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Reaching Consensus

Reaching Consensus

Master planning a new library on campus.

Today's academic library is not only a place of formal learning, but also a hub for the informal learning that increasingly is taking place outside classrooms. On many campuses, the library even is replacing the traditional student union as a campus center and a student magnet. Emblematic of an institution's aspirations and values, the library is a major asset for attracting high-caliber faculty and students, as well as a focus of alumni and donor support. And, at the same time that today's library must be designed for a seamless integration of print and digital media, the unprecedented pace of technological change demands that it possess flexibility to meet future needs.

Given the magnitude and multi-faceted nature of these challenges, many institutions planning a new or expanded library project seek to involve a broad spectrum of stakeholders with diverse perspectives and expertise. To manage such a process from vision to reality, an institution can benefit by collaborating with a design firm versed in an open process, as well as in library program and design.

Feasibility study phase

A typical building project undergoes four phases: schematic design, design development, construction documentation and construction administration. On occasion, a feasibility study phase precedes the schematic design phase. For a complex library project, the feasibility study phase often is the most critical step. During this period, key issues pertaining to the library and the campus are explored, and the team sets a direction for the course of the project. At this point, it is helpful to reach out to stakeholders, as well as the larger campus community. In order to create a consensus-based decisionmaking framework, a school or university should bring together a cross-section of the community, help them gain a deeper understanding of issues, and then empower them to make smart choices.

An architect team begins by “designing the process,” customized to fit each institution's unique culture. A schedule that outlines a series of campus events is developed as the work plan for the phase. The pace is deliberately aggressive to generate excitement and maintain momentum. The work plan should be flexible and anticipate ongoing adjustments and refinements. What remains constant is a focus on three central themes in project feasibility:

  • Master plan: Understanding the opportunities and parameters inherent in a site and exploring the appropriate architectural response.

  • Town hall meetings

  • Program: Determining the nature and size of various library functions within the building.

  • Budget: Managing the institution's financial resources to ensure that the project culminates into the best possible library for the money.

When an architect is selected for a library project, a library program usually is in place. The new program, however, frequently represents a re-creation of the existing library program and facility, albeit with more generous sizes and improvements. A significant library project — a new construction or a renovation — represents a unique opportunity to aspire to the best library possible, within the confines of the institution's physical, time and budget parameters.

To get the feasibility study phase jump-started, a school or university may decide to hold a couple of town hall meetings. This is the ideal way to hear from a large number of stakeholder groups. In a large institution, an online questionnaire before the first town hall meeting can reach many constituents. It serves to advertise the upcoming event and to engage the larger segment of the campus population who may not attend.

For example, the agenda for an initial town hall meeting might reflect the following:


  • Presentation 1: Current Trends in Academic Libraries

    A scholar/teacher in library science or a library director from another institution would be the principal speaker. He or she would present the most innovative ideas and showcase recently completed library projects.

  • Presentation 2: Current Trends in Information Technology (IT)

    An IT consultant with expertise in applying cutting-edge technology and communication infrastructures for libraries and information/learning commons is ideal. If possible, an institution's own technology expert also should present.

  • Presentation 3: Case Studies

    An architect showcases projects to illustrate design issues, and ranges of approach, solutions and styles.

  • Forum: LEED and Campus Sustainability

    An architect, a sustainable-design consultant and an institution's own sustainability director can lead this discussion. The focus is on the institution's sustainability goals and related design opportunities for the project.

The agenda for a second town hall meeting might include group activities, such as:

  • Exercise 1: Define an Institutional Vision for the Library

    Sample questions: What are some of the special characteristics of this campus? Which building, space or outdoor area do you like most on campus and why? What does the library represent or symbolize on this campus? What should it represent in the future?

  • Exercise 2: Set Project Goals

    Sample questions: What do you see yourself doing in the building? Which activities, both academic and social, would you want to engage in within and immediately outside the library? How could the library programs and services help you to do those?

  • Exercise 3: Prioritize the Wish List

    The list of goals articulated and prioritized is an important tool used during the process. For the duration of the project, well beyond the feasibility study phase, these goals serve as the framework for evaluating competing interests or needs.


