Students’ architectural design
modernizes a historic building © May 30, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

The 16 x 16 foot addition to Roxbury Free Library takes shape.

photo by Eric Hobart The 16 x 16 foot addition to Roxbury Free Library takes shape. The addition will house a seating area, window seat, kitchen, and bathroom.

Architecture students at Norwich University in their third and fourth years had the chance to follow concepts out of the classroom and into reality this spring by designing and building an addition to the small, one-room Roxbury Free Library in the village of Roxbury, Vt. What began as a much-needed update became an education for 14 students, who sought to marry innovative architectural approaches with the preservation requirements of a historic building.

The Roxbury Free Library is a classic, New England white-clapboard building in the middle of town. Each area—the children’s corner, computer center, audio books and DVD’s, fiction and non-fiction—is a cozy, well-used space. Nevertheless, it had some serious drawbacks. It lacked easy access for handicapped people, required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In addition, it did not have a restroom or a seating area. So Norwich students took on the challenge of making the library more functional and appealing.

I was impressed with how we were able to compromise and work together, not only to design the library, but also to bounce ideas back and forth and keep developing new ideas.

~ Tara Thomson

Students began brainstorming a design by thinking about their earliest memories of going to the library. They selected design elements that would create a “sense of ceremony,” said Danny Sagan, assistant professor at Norwich and the faculty in charge of the library project. The new handicapped-accessible entrance meets current needs, but it also helps visitors feel as though they are “entering someplace special,” Sagan said.

Patrons didn’t even know the building had a second door until preparations for renovations moved a book shelf out of the way. The back door now serves as the entrance into the new space, designed and partially constructed by Norwich students. In addition, the library now boasts a restroom, a seating area and a window seat, and a kitchen.

“My experience was very educational and extremely fun,” said architect student Tara Thomson. “I was impressed with how we were able to compromise and work together, not only to design the library, but also to bounce ideas back and forth and keep developing new ideas.”

After submitting a preliminary proposal for the 16 x 16 foot addition to the library trustees, the students refined their design based on meetings with the trustees, the town of Roxbury and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, whose approval they needed as part of a grant from the Vermont Arts Council that is helping to fund the addition.

“The students have been optimistic, inventive, and creative,” Sagan said. That said, “Their solutions were often not familiar, which resulted in some [initial] resistance to the design.”

Susan D’Amico, who has been the Roxbury Free Library’s librarian for five years, was surprised at the passionate responses to the design ideas. The most contentious reaction was to a split roofline. Students had a chance, though, to meet with people at a town meeting and explain to them face-to-face that having a high wall and a low wall moves air through the space to cool the library in the summers. In the winters, a split roofline introduces passive solar light, providing natural warmth and better overall lighting.

With permitting and design questions settled, the class was ready to begin hands-on work in March. Seventy four years to the date of the original opening of the library, students began construction. They worked three times a week and sometimes on weekends for almost two months. Some students will even stay into the summer to help finish the project.

Building and managing a project is not something that every U.S. student of architecture has the chance to experience. But Norwich is committed to offering this “opportunity to get hands-on experience” in integrating design and construction, which are equally important aspects of a project, Sagan said.

In this case, for the students, both parts of their efforts—working with the library and townspeople and spending early spring days among rising walls and flowers—was learning at its finest as they helped usher in a new era for the previously one-room building.

“We were able to have fun while still getting our work done,” said Caitlin Davis, a junior in the architecture program and participant in the design-build studio. “We all have learned and gained something from doing this project.”

Their efforts were an education for them, but for the library, it is a considerable gift of time and labor. “I won’t have to make coffee on a chair with an extension cord,” smiled D’Amico. She describes the addition’s final result as a “wonderful, comfortable space that meets the needs of the library.”