Learning by Design

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Published in Contract, September 2018

At The University of Utah, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute has been supporting students with startup aspirations by providing grants, advisors, and the ability to realize ideas into prototypes at no cost. But when the institute celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2012, its administration wanted to take the program to the next level. It became evident that in order to do this, Lassonde needed a physical home base that would unify its participants—who hailed from different majors ranging from business to fine arts—under one roof to spur their productivity. As this called for more than a conventional academic building or residence hall, the program and campus housing staffs embarked on a collaboration with CannonDesign and its Yazdani Studio on what would become their own prototype of sorts.

“We had to invent a new typology that, to the best of my knowledge, didn’t exist on other campuses,” says Mehrdad Yazdani, director of the Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign and design principal who led the project. The team concluded that creativity and innovation could flourish in an environment that blurred the lines of “where I sleep, where I make, and where I meet,” Yazdani says. Thus, the five-story Lassonde Studios—a combination school dormitory and startup incubator—was born.

Pushing the envelope

Even before stepping inside, visitors note that Lassonde Studios doesn’t resemble a typical campus building. Its irregular, asymmetrical form is something between a “K” and an “X” shape with slightly sinuous copper-clad walls flanking each of the wings. This enticing material references both Utah’s copper mines and institute benefactor, Pierre Lassonde’s role in the mining industry. The remaining walls of the envelope are either glazed or clad with light-beige brick. The palette complements the existing brick, glass, and metal buildings on the campus yet also distinguishes the building with its different colorations.

The peculiar shape “was inspired by the location of South Salt Lake embraced by the mountain range,” Yazdani says. “The wings create a sense of a canyon.” The copper will patinate—another reason for its selection. Its transformation from weathering will make Lassonde Studios “a dynamic building that changes with time, which is a true reflection of what the building stands for,” Yazdani adds.

Lessons in networking

Upon entering the ground floor from ,any of several entrances, students and visitors encounter raw interiors of exposed ceilings and concrete floors with patches of carpet tile in select spots. A cafe component and diverse array of seating areas—made up of colorful, movable lounge furniture—allows students to interact how and wherever they wish in a non-institutional setting. Much like a co-working space, there are also ample open desks and nine enclosed offices, the latter of which are awarded to students for a full semester to run their startups and meet with clients.

But the main attraction of the ground level is the “Garage.” Inspired by the successful entrepreneurs who started in their own garages (such as Apple’s Steve Jobs), the Garage is a 24/7 makerspace staffed by students. Work tables, a woodshop, metal shop, 3D printer room, tools, and materials are all free to use without a reservation or advanced order, making it effortless for anyone to walk in and start prototyping a concept, sew a loose button, or make a personalized trunk sticker. “We really try to enable students to do things without a lot of interference from us,” says Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the institute. “We try to get out of their way.”

Responding to the school’s desire to engage the rest of the campus with this building, CannonDesign glazed the Garage from floor to ceiling. The makerspace activities pique curiosity in the minds of passersby who, regardless of major or enrollment status, can utilize the Garage resources and ground-floor lounge spaces too.

The four residential floors above encourage interaction while displaying individualism through unique themes. Stepping of the elevator, residents of every floor arrive at a central lobby with glazing that affords natural light and campus views. Equipment, graphics, finishes, and furnishings in these lobbies convey the floor’s theme. The design and art level, for instance, features a craft table, sewing machine, and greenscreen photography setup. On the adventure and gear floor, there are stations for waxing skis or repairing bikes, and hammock-like hanging chairs. The gaming and digital media floor boasts a six-player game wall, while the global impact and sustainability floor features a hydroponic garden and giant map for students to pin locations where they want to make an impact.

Accommodations are compact and range from single and double rooms to apartment-like lofts and, the most extreme, suites with 20 sleeping pods (cozy single-bed units furnished with just the essentials such as a wardrobe and TV) that share a common area and full kitchen. All of the sleeping quarters are designed to keep residents from isolating themselves and prod them to utilize the building’s public spaces. Even the laundry room on each residential floor is meant to foster interaction: The washers and dryers are free to use, centrally located, and walled off by glass to promote eye contact that can lead to spontaneous conversation.

The future is now

Demonstrating that it has become the campus destination, Lassonde Studios received more than 1,400 applications for its 400 beds at the end of its second year. But as the program’s needs can turn on . a dime, so can the total number of available beds. The design team future-proofed the building by collocating plumbing and utilities in central cores of each wing as opposed to behind room walls. Meanwhile, room units have taller-than-normal 12-foot ceilings and are arranged around structural bays. These simple measures ensure that, if the school decides it needs more maker or lounge spaces, it can knock down the rooms’ interior walls without having to rework building infrastructure,. It’s indicative of a design that is as forward-thinking as the innovative entrepreneurs it caters to.