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Q&A With Phase Zero Design's Matt Wittmer


Bringing the college library into the 21st century requires vision and careful planning. When American International College needed to renovate its campus library in Springfield, MA, it tapped Phase Zero Design for the project.  

The team reimagined the library, not as a mere structure to house books or a place for quiet self-study, but as a digitized forum for collaboration. Bisnow sat down with Phase Zero principal Matt Wittmer to learn how he gave this ‘60s-era facility a much-needed face-lift and repurposing.

According to Matt, spaces like the one he and his team created are more vital and relevant to today's student bodies than ever before.  

He's achieved what some considered impossible—delivering a state-of-the-art, technologically sophisticated, integrated library that simultaneously combats a campus culture that favors FaceTime over genuine face time—by fostering real interaction complemented by technology.

Bisnow: What was the goal of the renovation for AIC?

Matt: AIC wanted a couple of things. First and foremost, they wanted the library to impress, and possess that elusive “wow factor.” The building's one of the key places that prospective students and their parents see on their campus tours. It is also very important to parents, who envision their children spending hours there diligently studying and researching. Improvements would attract applicants and help current students cultivate a sense of school pride, energizing them after summer break.


The university also wanted a library that supported a collaborative and interactive work environment. AIC was looking for a low-scope renovation with a focused budget, designed and delivered within a very short timeline. Our team worked with them on a plan that maximized return per dollar, and we did all this mostly by manipulating finishes and furniture within the existing building layout.

Bisnow: Why was collaborative and intersective environment so important to AIC?

Matt: In the coming years the student body will be comprised mostly of Generation Z students. They are described as over-connected virtually, with electronic media, but under-engaged when it comes to vital face-to-face communication. The goal was to design a library that would get the students to put down their devices for a while, and be more interactive.


Bisnow: How do you promote this type of collective engagement in a space like a library?

Matt: There are a number of strategies to create an environment that supports collaboration. One of the things we considered was flexible seating, with technology offered at each seat, which creates a customizable experience for each student.

We also included bookable boxes, conference space provided by movable furniture systems. A student can reserve a glass conference room for a period of time and have a group of up to eight students come together, with a high level of technological integration crucial for completing assignments nowadays.

We also wanted to encourage students using the library to stay there longer. This vision is clearly reflected in our design. For example, we brought a café into the library so that healthy snacks and cups of coffee are readily available.

We also implemented a major change to the resource desk. Instead of resource librarians being stationary, they are now mobile, offering help to students at their seats, almost like a mobile hotel concierge. That way they don't have to leave the library or abandon their peers, which would disrupt their learning experience.


Bisnow: How did you make the library more of an experience for its users?

Matt: We definitely kept this objective in mind throughout the design process, since Generation Z is often described as the most experience-oriented generation. One way we enriched the environment is through what we call "bridges," as in creating links to other places.

The Springfield Museum has a wonderful display of Indian motorcycles, so we arranged to bring in a couple and install them around the facility. That fantastic aspect generates interest in the library, but also an understanding of what's in the neighborhood beyond the campus.

Ultimately the idea of a traditional library that in the past supported very specific functions has been transformed into a new Learning Commons that is far more of a magnet to the entire campus. 

In a separate room we've added a lot of flags, not only for the aesthetic appeal, but also because flags represent the sizable foreign population at the school. Students are from all parts of the world, united at this college and in this building. We've also put in a very focused, high-tech center for financial learning.


Bisnow: That’s intriguing. What's its purpose?

Matt: The Center for Financial Literacy will be used, in part, to support a course that every undergraduate student takes as part of the AIC Plan for Excellence (APEX), a comprehensive four-year program that through academic coursework and co-curricular opportunities helps to develop a solid foundation for lifelong personal and professional success.

The course teaches students some basic fundamentals of personal finances, touching on areas that include budgeting, student loans and debt management—all those bits of financial knowledge that will better prepare them for life’s financial challenges.

The Center for Financial Literacy actually occupies a highly visible balcony space, so students see the class in session, and get excited about taking it themselves.

Bisnow: Do you worry that the new design will look dated or obsolete in a few years?

Matt: We installed new furniture and flooring, and repainted, while upgrading the lighting and technology. In three to five years, AIC can change the furniture, move these demountable partitions, pick a new paint color, redo some of the flooring, and make the space look completely different and reinvigorated.

That's one of things we hope to achieve—flexibility for the space, so that it doesn't become stale. And if the school finds that some things work better than others, they can allocate more resources to them—upgrade the café, or add more bookable boxes, or whatever else the students want.

The space can adapt to support the students' evolving needs, rather being a static space to which the students have to conform, which is what libraries traditionally provide. Our approach is different.