plugging in a laptop to open studios fitted with white boards and LCD screens. “The only room with a door is a space for screening films,” notes the architect. At the perimeter, new bays of floor-to-ceiling windows draw students to study tables where daylight and views enhance the learning experience.
Throughout the study center, the furniture is varied in design to encourage sitting, slouching or lying down. Seating is movable to allow students to reconfigure it for various tasks, from studying alone to collaborating in groups. “The idea was to provide a variety of flexible seating so students can make it their own,” says Vicchio. “We also provided more square feet per seat than the average library to allow for reconfiguration.”
Situated on the second floor of the Rush Rhees Library, Gleason Library is directly connected to the ground level through a monumental staircase. Its strategic location allows students entering the building from the east entrance lobby and university’s tunnel system to easily reach the study center. At the same time, the staircase connecting the two floors provides another space for students to study and collaborate. It also provides access to a bagel shop and the university’s information technology lab on the ground floor off the lobby. Most importantly, this accessibility means students can easily reach the study space at all times, night or day.
Since the study center opened in 2007, librarians have found laptop use by students in the facility has risen by 177 percent. “I credit the laptop-friendly design elements in Gleason for much of this increase,” says Gibbons. “As our librarians note, the popularity of our new high-tech space did not diminish the use of our existing library spaces. Instead, the opposite occurred: our existing spaces drew in new users, especially those who now use laptops in the library.”
New modes of learning also influenced Duke University’s School of Nursing at the heart of its medical center campus. Before developing the design, Ayers Saint Gross closely observed how instructors teach in order to relate the architecture to the pedagogy. “We challenged them to help us shape the spaces and optimize them as learning environments,” says principal Earl Purdue.
Understanding the course requirements of the nursing program led the architects to design adaptable, interconnected spaces for seminars, lectures, and patient-care simulations within an L-shaped building. The mix accommodates current teaching needs while anticipating enrollment growth. Modular, steel-framed bays allow the three-story building to be expanded incrementally in the future.
On the first floor, flat-floor classrooms are paired with smaller seminar rooms to accommodate different teaching and learning styles for the same course. This arrangement allows students to assemble in the classrooms before breaking into smaller groups in the adjoining seminar rooms and then meeting back in the classrooms – without having to travel down the hall or up the staircase to a higher floor.
In addition to such traditional environments are specialized laboratories for teaching practical nursing skills. These simulation labs, where future nurses are graded on their patient-care techniques, are a growing part of nursing schools as the need for clinical training increases with rising enrollments. They are used to teach the skills typically acquired in the hospital setting, requiring a variety of spaces and equipment. The labs typically include cubicles containing hospital beds and examination tables, rooms for observing and assessing the students’ skills, study spaces and storage areas for mannequins.
Designed for the curriculum of today, the spaces are fitted with movable partitions and numerous power outlets to accommodate the teaching of tomorrow. “Institutions don’t have the resources to do frequent renovations,” points out Purdue. “So the labs must be flexible, open and adaptable to change.”
The school’s reliance on technology challenged the architects to stay up-to-date and design infrastructure for the latest video and digital equipment. Distance learning programs, for example, demand tiered lecture halls with optimal lighting, camera positions, and unobstructed sight lines. Study halls require computer outlets while classrooms must be fitted with multiple flat-screen monitors and projectors.
“There is an inherent challenge in creating learning environments that are adaptable to changing technologies and pedagogies. What is state-of-the-art today will likely be obsolete in three years,” Purdue explains. “This is particularly true in technology-rich spaces such as simulation labs and case study rooms for distance learning.”
Even the student lounge had to be adaptable. Built at the intersection of the building’s two wings, this “commons” – combining meeting areas, study hall, and dining space – serves as the symbolic heart of the building. It can be combined with an adjacent classroom to accommodate large groups for events such as reunions, commencements, and conferences.
The design of the two-story hall interprets the Gothic-inspired architecture on the Duke campus through arches of laminated timbers. Floor-to-ceiling glass allows for views of woodlands adjacent to the building and a terrace provides a place to study or dine outdoors.
In addition to tailoring the spaces to the curriculum, the architects designed the building to support the health-conscious culture of the school. Accessible staircases allow students and faculty to get exercise by walking from floor to floor, and plenty of windows in the classrooms and upper-level faculty offices supply daylight and views.
“As a building type, the nursing school continues to evolve,” says Purdue, who has designed three nursing schools for other universities since Duke’s opened in 2006. “More institutions are younger and want to teach through more dynamic methods. They are unafraid of new styles of teaching and reflecting that in the architecture.”