DALI Lab earns architecture award

by Abigail Mihaly | 2/16/18 2:15am

by Abigail Mihaly / The Dartmouth

When the Digital Arts, Leadership and Innovation Lab decided to move into a new space in the basement of Sudikoff Lab last year, the space needed a makeover — it needed an architectural design that reflected and encouraged the creative culture of DALI. Studio Nexus Architects and Planners, a small firm in White River Junction, took on the challenge in fall 2015. The firm was recently recognized for their work by the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“[DALI wasn’t] looking for just a typical classroom renovation,” Studio Nexus principal Doug Sonsalla said. “They were looking for something more inspiring.”

Studio Nexus won a Citation Award, courtesy of the New Hampshire AIA, on Jan. 5, recognizing a small building designed by a small firm. Studio Nexus believed the DALI Lab design stood out and applied for the design award, according to Jim Wassar, another Studio Nexus principal.

The prize is awarded based on “aesthetics, clarity, creativity, appropriate functionality, sustainability, building performance, and appropriateness with regard to fulfilling the client’s program,” according to the New Hampshire AIA website.

“We thought this was a really good project that had a lot of creativity,” Sonsalla said.

Wassar said the firm felt confident about the award. The principals believed they had found the right amount of creativity, without going “overboard,” in a way that made the space work, he said.

The DALI Lab officially moved to its new location in September 2016.

DALI co-founder and executive director and computer science professor Lorie Loeb explained that in its new location, the lab wanted to create a space that reflected the kind of work DALI students do.

“When we think about the architecture of a space, you think about how it contributes to the work that’s being done, and the overall culture of the space,” Loeb said. “So for this lab, it needed to be a place where people felt inspired and creative, that had a high-tech feel to it, and sort of a start-up vibe.”

The statement accompanying the award on the New Hampshire AIA website echoes this connection between the space and student creativity and innovation.

“With an industrial ‘start-up’ sensibility, the space fosters communication, collaboration and the free exchange of ideas,” the website states.

According to Sonsalla, Studio Nexus used images and themes that reflected the sensibility of artist Salvador Dalí to create this environment of innovation, including the curved lines of Dalí’s iconic mustache and famous melting clocks.

“Taking those two surrealistic concepts and bringing them into the space in a creative way that exemplified their mission, which was to be creative and foster students to be creative with their digital arts,” Sonsalla said.

John Kotz ’19 has been involved with DALI since his freshman year and has worked in both the old and new lab spaces. He said the old space, on an upper floor of Sudikoff, was much smaller and “more rectangular” than the new space. Kotz said meetings in the space were difficult, because of the lack of a distinction between rooms.

Loeb agreed that the old space “got really loud really fast” because of its shape and design, often discouraging groups from meeting in the lab.

In search of a new space after DALI had outgrown its old space, DALI co-founder and director Tim Tregubov saw potential in two first-floor Sudikoff lab spaces. The labs had ceilings as low as seven or eight feet, Tregubov said, and humidity problems that resulted in mold in some places.

“I was looking at it one day and thinking how underutilized it was and how dismal, and I lifted up one of the ceiling tiles … and there was like five feet above it,” he said.

With funding from the computer science department and the dean of the faculty, the transformation began, he said.

Loeb and Tregubov both expressed how much they enjoyed working with Studio Nexus. Tregubov said the firm was able to see things in the space he and Loeb did not know to look for.

“What was great about [Studio Nexus] was they had a good sense of the flow [of people moving through the space],” Loeb said.

For example, the firm built soffits, or eaves, in the ceilings to divide the space into “rooms” and provide visual division between the spaces of the lab. They also created a curved bar area with a similarly shaped soffit in the ceiling above, Tregubov said.

Wassar said he enjoyed working on this architectural project.

“It’s not all the time that we can say projects are fun, and [this one] was,” he said. “It was just a great collaboration and a successful product.”

Kotz said the new lab is “brighter” than the previous one and he has noticed that more students have been utilizing the space.

DALI core member Luisa Vasquez ’18 said the colors, glass and rustic feel make the new lab feel welcoming.

“I think part of design is not being judgmental, and I feel like I’m not being judged in this space,” she said.

Vasquez said DALI has become a community for her during her time at Dartmouth and the popularity of the new space is an important aspect of this community.

In addition to project meetings, Vasquez added that the new DALI space provides a place for homework and DALI work, as well as community building activities like sharing meals or watching the Olympics on high-resolution lab televisions.

Tregubov encouraged students to use the DALI space multiple ways. He said the different sections of the lab are important in encouraging students to create community. For example, the addition of a kitchen is important, since “community is motivated by food.”

As a whole, Sonsalla explained, the lab mirrored a house, with a “living room” area with couches and a TV, a large collaborative table similar to a dining room near the front of the space and the kitchen and “pods,” or smaller study and conference rooms, further in the back.

Vasquez said that the layout of the lab allows for easy peer-to-peer conversation and mentoring, while also allowing space for quiet work.

Loeb said she sees the renovation as successful because of the increase in use of the lab.

“As soon as we moved in here, we were out of space,” she said. “We’d already maxed out our space because the better space meant students really did work in here. We used to have to encourage students to work in the lab — now they want to be here.”