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Celebrating the Challenge of Difficult Spaces

This project at Villanova University celebrates the premise that the most sustainable buildings are the new ones that don’t get built. Reusing existing buildings is a more sustainable strategy, but these tricky transformations can test even creative architects on their problem-solving skills. In this extreme example of “using what you’ve got,” CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc. converted two floors of bunker-like book stacks into spacious new headquarters for the campus Public Safety operation.

Public Safety and its staff of 75 had been headquartered in a 100-year-old, former house on campus. Especially after Villanova transitioned about 19 Public Safety officers into a Campus Police force in 2016, the old building was no longer sufficient for the Department’s new direction. Meanwhile, in sprawling Garey Hall, most of one wing had been abandoned when the Law Library moved with the Law School into a shiny new building in 2009. Villanova administrators needed to know whether the very active Public Safety office could fit and function effectively on two dark, claustrophobic floors. So the CICADA team was called in to investigate what might be possible.

The limitations of the space were as obvious as the hundreds of left-behind books still sitting on the shelves. These forbidding chambers were designed to hold books, not people. In the 1950s when Garey Hall was built, only librarians ventured bravely into the stacks to retrieve books for students who requested them. When the stacks later opened to students, the very low ceilings, tight spaces and lack of light led to a confined and dreary environment. What to do? CICADA determined that simply stripping out the floor between the two stack levels would not leave enough space to accommodate Public Safety’s needs. So a plan emerged to strip out a core rectangle of floor to create a new “atrium” of space with a higher ceiling for the most active, “people” operations. A new entrance from the lower level now welcomes staff and students into a light-filled lobby, waiting and reception area. The opened-up core also hosts the Parking Office, Lost and Found, Communications with its electronic equipment, and a large Roll Call and Multipurpose Room with audiovisual technology. New walls that define service areas rise only halfway up to the higher ceiling to let light stream in from exterior windows.

Tucked into the lower level surrounding the activity core are spaces for a lunchroom, storage, restrooms, mechanical equipment, interview and records rooms. On the upper “mezzanine” level, the relentless grid of the Public Safety showed off its new, more functional office with an Open House for students in 2016. Transforming difficult spaces is never easy, and some may even say it can’t be done. But the architects at CICADA relish any opportunity to prove that innovative and sustainable design can be delivered, even in the face of the most vexing challenges. CICADA credits the Project Team for their dedication to the success of the Public Safety transformation: Laura Schmitt, Villanova’s project manager; David Tedjeske, director of Public Safety; AEC, Inc., the MEP/FP engineers; Macintosh Engineering, structural engineers; gBuild, the general contractor, and Matt Wargo, the architectural photographer.