Brilliant Learning Space Mash-up: Norlin Commons @ CU Boulder

Boulder, CO. Interesting things were happening at the University of Colorado at Boulder ("CU Boulder"). ITS and the university libraries partnered for an ambitious project: The Norlin Commons, which opened ahead of schedule in July. The good folks at CU Boulder rolled out the welcome mat to show our EDUCAUSE contingent around.

Guests and Tour Guides We met an energetic team of librarians, technologists and planners eager to discuss the fruits of their collective. For nearly half a decade they worked to a) identify key aspects of the current state of student resources within their domain (the Norlin Library); b) articulate the outcomes they wanted students to experience in some future incarnation of the library; c) partner with professional planners and designers to assist with due diligence and to translate their goals into an actionable plan; d) use that plan to seek funding support among their chief constituents (the students themselves).

The result is the Norlin Commons, a splendid mash-up of "mixed-use" and "flexible" zones, where services and beverages intersect at a place where students naturally congregate to get work done, unwind and refuel.

To pinpoint how renovations of Norlin Library would best serve today's campus community, the library conducted a series of student and faculty focus groups and the Norlin Library design team visited other university libraries.

"It is our attempt to create spaces that literally reflect how people work today in solitary, group and project settings," said Jim Williams, dean of libraries in an August interview. 

Commons as "Magnet Space"

Norlin Commons Neighborhoods Phase One of the Norlin Library Renaissance Plan called for creating a student learning commons (Norlin Commons) as a type of "magnet space" to draw in students through better technology and group-work amenities. Students and donors quickly recognized the concept's value, approving a hike in student technology fees and fund-raising efforts that satisfied the project's $5.1M price tag. The project was the first overhaul of the 75-year-old library in more than three decades.

At first blush, The 15,050 square-foot commons appears as a winding menagerie of furniture and technology. A curvy path meanders past glassed-in team rooms and help desk personnel, into diverse regions (the CU folks call them "functional neighborhoods") crafted to meet emerging needs of outside-the-classroom learners. 

Upon entry, a help desk greets students who may choose to check out dual-boot MacBooks. Specific neighborhoods present themselves as project work centers, team learning stations, computer lab, multimedia classroom, cyber cafe, reading areas, writing center, computer teaching lab, "Bug Busters" laptop support center, and team technology rooms. All amenities are available to students 24-hours a day (Fridays and Saturdays until 7 p.m.).

The facility includes a cyber cafe, The Laughing Goat, brewing toasty or frosty beverages and serving up righteous snackage until 2 a.m. on school nights. 

Norlin Commons from library main entranceAs part of the renovation, the original suspended ceiling was demolished to expose the underside of the original pre-cast concrete "honeycomb" of the second floor (first floor ceiling). This structural ceiling, with its conduit, cable trays, sprinkler pipes and ductworks, usually hides behind more formal interior design aesthetics such as a suspended-grid ceiling with removable acoustic tiles. Treating the bare ceiling  as an interior design feature created a sense of vertical openness that offset the close walls and dense furniture placement. 

Ceiling cloud modules enable alternate lighting schemes and visually differentiate neighborhoods. The designers relied heavily upon visual cues (including ceiling features, furniture layout, carpet patterns, lighting, more so than hard wall partitions) to define the bezier curve of paths, walkways and traffic patterns traversing the commons.

A wing with a vaulted beamed ceiling (added circa 1974 in the "alpine ski lodge" motif found everywhere during that period) was converted into more active space (Group Study tables, Hot Topics periodicals, walk-up email stations, and the Laughing Goat cyber cafe). 

A+ for Acoustical Sound-ness

Though we heard from colleagues at EDUCAUSE about unacceptable noise levels in their own institutions' informal learning space, Norlin Commons did not appear to suffer from thi

s defect. Despite the lack of traditional acoustical wall panels, noise did not appear to carry. 

Part of this can be attributed to the asymmetry of the space itself: there are few parallel walls and many uneven surfaces. Much of the credit, however, must go to the designers who optimized the high-traffic / high-noise neighborhoods (cafe, Hot Topics, Group Study) in a cavernous space full of baffles (ceiling beams, partitions, magazine shelves) and absorptive materials (carpet, furniture, people). These passive acoustic features combine to offer noises little opportunity to reverberate and accumulate, which results in an acceptably small amount of ambient noise filtering back into the more quiet neighborhoods.

Facing Cyber Cafe from Hot TopicsFacing Hot Topics from Cyber Cafe (Group Study beyond partition)

Noise generated from discussions and activities in the other neighborhoods lost momentum in the honeycomb structural ceiling, cloud features, curved walls, carpet, and soft furniture. The result is a satisfactory ambient "buzz" of activity, complemented by the breathing of the HVAC. 

With a seating capacity of around 160, peak usage regularly exceeds 200, Norlin Commons is clearly a busy place, but thanks to the care applied to acoustical design, it is not an informal learning space that suffers as a result of its success.

An informal learning space mash-up! The architectural details keep things from feeling cluttered and claustrophobic. Old suspended ceiling removed as part of renovation to expose original pre-cast ceiling/floor. Honeycomb cells and other uneven surfaces help attenuate ambient noise. Light from ceiling squares are actually skylights through roof. Ductwork is insulated internally.

Picture this, share that…

Take a moment to explore following image galleries and slide shows. How does this compare with similar resources at your institution? Are there improvements you'd suggest? What great ideas at Norlin Commons did we miss? Please share your thoughts and comments below and discuss your ideas on the AV-1 Forum.

Laughing Goat Cyber Cafe at Norlin Commons

by Joe Schuch
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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