ARCHITECTS ARE DISRUPTERS: building frameworks for change

February 23, 2013, 8:51 pm

I had a strange strong emotional response yesterday. It has subsided but still lingers slightly.


Let’s back up. When I interviewed at Virginia Tech one of the duties presented was to lead massive renovations. Unlike others, we don’t have $105$115 million in the bank. The libraries that win design awards are always grand new constructions or sizeable renovations. There should be award for lean libraries, not just landmark ones. Our approach is pure bootstrapping, entrepreneurial, and startup: ideate a need, design a program, hustle the cash, implement, iterate, iterate, iterate.


The past year has been about ideation and program development around our second floor. We’re shaping and funding it bit by bit. The generosity of an alumnus has already given us a start but our students haven’t seen anything yet.


I’ve spoken about the concept with over 300 students, faculty, and alumni. I’ve given many of tours and invited people to dream about the change. We’ve done surveys, focus groups, interviews, ethnographic observations, and UX studies. We’ve investigated other places around campus and around town. We’ve visited other libraries, and more importantly, other non-library places like Google, Facebook, co-working offices, startup incubators, and the d school. We’ve had course projects explore components and we’ve employed a handful of interns to map things out.


looking_out_to_group_spaceIn short, the last year has been an exhaustive search for what this space needs to become. The public space on this particular floor is growing from 7,000 sq. ft. to over 27,000 sq. ft. – a substantial change. If I do my job right it won’t look anything like it did when I arrived. This is our main floor so there’s a lot on the line.


I’ve thought about this project every day since I started. This week I turned all that over to Lord, Aeck & Sargent. They are working on schematics and doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of HVAC and electrical planning. Besides infrastructural upgrades though, this project aims to implement a new philosophy: what is a library?


Once we hired LAS I asked them to skip over the file on “library trends” and focus instead on other environments where people collaborate, share, and build ideas. That’s what we want to emphasize on this floor.


So the emotional aspect that affected me yesterday was the awareness that the discovery and framing portion of the project is complete and that it’s now out of my hands. The floor is conceptually done. And sure there are months ahead of editing and revisiting and other adjustments, but the concept phase is over. We’ve done all we can.


I worry—did I tell them everything they need to know? Did I represent our students and staff well? Did they meet with enough people? Did I ask enough questions? Did they ask enough questions? Are we being too modern in terms of aesthetics? Are we being too much d school (extreme flexibility) and not enough Facebook (rows and rows of tables)? Are we being too bold or not bold enough?


I guess it’s the same doubts one feels when publishing a paper or giving a talk—or even broader, when you create something new. This project feels more like art than science to me. It has been a large evolving collaborative initiative and now it has shifted from ideation to pre-production. I feel responsible for delivering a good product to our students. I’m personally invested in the outcome – and yet find myself in an unexpected position of being unable to help anymore.


Reflecting further—it’s all about disruption. Changing the nature and character of the floor, the collections, and the services. This isn’t about electrical capacity, lighting grids, airflow, building codes, service desks, furniture, or signage. It isn’t about optimizing the space or other efficiencies. It isn’t about preferences or priorities. It is about change—changing what we do, changing how we are perceived, and most importantly, changing how users interact within the environment.


The tough part is that it’s out of our hands now. We’ve packaged this fragile idea, this bundle of possibility, and given it away. We have to trust that our architects can interpret all these thoughts, needs, dreams, and aspirations and turn this vision not just into an amazing space, but an amazing user experience. Their job is to build a framework that makes disruption possible and positive. The human side of renovations is far more fascinating than what is being built.

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