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Getting creative with college space

CAUS faculty and students explore new venues and opportunities for instruction

From familiar spaces made new to resourceful collaborations, faculty are maximizing important face-to-face opportunities in ways that are both safe and impactful for students. The new dome, reconfigured studios, and the broader Virginia Tech campus are providing the college with room to grow during COVID-19.

Students in Stefan Al’s studio discuss their projects during a pin-up in the dome. The newly assembled dome is just one of several new approaches faculty and staff are taking to get together safely this fall. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

The skyline of the Virginia Tech’s north campus has experienced a dramatic change recently – and it happened in less than 48 hours.

Standing out in stark contrast to the familiar façade of Cowgill Hall, a bright white, 2,900-square-foot geodesic dome now bridges the gap to Bishop-Favrao Hall and adds a futuristic aura to its Hokie Stone surroundings. As part of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ COVID-19 action plan, the dome will provide additional space to host faculty teaching, student pin-ups, and small gatherings into the spring 2021 semester.

The structure will not only serve as a temporary substitute for several instructional rooms in Cowgill that now house socially-distanced studio desks, but it will also be open to students and faculty across the college who are looking for flexible space solutions.

“We’re at a crucial moment because of COVID-19,” said Enric Ruiz- Geli, a professor of practice in the architecture program who also serves as the college’s director of space. “We want to show how architecture and design – in combination with our focus on experiential learning – can be driving forces in this fight. The dome not only provides a temporary solution to a big space issue, but it’s also a learning opportunity for students across the college.”

Left: The dome was assembled in less than 48 hours with help from a professional crew from the manufacturer, Pacific Domes. Right: Enric Ruiz-Geli discusses on-site assembly with a crew member. Photos by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

The dome’s many pieces and materials arrived on campus in late October, and the structure was assembled in just a few days thanks in part to the help of a professional team from manufacturer Pacific Domes. The university’s Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities took over from there, installing the floors and providing lights and electricity.

In addition to these amenities, the dome also boasts a large skylight that brings in natural brightness as well as heat. Air circulation is provided by several fans around the structure’s exterior and three large openings, allowing for cross ventilation. Similar to other tents on campus, the openness of the structure serves as its primary temperature and humidity control.

The dome’s polyhedral design also means it will be able to withstand very heavy loads for its relative size – including any snow or ice accumulation during the winter months.

“Basically, students will get the benefit of being outdoors, but they’ll also be protected from the elements,” said Ruiz-Geli, adding the dome can host up to 25 people with proper social distancing.

Students will also realize other benefits from the structure, including the opportunity to make improvements – like designing skins for its exterior made of new materials, or perhaps adding graphics to the existing white vinyl skin.

The change of scenery doesn’t hurt, either, said architecture student Hannah Elias. “Being in the dome really makes you rethink your work because you’re seeing it in a different light and from different angles,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how my work is changing based on how the space is changing.”

For Elias and other students enrolled in studio courses, the dome also provides a welcome venue for both formal and informal discussions about their projects.

“Especially in architecture, the soul of our major is being able to work with people,” she said. “I thrive on being able to interact with others and have those constant critiques. This new space is refreshing for everyone.”

First-year architecture student Carley Parsons works at her studio desk in Cowgill Hall. The School of Architecture + Design ensured that in-person studio courses would be held this year by reexamining school facilities, spacing out studio desks, and implementing other controls like colorful Plexiglass barriers. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

Standing up for studio culture

As an incoming first-year architecture student, Carley Parsons had heard the stories: Studio is a lot of fun, but it can also consume your life.

When she toured the Virginia Tech campus last year as a high school student, Parsons had several opportunities to speak with current students about their experiences in the School of Architecture + Design’s five-year professional architecture program – and about studio culture in particular.

“The expectation was that my schedule would revolve around studio,” said Parsons. “But I also understood that it’s kind of like a rite of passage. Yes, you spend a lot of time there, but it’s also a great experience. You’re working on projects that you really enjoy and forming this tight social network with your studio mates. It’s the backbone of your program.”

When COVID-19 caused a shift in the university’s fall plans, with some classes adopting hybrid or online-only modes of instruction, Parsons wasn’t sure what to expect for her foundation program design lab, a studio-based course required for all first-year design students.

