Learning Commons Conversion
Senior Thesis, Fall 2020
With the increase of technology in education, there has been a trend of libraries evolving to become a central hub of the school. Gone are the days of endless rows of books. These are being replaced by spaces that foster collaboration and creation. Larger public schools have been quick to make the change to this modern structure. However, smaller schools are falling behind. I want to explore the potential of a library redesign for small, rural schools. To do this, I will focus a design around my alma mater, Windsor Jr. Sr. High School.
A Learning Commons is essentially a flexible workspace that can adapt to various approaches to learning, specifically learning through hands on activities and collaboration with peers. The space must be able to accomodate a large range of activities, from lectures and presentations, to individual studying, to providing an oasis for students when they need to take a step away from their work.
What is a learning commons?
Turning to established Learning Commons, we can see the improvements they can provide to a school. The conversion at Big Walnut Middle School in Ohio is a prime example.
Not only did they increase student use of the library by 1000%, but the school also saw a rise in test scores and was better able to meet Common Core Standards after the conversion.
To give my project a stronger foundation in reality, I chose to redesign my high school library. I went to Windsor Jr. Sr. High School, located in Windsor, Illinois. This school is a prime example of a rural school. Windsor is a town of about 1,200 residents, centered around the agricultural industry. The school’s current enrollment is 148 students for grades 7-12.
The Current Space
The library is 1,800 sq ft. While this may sound like a large space, this couldn’t even be considered a library in certain states (Texas requires public school libraries be at least 2,800 sq. ft.).
Four smaller rooms are connected on the south end. These served as practice rooms from when this used to be the band room. The acoustic tiles along the walls and ceiling are also a remnant from this time.
The library currently is also used as a classroom for groups of up to 28 students. Because of this and faculty limitations, it is only open for the last two hours of the day. School board meetings are also held here.
The principal, Jennifer Bridges, and librarian, Monica Carl, provided excellent insight on the space, as well as ideas and hopes for what it could be:
The library usually sees 5-10 students a day, each spending an average of about 5 minutes in the space.
Aside from English classes, the space is hardly used by other departments.
Steps have been made to revive the space including the purchase of new tables. These have proven to do little to encourage use of the space. This is possibly due to their round shape and limited mobility.
The overall hope for the space is that it could be better utilized not just for classes and projects, but as a place students can come to before, during, and after school to hang out, socialize, and of course get work done.
Points of Opportunity
Create a more functional space
Adapt to current advances in education
Create a “hub” for the school
Because of the current restrictions with the use of the room, this project will explore what the library could potentially be as opposed to something that conforms to every stipulation posed.
"I would love for it to be a safe place for students to come hang out in after lunch or during study hall or after school"
Monica Carl, Librarian
Themes gathered from established examples include:
Large space, broken up into smaller areas with specialized utility
Lounge area for students
Incorporation of technology
Private rooms for meetings
Functional aspects gathered from research include:
Online reservation form
TVs on rollable stands
Green screen studio/recording studio
Standing desk areas
Office supplies readily available
High power computers for editing
Prototyping supply cabinet
Even though my design aesthetic tends to go more of an eclectic route, I realized this would not serve the space well.
I decided to take inspiration from modern, minimal spaces.
The ideation process began by compiling all of the research I had done (faculty interviews, case studies, research papers, observation, etc.). These lead me to create goals for the project and also provided many jumping off points derived from the insights acquired and needs identified.
Before getting too carried away with brainstorming, I had to go observe the space and collect careful measurements of not only the room, but the furniture within and other structural elements.
The rest of the process was a back in forth between lists of ideas, quick sketches, then transferred over to CAD renderings, all in a cyclical nature until I arrived at a small batch of final concepts.
Initial concepts focused on repurposing as much of the current furnishings as possible to create the most feasible conversion. However this left too little to work with, so a compromise was made between arranging and complete reconstruction.
The next range of concepts scrapped all of the existing furniture and incorporates a mix of custom fixtures and ready-to-buy furniture. I began to play around with certain details and features, some of which made it into the final concept in an altered state, while some inevitably did not fit the space.
Hover over to see 'Before' photos
I chose an overall Minimal Aesthetic for the space, forgoing many small details I intended to implement in favor of a more simple approach. As the space was small and had to contain a lot of activity, I found this the best way the keep things from becoming overwhelming.
A black and white color palette lets the color contributed by the books to take center stage, and the wood tones add warmth to the otherwise cool interior.
A dark floor and ceiling balance out the white of the furniture to create a sense of coziness and keep the space from being too sterile. Carpeting was chosen to help deaden the noise. The glossy finish on the ceiling creates a sense of space and adds a bit of glamour that the flooring lost.
Larger windows extend the vertical space and allow more light in.
Many school libraries use a similar style of furniture I refer to as “Academia-Chic”. I wanted to incorporate more mature furniture, as students this age are always striving to to reinforce their transition into adulthood. Most of the seating and tables are Eames.
The custom bookshelves contain plenty of cabinet storage for brainstorming and prototyping supplies (sticky notes, markers, paper, tape, etc.), TV stations for group work and presentations (with connectivity for students’ devices) and whiteboards for brainstorming. With all these features, there is still over 388 ft of shelving for books
The former circulation desk has been replaced with a lounge space that can also accommodate group work.
The space incorporates bleacher style seating, which has been a growing trend in contemporary workspaces. This flexible fixture can be used for independent work, reading, or seating for lectures and presentations.
The tables and whiteboards are all on casters to allow the space to be rearranged for different sized groups and activities. A powergrid integrated into the floor assures that devices will have power no matter how the room is oriented.
The new location of the circulation desk still greets visitors as the enter the Learning Commons.It features more storage and workspace.
Joined is the new Juice Bar/Café with dedicated seating, another growing trend in this type of space. This provides a space for students to hang out and relax, or work together over coffee. Funds raised from the café can be used for school improvement purposes or could even go toward a scholarship.
The TV screen, along with the other TVs in the room, can display memos and announcements or be switched to other programming. The sounds will help to break the tradition of silence in the space, encouraging collaboration.
The wooden feature at the top of the south wall not only ties in the wood elements from the far side of the room, but functions as a slatwall to display decorations and student projects.
The south end of the library contained four small rooms ranging from 40-70 sq. ft. By removing two of the dividing walls, two larger spaces are created.
One side will contain a reservable conference room. With its larger monitor, webcam, and conference telephone, students will be able to communicate with experts from around the world.
A multimedia studio will include an editing computer, camera, lighting, and a green screen, providing students with the basic equipment necessary for video production. The space could also be used for minor audio production, such as podcasts.
This project had many firsts for me.
It was my first time attempting interior design at this scale and level. Previous to this, my experience came from design my bedroom each year and other small residential spaces.
I also chose to use this project as an opportunity to learn a new drafting software, Vectorworks. While there was some initial trouble with the learning curve, I came to enjoy using the software and am pleased with the end results.
Was my thesis the best time to try something completely new? Maybe not. But it allowed me to learn more than I could have by sticking to what I know.
The project as a whole grew into something completely different than I initially anticipated. The original goal was for this to be more of a community service oriented project, creating a concept for a Learning Commons that would be more financially feasible for the district. These restraints, along with those required by the current use of the space allowed little room for innovation and would have resulted in an underwhelming thesis. I still do hope that some of the ideas proposed can be implemented, even if in a more simplified way.