When the University of Washington’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library opened in 1972, the design by acclaimed Seattle architect Paul Hayden Kirk gave students a bountiful 165,000 square feet of space for study and research. Four decades later, however, the Brutalist building had become outmoded, lacking the kind of flexible, high-tech, light-filled spaces needed by a 21st-century university. Yet rather than tear it down, the university tasked The Miller Hull Partnership, based in Seattle, to complete a more sustainable solution: a transformative renovation that would bring Odegaard into the future.
One of nine projects to win an American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2014 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture, the Odegaard project began with the client and design firm establishing a set of learning behaviors that the renovated building needed to support: active learning, discovery of collection, consultation, prototyping, informal learning, individual study, and production. Libraries, after all, are no longer just places to check out books or study individually; they are places to gather for interactive learning and exchange in a variety of configurations.
“For an undergraduate today, you need a variety of spaces,” says Jill McKinstry, the Odegaard Undergraduate Library’s director. “You need space that can help with high-end computing and tech needs, spaces for the creative part of work, and spaces for reflection. Undergrads often like to do their work in parallel. Sometimes they work with others, but other times they find comfort in others doing work around them. A student may use all of those spaces in a particular day.”
Clarifed circulation and improved space utilization
Although the original building was organized around a massive three-story atrium, its interior was surprisingly dark. Instead of a skylight at the top of the atrium, a small band of clerestory windows provided the only natural illumination, but was largely blocked by a crisscrossing central stairway. The renovation included a large skylight and a simpler, more compact staircase that both allowed the atrium to be filled with natural light and added 6,000 square feet of usable space.
“We knew we needed to make the building work in a 21st-century way,” explains Miller Hull Principal Ruth Baleiko, “but we also tried to say, ‘What does this building want?’ We were actually trying to get Kirk’s original diagram to be truer to itself. Replacing that stair clarified the circulation, and it opened it up so one can look through the building in a way that was not possible before.” The original oak stair railings were also re-milled and repurposed as an undulating railing pattern and installed on the ceiling to create a partial diffuser for the atrium light.
Overall, the design increased interior space utilization by 13 percent, an unsurprising figure to anyone who has witnessed the thousands of students utilizing the renovated Odegaard each day. Some occupy scores of computer workstations, while others bring their own laptops, books, or mobile devices to one of many long tables, sofas, and lounge chairs with flexible configurations. “We’ve learned a lot from the students as they’ve rearranged the library so it works for them,” McKinstry says. “It continues throughout the day as they settle in.”
Technology-rich classrooms for team-based learning during the day have sliding glass doors that can be opened so that the rooms have a shared purpose as additional study space. A variety of surfaces encourages learning and navigation. Walls in both classrooms and individual study areas are clad in writable glass to aid visual communication and learning. Different types of individual or group spaces are color-coded in bold primary colors. On the third floor, an interior floor-to-ceiling glass wall encloses a quiet-study area without losing access to the atrium’s natural light.
“This building addresses the whole ecosystem: individual study, group study, formal and informal learning, and having time to reflect and step back from what you’re working on,” Baleiko says. “Every higher ed institution is facing these issues. How can it increase enrollment and increase space without the capitol capabilities or space on campus for it? How does it do that when the building is really jammed? It has to be intuitively functional; everything at Odegaard was designed around achieving or supporting various goals. That’s what makes the solution so rich, with new paradigms for learning.”