Munson's New Heartbeat

Illustration by Elizabeth Dettmann

The Wallace Center and the Student Alumni Union (SAU) are getting a new neighbor. The Innovation Maker and Learning Complex is a new building that is being designed by a team of students, architects and faculty, led by President Munson. The building is scheduled for construction in Fall of 2022.

A Place for Students to Create and Explore

Neil Hair, executive director of the Innovative Learning Institute and a member of the visioning committee for the new complex, explained what students can look forward to with this project.

"We're looking to supercharge the student experience ... to create a place that is essentially the heartbeat of the university," he said.

The design of the complex is based on freedom, light, transparency and movement, with the main focus on ease of access and free space. It will be open to students of all majors to study, socialize, perform or network — this building is imagined as a buzzing hive of creativity and connection for all.

New facilities will include a black box theater, stages for performance groups, 24/7 open areas for project work, music practice rooms, a recording studio, new dining experiences, state-of-the-art classrooms and central faculty meeting spaces. Everything is designed to be accessible so that a student can walk in and find help immediately.

On top of this, the complex will link the SAU and the library through an improved tunnel system, allowing students to avoid the cold and easily get around campus. James Yarrington, university architect and director of Planning and Design, as well as a chair of the visioning committee for the complex, explained more.

"The whole central campus inside walking system, and the whole west side all the way to the College of Health Sciences, [will be indoors]," he said.

This new construction is RIT's largest capital project to date with a budget of 130 million. Approximately 17.5 million is from Austin McChord's donation from 2017, with the rest coming from fundraising activities and loans.

Many students are concerned about the recent tuition increases and what RIT plans to use the money for; this complex is a part of that increase with some of the money going towards finding and hiring architects and designers. This is part of President Munson's plan to push RIT forward, and a space such as this is only a small part of a larger dream. That being said, with the MAGIC Center that was built last year, already home to many maker's spaces, do we really need a new "heartbeat?"

More Space for All

According to Hair, this building aims to help alleviate RIT's space problem — namely the scattered layout of creative spaces on campus and the severe lack of permanent faculty office space. Many faculty members are given offices away from their colleges, with some even housed in trailers or not housed at all. With this complex, these professors and staff will have a space of their own in the center of campus.

"There is a very real need for the space ... we need to augment the student experience ... we want a place where people feel as though they have almost a second home apart from their college where they can meet as many different people as they can," Hair said.

By consolidating classrooms, music rooms, writing spaces and makers spaces into a central location, the committee hopes to encourage outreach and networking, to help students meet new people that offer different perspectives. Right from the bus stop, students can walk into an always open, welcoming place for all.

As part of this project, the first floors of the SAU and the Wallace Library will be renovated, and until the complex is constructed, the fourth floor of the library will be adjusted to house new faculty offices. As less and less books are being checked out from Wallace, the library is shifting more towards a study space. So, some of the less popular books on the top floors will be shipped out to Building 99.

"[We] did an extensive usage analysis of the circulating books from the fourth and third floor ... at least 60 percent of those items had not circulated in the last two years ... we still provide access to them, but they won't be in this building," Director of RIT Libraries Marcia Trauernicht, said.

Trauernicht explained that with the new graduate and Ph.D. programs, it's important to preserve these books while continuing to allow access to students. With this new system, students can click a link and have any of these less popular materials sent to the library from Building 99 for pickup in one business day.

The new space will allow the library to not only create new offices, but also form new collaborative study spaces, exhibits and performance spaces, while enlarging the entire layout to have more visibility of all rooms. When the new complex is up, the library will be reorganized again, bringing some of those abandoned books back home.

The Heartbeat

"Heartbeat" is a strange term for a building, especially as it labels the complex as essential. Many students are confused about why this project is happening now. Currently, the fifth most signed PawPrints petition is "Losing the Fourth Floor of Our Library to Faculty Offices is Unacceptable," with 1138 signatures.

The committee has been working with Student Government President Bobby Moakley and seven other student committee members to learn more about what students want and any concerns for the complex. To talk to students directly, the committee is planning to have more public meetings and gain more information through surveys. As Student Government members shift, the committee will connect and work with the new leaders as well as present regular updates to the public.

It's important to note that this project is still in its early planning stages, with the committee only forming at the end of 2018. Architect selection is ongoing, and while the committee has big ideas for the complex, they are still mostly just ideas. Even the walkway hasn't been designed yet, so it will be a long time before construction begins. Until then, the committee is constantly seeking out more ideas and help with the project.

"Another thing Dr. Munson has said is, 'it's a space where you could get RIT in fifteen minutes.' And that's a high bar challenge, how do you get anything in fifteen minutes?" Yarrington asked.

Whether this place will become the quintessential complex it hopes to be or not, the Innovation Maker and Learning Complex is a massive project that hopes to give students new resources by Fall of 2022.