Fortunately, school faculty and staff – and even current students – had been working diligently over the summer to preserve the studio experience in Cowgill and Burchard Halls. When Parsons and other students arrived on campus in August, they discovered evenly spaced, socially distanced studio desks placed throughout the buildings, along with colorful Plexiglas barriers and directional signage for traffic flows.

These efforts to safeguard and prioritize the most impactful in-person experiences for students are part of the college’s broader COVID-19 action plan, which allowed for almost 950 studio desks spread out across six buildings. According to Aaron Betsky, director of the School of Architecture + Design, every design student who wanted a studio desk on campus this fall was provided one.

Parsons admits she’s not sure what a normal year in studio courses is supposed to look like, but so far she’s happy with how this semester has unfolded.

“It’s not as different as I thought it would be,” she said. “Students are still spending a lot of time at their desks, and older students are making an effort to come up and talk to us about our work. They’re really trying to make this first year a positive experience for us despite the limitations.”

Parsons has also enjoyed the freedom to pursue a variety of design choices through her projects, something she says foundation program chair Chris Pritchett encourages.

“Some people enjoy structure and a rubric, but I love the program’s emphasis on exploration,” she said. “How we design is really up to us. There’s nothing cookie cutter about it.”

Ninoska Bertran-Turcios, a student in Amanda Lechner’s Topics in Painting class, works independently during an in-person session at Hahn Horticulture Garden. Lechner is an assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts and also is one of several faculty members in the school who are utilizing the garden this semester for their painting and drawing classes. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

A breath of fresh air

In a semester like no other, students and faculty are finding new ways to appreciate small victories that can make a big difference in the classroom. Sometimes those simple victories emerge as fresh air, warm sunshine, and beautiful fall colors.

Hiromi Okumura, a collegiate assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts, knows these small victories all too well. As an art, design, and drawing instructor, she wanted to provide as many meaningful in-person experiences for her students as possible this semester, especially since she knew many classes had adopted a hybrid or online-only approach due to COVID-19.

And what could be a better venue for in-person art classes than the university’s own Hahn Horticulture Garden?

“On sunny days, we’re definitely going to Hahn,” said Okumura of her Drawing for Non-Majors course, which would be held in the Armory Building studios during a typical year. “The garden itself is just amazing. There are so many textures and colors happening right now, which are perfect for learning. Drawing is really based on what you see and the process of bringing those details to the paper.”

Okumura is one of many faculty members in CAUS who are getting creative with how they approach and use space in light of COVID-19 this semester. In an effort to increase these options for faculty, the college even made an agreement with the Town of Blacksburg to use the covered pavilions at the Blacksburg Farmers Market as open-air classroom space.

Left: Hiromi Okumura (pictured during an outdoor class at Hahn) and other faculty members are getting creative with how they approach and use space in light of COVID-19 this semester. Right: Okumura’s students enjoy the Garden Pavilion patio during an outdoor class. Photos by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

For Okumura, the opportunity to meet for a class out in the harmony of nature doesn’t just make for a rich instructional experience and great artwork. She also realized that many students needed a way to connect with one another outside of virtual exchanges.

“We’re in a very isolating situation,” she said. “It can be hard for students to meet new people, to have little chats or other personal interactions. I think small conversations can make a big difference. I know they help my day, and I hope they help students, too.”

Kevin Flint, an undergraduate student majoring in computer engineering, couldn’t agree more. He took Okumura’s class this semester as a way to balance out a course load heavy in math and physics with a focus on machine learning.

“Within the broader context of what’s going on in the world right now, it’s been great to have a class outside where we can be with other people safely,” said Flint.

His art class with Okumura is one of only a few that regularly meet in person this semester and has become a highlight for that reason. “It’s such a relaxing class to be in,” he said. “It’s more than just a break from looking at a screen; it’s kind of like therapy. Just getting out and studying the environment around you and incorporating that into what we’re learning – it’s a huge stress reliever.”

The class has not only helped Flint explore the creative overlap between engineering and art, as he had hoped, but it also introduced him to the Hahn Horticulture Garden, a place on campus he’d never been before.

There have been important moments of discovery for Okumura, too. She plans to bring her art students to the garden for many semesters to come, regardless of COVID-19. “That’s a must from now on,” she said.

– Written by Emily Roediger