Designing with a Purpose: Architecture Students Propose Acoustic Solutions for AUC Library

Architecture Students
Architecture Students

The AUC Library is filled with pages of information, nooks to work in, and a number of gadgets and resources to help students and faculty in their research and other tasks. But, one aspect where the library still struggles is reducing the noise level in its Learning Commons – the open area you see when you first walk into the library.

It turns out that part of the issue is that the building itself was not sufficiently built with the acoustics required to absorb the many sounds bouncing off every wall on a daily basis. This was the conclusion a group of 10 architecture students made in their design studio when asked to analyze and design a solution to counter the rising noise level of the library plaza.

To tackle the issue, the library went straight to the users themselves – the students – in a new Students as Change Agents initiative in which the library hopes to engage students in projects to enhance the University experience.  “We believe that it is important for any institution to listen to its students,” said Lamia Eid, associate dean of the main library. “They spend long hours in the space and from their perspective, they can recommend solutions and bring about the required change we’re looking for.”

Pinpointing the Problem

Split into three groups, the students took the time to jot down their observations and even surveyed student library users, as well as other stakeholders, to gain a sense of how visitors navigated the plaza space and also understand what everyone wanted for the space.

“The students first freely observed the library, mapping the crowded areas and analyzing the situation to determine the areas most vulnerable to noise,” explained Sherif Abdelmohsen, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, who worked with students on this initiative through his Digital Design Studio and Workshop course.

“The challenge was accommodating all of these kinds of users,” said Nour Ali Kamel, architecture major. “The library incorporates different kinds of activities, and we had to optimize the experience of every user.

Based on their analyses, the students understood that the Learning Commons is used as a social space for many students. “Our Learning Commons invites collaborative work between students, connecting them and building their knowledge, and there are numerous resources and technologies to support their work and research,” said Eid “The students addressed the problem we were suspecting, which is that students on campus don’t have a space like this to hang out together. For them, the library is probably the only closed space that gives warmth in the winter and is cooler in the summer. Other universities have a number of libraries, so you don’t find those large numbers of students all coming into one library at the same time.”

"It was an amazing experience analyzing and looking in depth in a space on campus," said Farida Elsoueni. "The analysis revealed the importance and crucial need for a larger and more interesting indoors social space on campus

Turning Observation into Solutions

The next step was to turn these observations into solutions through architectural design.

The project placed design studio students in a situation similar to one they would face in the market as architects, a situation in which they had to deal with a client with a specific problem or goal in mind. “They had to work on balancing the theoretical or conceptual with market needs, working with practice and theory,” said Abdelmohsen, commenting on the benefit of prompting students to engage with a real issue and design a solution that might actually be implemented.

Each group developed scaled models as well as a one-to-one full-scale model highlighting a partial area of the intervention to demonstrate their proposed designs in more detail. These physical models were also complemented by digital simulations. “Every part of the design had to have a purpose,” added Abdelmohsen, describing how students were evaluated during their presentations.

Each group developed a unique and innovative design that functioned in different ways to resolve the issue of noisiness. All of the projects involved the design of ceiling-mounted elements to absorb sound, where the objective was to treat noise in a way that does not obstruct general circulation and visual connectivity. “Our design was basically a ribbon that flows inside the library, isolating the places that need to be isolated, acting as an insulation for the spots that we discovered were the noisiest,” said Kamel, introducing her project.


The Real Client Experience

During the presentation, students addressed a jury of various stakeholders, including Abdelmohsen; Eid; Ahmed Sherif, chair of the Department of Architecture; Hassan El-Fawal, dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering; members of the Provost Council; architecture faculty; and Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman.

“For me, it was very exciting to know that those people would attend,” said Kamel. “Every jury that we have usually has architecture professors from our department. It was nice to hear comments from outside of the field. It was more like real life. I think it was a useful experience because we got to work on things that had an actual cause and reason. We had to use our knowledge to make a change.”

Similar to a real-world experience with a client, the future architects in the design studio received feedback and had to consider comments related to the aesthetics and actual use of their designs, in addition to comments from the architecture professors on the designs themselves. Provost Abdel-Rahman, former chair of the physics department, even brought in his own twist, interjecting with a few notes that challenged students to consider the physics behind the designs.

“It was a learning experience for both of us and an opportunity for us to work together to address certain needs,” said Eid. “We were both playing both roles – we are the users and the managers of the space and, at the same time, we are the clients. They are also the users and the experts. So both of us were playing a dual role.”

“Interdisciplinary collaboration, hands-on experience and working with real life projects are aspects we are currently giving utmost attention at the Department of Architecture," Abdelmohsen added. "It gives us an edge at AUC that our students are able to understand real world problems, develop their own critical perspective, and work collaboratively with different stakeholders to resolve such problems using innovative methods and tools. This is what makes our students stand out.”

And this project isn’t quite over yet. Eid and the architecture students are still working on discussing the details for the actual implementation of the designs in the library. This is the first of a series of collaborations that the AUC Library hopes to initiate with students of all disciplines at the University.