The agenda for each succeeding community event will shift the focus from the most general to the more specific as the project advances further into the feasibility study phase. The number of participants also is adjusted to facilitate the more narrowly focused agenda. The second set of exercises, organized around hands-on workshops, usually involves a working group — consisting of users (students and faculty), staff and other members of departments (facilities, IT, student and academic services) — and by invitation, a number of other campus stakeholders. The working group's size and makeup usually depend on an institution's size, as well as a project's complexity.

For example, the agenda for the first working group meeting might consist of:

  • A Presentation: Master Plan and Project Site

    The focus is on site-related topics and may include the size of a site, its relationship to important campus attributes (such as space, landmark, view, historic building), and vehicular, pedestrian and service access needs.

  • A Hands-on Workshop: Site and Massing Exercise

    Groups of participants (usually 10 to 15 per group) gather around a large “map” of the project site area and are provided with an equal number of blocks, markers and other props. Each team “designs” the library exterior massing using the blocks and indicates entry points, outdoor spaces, the loading dock, roads, paths, parking, etc. on the map. Each team presents its design to the group for discussion.

The second working group meeting might include the following presentations and workshop:

  • Presentation 1: Existing Building Assessment — Limitations and Opportunities

    In the case of a renovation, the architect and engineers review the building's structure, floor-to-floor height, condition of systems (heating, cooling, plumbing, fire protection, IT, etc.), building envelope, and major building code and ADA requirements.

  • Presentation 2: Reading Architectural Drawings 101

    The architect pins up sample drawings to illustrate graphic symbols and conventions, and reviews the architectural jargon and terminologies. The project schedule, the goals for each phase and the design process also are explained.

  • Presentation 3: Cost Estimating 101

    The construction manager (CM) or the estimator on the design team explains the basic elements of budget management and the budget-related issues for the project. He or she also defines terms such as construction cost, project cost, contingencies and escalation.

  • Hands-on Workshop: Organization of Library Programs and Amenities

    Participants again are grouped into teams of 8 to 14. Each team is supplied with color boards representing different library programs (e.g., stacks, compact shelving, information commons, reader spaces, librarian stations, 24/7 public areas), scissors, tape and paper cups (to raise the pieced boards to represent different levels). Participants decide how much and in which configuration each program should be arranged on each floor, how these levels might be arranged vertically, and where the entrance(s) and other important building elements should be situated. Then each team presents and explains its “program” objectives.

Clearly, the workshop format can address a range of topics; it might focus only on a single level of the library. It is important to note that the purpose of a workshop is not to advance a solution or an answer. Instead, the workshop is an effective vehicle through which participants can gain a better understanding of the issues, parameters and tradeoffs involved. The result is an elevated level of discourse. For the architect, it also is an efficient tool for communicating and gathering a large amount of information and feedback. It also tends to be a fun, memorable experience for participants. In workshops that include the wider campus community such as alumni and trustees, the interest and enthusiasm generated inherently translate to support and buy-in with the project.

Working meetings

Different configurations of a building can have varying effects on the adjacent campus fabric. At the same time, the massing and configuration of a building have enormous implications for how a program can be accommodated, and the cost of a building reflects size, configuration and major design features. In other words, the master plan, the program and the budget are intertwined and must be considered together within the feasibility study phase.

While the community and working group activities are taking place, and the participants are gaining more sophisticated understanding of the key concepts and issues related to the project and the process, the architect will begin to generate conceptual diagrams. Initially simple, and increasingly more detailed, massing models representing the library's rough three-dimensional characteristics are studied in the context of a master plan strategy. Each model represents a specific square footage for the library and captures the salient design features such as an atrium, a tower, or the use of glass. Conceptual floor plans accompany each model, illustrating the sizes, locations and adjacencies of the major program elements. The team also produces an estimate for each concept option.

The design team (consisting of architects, engineers, estimator and others) and the working group attend a series of working meetings, maintaining the pace set at the start of the feasibility study phase. The design team presents options for the design, the program and cost strategies to the working group.

The next step is for the design team and the working group to review, analyze, quantify and evaluate the concept models. The list of goals — a product of the earlier town hall meeting — serves as the yardstick for comparisons and as the guidepost to ensure that the project does not stray from its established objectives. Although the process might require multiple iterations, by the completion of the feasibility study phase, this collaborative approach will produce a consensus-based design direction — one that not only meets the master-plan challenges, but also adheres to the project budget.

Jahan, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal with the GUND Partnership, Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at (617)577-9600.

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