Inspired by the children’s book The Giving Tree, Overland Intern Coordinator Ben Rosas set out in March to invest in the growth of the firm’s aspiring architects, leading them through a small design-build project of a Little Free Library. Seven interns split into two design groups, and their proposals presented for selection to the project’s donor family. I sat down with each design team to learn more about the origins of their concepts and the design process to date. Today’s post shares insights from one of the intern teams—Brad Schaefer, Lance Brannock, and Jose Lizcano.
What were your initial thoughts when presented with what this project was going to be?
Jose Lizcano: For me, it was something that grew conceptually and poetically. When Ben first came to us, I thought, “Oh, we’re just going to design a cool little library and have books in it.” The project’s story just made it that much more rich. I think knowing that is pretty valuable to us as interns because it causes us to think in a more poetic way, which I feel we sometimes forget. We get so tied up into trying to make something look cool that we forget about who’s using it, who it’s for, and what it means and represents.
Lance Brannock: In terms of the scale, it definitely grew a lot for me. “Little Free Library” makes you think of a little birdhouse on a stick in a front yard. Ben challenged us to think how it could have seating. It could be for multiple people. It has a garden to it. It can be all these things for the community other than just a Little Free Library. Then, throughout the process, other people started getting involved—entities like the Parks Association, Parks and Rec, the neighborhood association, as well as a bunch of people from Overland. It grew into an idea that was a lot bigger than what I had initially thought that it was going to be.
Brad Schaefer: I started thinking it was going to be something a little bit bigger than a birdhouse, but not too much bigger. But then it grew into something really cool, meaningful, and special—and hopefully beneficial to the community.
What has the design process been like?
LB: At first, it was pretty ambiguous. It started to get more specific when we understood what family was going to be involved and who the project was going to be in honor of. The first big event was the image session where we had some members of the donor family come in to talk about everything that was important to them.
JL: We pinned up precedents so that the family could look at them and tell us what they liked about them. As that was happening, we were writing down inspirational words that came out of the session, or certain ideas that they had, or ways to incorporate what they liked about the images that we could use in our design.
LB: It was really about trying to get input from the family, the person, and the community that it was for rather than us trying to interpret what this should be. It grew organically from the users and the family who was behind it.
BS: It was cool to be able to see the images, the words, and ideas come together. Then we took them and made the guiding principles and mission statement. It was inspiring to see that transformation process.
LB: We used that session to directly influence the writing of the mission statement. Overland creates a mission statement for every project that we do, which helps keep a focus on what’s important to the project. With every decision you make you can go back to its mission statement and ask, “Does this support what we’re trying to do?” Then, we use those to establish the guiding principles, identify the words that were the most important, and decide what we want to accomplish with the design.
"Birdie’s Nook embodies the joy of selfless giving found in sharing stories with one another. It will be a beacon in Monticello Park that brings the community together through literacy, opportunity, and shared space. Its durable construction will be intrinsically tied to its context, connecting people of all ages with the landscape, while providing a welcoming and inspiring place to escape into a story."
What were you discussing to be able to figure out what the definition of a guiding principle was for this project?
LB: A few of the words we came away with were welcoming, beacon, durable, selfless. Our group had already started designing a little bit and had some ideas on what we thought the design would be. We got together as a group and discussed, “Well, welcoming means this to us, but it could mean something a little bit different to another group in terms of how it’s architecturally translated.”
JL: I think for us that’s when we started getting more rigorous into the design, sketching and communicating with each other. To us, welcoming metaphorically represented open arms, somebody opening their arms and welcoming you. That meant that in our floor plan, as we translated it to architecture or something that was going to be built, it could represent something that’s open.
LB: I think it’s getting more specific in thinking, “How is this going to be applied to the site and the community and the actual architecture?” Rather than just saying, “This is an ideal… ,” it’s saying, “How can we actually put this into something that will be built?”
BS: [Guiding principles] begin to craft the architecture, like welcoming or having open arms or a beacon that’s very visible and attracts people to it.
JL: We were sketching throughout the process. From the sketches, we used the guiding principles to develop what we thought the actual floor plan could be and then moved on to doing elevations. We all worked in plan, section, elevation, and 3D, at the same time. It was just a matter of doing that while going back and checking it against the guiding principles to make sure that we’re staying true to the design intent, either metaphorically or poetically.
How has this experience changed your perceptions of the Little Free Library?
LB: It’s made me realize that it can be incorporated in a lot of different settings than the norm, rather than just being in somebody’s front yard in a little box. It can be worked in with pre-existing park infrastructure; it can be worked in with playgrounds at schools—things like that.
JL: And the fact that it can become more of a public thing, where people engage it more, and it’s a library. It’s education that’s being provided, as opposed to trying to find a neighborhood where you have to look for it in front of a house. That’s the case where I live—it’s down the street, but if you don’t know it’s there then you can miss it. This becomes more of a broader impact in the community.
LB: I think the point about education is important, that whatever you’re building as a Little Free Library can be more than that in terms of education. It can become a small classroom; it can become a place where your book club meets; and you can educate in different ways other than just providing literature.
Your group’s proposal was selected by the donor family as the one to be built. What are your thoughts now moving into the next stages of it becoming something?
BS: I think we’re all excited but also a little bit terrified a because now we have to figure out how this will actually be built. So, we need to figure out all the details, like how it connects into the ground. It’s a little intimidating, but we’ll get through it.
LB: It’s definitely intimidating. I know Jose and Brad both have construction experience. I have done none of that. This is our first design-build. Design-builds are a unique learning experience that you can’t really get through doing anything else other than actually building. It helps put into context for future projects that people are actually going to build it and it’s not just something that you’re drawing on paper. There are human beings out there putting nails into wood. Building it on our own, we’ll be getting firsthand experience and able to establish empathy in that way.
JL: It’s a great opportunity to really learn the nuts and bolts of detailing. It also gives you a sense of responsibility because you designed it and you have to put it together. You have to show what it is and hope that it works the way you intended it to. So, I think that’s a wonderful experience to go through.
How has any of this experience impacted you as an individual, outside of and irrespective of your career in architecture?
LB: I’m new to San Antonio. I’ve seen a side of the city that I’ve never seen before. I’ve met a lot of people and connected with a lot of individuals. It’s been really cool to become connected with a whole different group of people and a whole different area than I ever would’ve been without the project.
JL: When we were first told about the project and the story about the person who inspired its idea, the project became more of a personal learning experience, as far as being able to give back to the community. I think that ties in to what Overland stands for as well. We often hear or learn that we’re here to serve each other and help each other out, design-wise and everything else-wise. So, I think that was one of the things that I appreciated and learned the most from.
BS: The selfless giving of Birdie. It’s really touching to see someone who has that much influence and is willing to be selfless.
LB: It’s a role model kind of thing, seeing her family and how highly they speak of her, and how great all of her family is, how much she’s raised. It gives you something to look up to, look forward to.
Read through Brad, Jose, and Lance’s Proposal Presentation here.
Read more next week for insights from the second intern design team’s proposal. Follow #BirdiesNook on Instagram and Twitter for more behind-the-scenes.