In time for the final exam study crunch, brightly colorful and hard-to-miss group study tables are ready for action thanks to the creativity and hard work of College of Architecture and Urban Studies students. 

Before the pandemic, Newman Library buzzed with students during finals week. Many students reserved group study rooms, built study forts on the second and fourth floors with moveable whiteboards, and used the technology enhanced group study tables to finish final projects.

Bob Pillow, assistant director for user services for the University Libraries, knew that wasn’t possible during the pandemic and searched for ways for students to come together again in the library while maintaining physical distancing.

“After reading an article in the Virginia Tech Daily e-newsletter, I was impressed by the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ commitment to preserving the physical studio experience for students as much as possible,” said Pillow. “I thought we needed to find a way to do something like that here in the library.”

Pillow walked over to Cowgill and Burchard Halls to check out the group work tables in the college’s studios and saw them bustling with activity and collaboration. The see-through plexiglass dividers gave students an opportunity to see each other and work together.

He reached out to Enric Ruiz-Geli, professor of practice in the School of Architecture + Design, in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Ruiz-Geli was immediately receptive to the project and the opportunity to provide students another living lab project.

“This was an opportunity for our students to take an active role in overcoming challenges in the pandemic,” said Ruiz-Geli. “We want to show students that it is possible to be active, to search for solutions and to be an architect activist. The students looked at air circulation, social distancing structure and how they could reduce risk by changing spaces and the working environment.”

Ruiz-Geli said that students gain so much more through learning by doing. Eight students took active roles in the experiential learning project including budget and project management, scheduling, concepting, milestone development, and final construction. 

“When our students understand the holistic approach as a designer, project manager, builder, they are more empowered. They will be unstoppable,” said Ruiz-Geli.

Once the memorandum of understanding was created and signed between the University Libraries and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the project had a budget and timeline. The group study tables now on the second and fourth floors of Newman Library took seven weeks to complete, from concept to installation. 

Fifth-year architecture student and project lead, Chris Tucker, was excited that the library saw what he and his fellow students did in Cowgill Hall and wanted to do something similar in the library.

This project was different from working in their own college on Cowgill and Burchard’s studio spaces. The University Libraries was a true client and partner, provided them a budget and a timeline. The budget not only purchased materials for the project but also paid students for their expertise and hard work. The students had to provide solid results and work through challenges along the way. 

Tucker and his student team members ran into challenges during the design and construction process. “Building doesn’t go as smoothly as it appears in drawings,” said Tucker. “I’ve learned that in class we stayed in precise drawings and when you take it to construction in reality, you’re working with imperfect materials. So you need some wiggle room in what you design when you take it to the site. The tables were not level and the plexiglass wasn’t exactly square.” 


Four students work together to assemble colorful plexiglass table dividers.
College of Architecture and Urban Studies students assemble group study tables in Newman Library. Photo by Ryan Young for Virginia Tech.

The student designers made use of tables the library already had. The students decided not to  drill into the library’s tables or deface any surfaces, so they researched 3D printing techniques for plexiglass connectors and joints. 

Chiravi Patel, a fifth-year architecture and building construction double major became involved because of her experience with 3D design and printing. She was also a part of the student group that created the collaboration desks in Cowgill and Burchard. She remembers the first thing that came to mind when planning the library project — the sheer weight of the plexiglass dividers.

“The first thing we thought about was supporting the weight of the plexiglass sheets. Although the plexiglass is only an eighth of an inch thick, the length of the sheets makes a unique situation where the weight is distributed over a very thin surface area when mounted to the tables,” said Patel. “This also came into great consideration when designing the joint because the plexiglass wanted to wobble. This material with an increased span is fairly flimsy but also when tensioned can crack under pressure. We had to design a joint that would look sleek but also withstand the weight of the plexiglass.”

Just like most projects, there was an element of trial and error.

“Once we had one set of connections printed and were assembling one pod, we really began to understand where our weak spots were in our design and had to be quick on our feet to come up with modifications to the design to ensure that the design would work,” said Patel. 

Ruiz-Geli said his students’ understand the need for these types of collaborative spaces, since they use them for group work. When students are able to see their creations being used as they were intended, it brings home the lessons learned in the process.

Tucker has visited the library to see how the modified furniture is being used by students and reflects on the project. “It was complicated at times,” said Tucker. “But it feels good. Already, students are using them the way I envisioned. I saw them sitting across from each other, talking through the plexiglass while discussing whatever they were working on. You always have that worry, are they going to use it? They are using it!”

Patrons can’t miss the bright orange and pink plexiglass walls of the divided group work desks. “People are drawn to the colors. They seem to glow and are inviting,” added Tucker.

University faculty, staff, and students along with the general public can reserve the tables through the library’s online seat reservation system. Pillow expects that these tables will be in demand during finals week, throughout the summer and into the fall semester.

“Who knows when we will be able to say we’ve reached a point that is after the pandemic, but right now we’re assuming these will be needed for group study through the summer, possibly through the calendar year. After that we’ll see,” said Pillow. “The beauty of the design is that it is quite flexible. Going forward, the collaboration desks could be broken up and rearranged into different configurations, or left pretty much as they are but converted into individual study spaces.”

Pillow said it would even be possible to configure the tables to their pre-pandemic state.

“I couldn’t be happier with the creativity and inventiveness shown with the final product,” said Pillow. “Even more so because it doesn’t have to be final, we can continue to adapt them in the future.”

The student group is sharing the design file with the library in case they want to build more. Ruiz-Geli said even though the project is completed it is not finished. 

“We plan to continuously gather data and continue this project through iteration and improvement and use this as a lesson in how to  build resiliency in design,” said Ruiz-Geli. “The future is open.”

By Ann Brown