For the first time, Virginia Tech students are getting the unique opportunity to help design the spaces where they will learn, live and connect.
In a collaborative effort between the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS), Student Affairs, the Facilities Department and a host of additional partners, students are playing a hands-on role in the development of several key areas in the university’s new Creativity and Innovation District residence halls and living-learning communities.
Construction of these buildings is already underway on the southeast corner of the Virginia Tech campus, adjacent to downtown Blacksburg. Project leaders, including contractor W.M. Jordan, are hopeful progress will continue on schedule even while adhering to state and university public health directives during the COVID-19 outbreak.
When the buildings open for residents in the fall of 2021, designs from CAUS students will come to life in three areas: the student lounge, a faculty apartment and a makerspace.
“Student involvement in the design process is really bringing creativity and innovation to life in the new residence halls and living-learning communities,” said Frances Keene, interim assistant vice president for student affairs.
Keene has helped inform CAUS student designs from the beginning. “The areas are designed to bring students together from across disciplines into an inspiring environment in which to live and learn,” she said. “I can’t think of a better way to accomplish that vision.”
This student-led design-build project on a college campus is the first of its kind in Virginia, and one of only a handful in the United States. Overall, it represents an investment of almost $1 million into the efforts, expertise and dedication of CAUS students.
“CAUS faculty and students are a great resource for this project,” said professor of practice Enric Ruiz-Geli. “They bring the perfect background in experiential learning and design-build to the project, and their involvement means the Virginia Tech campus is becoming a real living lab.”
Design processes for the spaces began last fall through the work of architecture and design students in special topics courses. The team plans to involve both building construction and visual arts students in the project though additional courses in the coming year.
Lisa Tucker, professor and chair of the interior design program, taught the special topics course on the student lounge space in the fall of 2019, which welcomed undergraduate as well as graduate students from several design programs. Throughout the course, she was impressed not only by the students’ willingness to reach outside their comfort zone on the design, but also how they incorporated feedback.
“Typical projects are much more clear-cut,” said Tucker. “But in this situation, students were getting input on their designs from university stakeholders on a weekly basis. They had to sort through and accommodate many different objectives from different people who had different visions for the space.”
Tucker added that on top of responding to multiple viewpoints, students also had to make their designs code-compliant and needed to consider issues of material durability and the environment. “They didn’t just ‘simulate’ engaging with a client in the real world,” she said. “This project was that experience.”
For one of their weekly critique meetings, students exported a model of the design into a virtual reality headset and had stakeholders experience the lounge first-hand.
The ceiling of the 22-foot-tall student lounge includes a custom felt installation that mimics the floor plan and flow of the New River Valley itself. The felt piece not only looks like a river; it uses built-in sensors to adjust automatically to noise and limit the flow of sound waves, providing acoustical separation to help keep the space quiet.
The floorplan of the lounge also mimics the convergence of two smaller tributaries into the New River, and a wall-section of bright green reindeer moss provides additional soundproofing through natural materials. Custom and movable furniture pieces allow for flexible use of the space while large windows invite in plentiful sunlight.
In addition to the lounge space, construction is also moving forward on the faculty apartment and makerspace. Plans for the area’s exterior courtyards were also produced as part of the initiative and could come to fruition at some point in the future.