Heaton Family Learning Commons, Butler County Community College

“It has been a little over a year since the dedication and opening of The Heaton
[Family Learning Commons], I continue to be amazed as to how the facility has changed
the culture here on our main campus. The vision for the facility that I shared with Mr. Heaton
a few years back has played out better than I could have ever imagined.”

Studio Name: R3A Architecture
Project Name: Heaton Family Learning Commons
Design Team:  Deepak Wadhwani, Principal in Charge
Jozef Petrak, Lead Designer
Barbara Pschirer, Interior Designer
Area: 24,380 gsf
Year: 2016
Location: Butler, PA
Consultants: CJL Engineering, Moore Design Associates
Photography Credits: Rombout Photography

Heaton Family Learning Commons By R3A Architecture - Sheet4
©Rombout Photography

­Dr. Nick Neupauer, Butler County Community College President

Originally constructed in the 1960s, Butler County Community College’s Beck Library (now the Heaton Family Learning Commons) was built in an era when the library archetype was that of introversion and focus – devoid of outside stimulation or internal vibrancy. The result of this attitude was a structure defined primarily as a barrack for storing books with limited daylighting and sterile learning environments. The R3A team helped to re-envision this under-utilized and outdated library into a forward-thinking, flexible facility that would act as the new social hub for the campus and outward community.


Design Goals

The client’s vision for the building was to become an active and vibrant resource hub that would not only draw students but also embody the energy of learning. Working closely with the owner, 4 primary design challenges were identified that would motivate the design approach:

  1. Limited natural daylighting and exterior views
  2. The existing building did not possess a defined sense of arrival
  3. The existing furnishings and learning and study spaces were sterile
    and uninspiring.
  4. Lack of proper circulation between floors and to the entrance.


Design for Place

Project Mission

The project consisted of a facility re-envisioning from an under-utilized and outdated library environment into a forward-thinking, flexible library of the future which acts as an Intellectual and Societal Hub for the Campus and Outward Community. The renovation encompassed all 22,380 square feet on both floors of the existing facility as well as an iconic entry tower, elevated terrace, and illuminated obelisk, creating a new exterior identity.

Sense of Arrival

One of the more drastic modifications to the existing building was to create a 30’x30’ atrium opening on the second floor. This allowed for visual and physical interactions between the more social/active second-floor space with the resource/educational first-floor space. A glass guardrail at the opening and a glass valence at the ceiling worked together to define a “room within a room” that existed in the atrium space. Illuminated by the new skylight and perimeter LED lighting, the result of this design strategy was a dramatic expression of light, color, and reflection that defined the main entrance.

Heaton Family Learning Commons By R3A Architecture - Sheet5
©Rombout Photography

Activating Circulation

Rather than approaching the vertical circulation in a traditional utilitarian manner, the strategy was to see it as a design opportunity to make it more experiential. From the historic oak grove to the front door, the vertical circulation was designed to double as a forum stair and experiential device. Both interior and exterior stairs were activated by creating opportunities for occupants to relax, socialize, or study. Stair landings act as study areas, which allow good dynamic views to surrounding spaces. Tech Bars also allow for views to the study areas.

Design for Wellness

Daylighting and Views

The existing building’s clerestory windows offered minimum daylighting and no views to the adjacent vibrant campus grove. The proposed design maximizes daylighting and views on the south and west facades thereby creating a link between the activities taking place inside the learning center and the energy of the campus grove. To further this goal, an existing 20’x20’ skylight that had been concealed was replaced and reinstated. The result was a light-filled interior that through the use of a variety of colors and textures became a destination for formal and informal learning. Additionally, the atrium skylight floods the space with evenly diffused natural daylight for optimum reading and study in the library.

Heaton Family Learning Commons By R3A Architecture - Sheet6
©Rombout Photography

New Central Atrium

Changes to the structure that went beyond cosmetic, was the opening of a 16’ x 16’ pyramid skylight that allows natural light to penetrate into the library, creating a new central atrium in the process. This floor opening facilitates vertical circulation, visual connectedness between floors and spaces, and access to natural light. The new wood cladding was added as an exterior facade improvement to unify the library with the rest of the campus. In addition, new storefront glazing was inserted on the south and east facades. Finally, a new main entrance point was provided along the existing facade to capture natural circulation paths.

Design for Change

Activity-Based Design

Borrowing this approach from contemporary office design, the design objective was to avoid purpose-built spaces, but instead design a variety of flexible environments that could be reconfigured or adapted to diverse activities, learning styles, and group sizes. The design offers a gradient of informal work/study spaces including café, tech bars, and lounges to the more formal study rooms, classrooms, and media room.

Design for Environment

Utilization of an Existing Building

Existing buildings comprise the largest segment of the built environment. As such, the existing building was reused for the creation of the new progressive library. Carbon footprints were much less of an impact than a new construction project. The major retrofit reduced operational costs and environmental impacts and increased the building’s adaptability, durability, and resiliency.

©Rombout Photography


The wooded campus grove is an icon for Butler County Community College. With the existing library, there was no connection to the beautiful landscape. By creating a new entrance for the building, a strong connection with the campus grove was achieved. New plants and shrubs were planted within the monumental entry stair, while the sculptural elements of the entrance beckon a strong link with the surrounding natural context.

Design for Interaction

Dynamic Spaces

Community spaces include collaborative and flexible classrooms, computer labs, interactive flat wall panels, dedicated large and small flex spaces, a recording studio, a shared distance learning broadcast room, a focal information kiosk, and a resource desk. The integrated cafe and outdoor patio act as a hub linking the community and group functions with interspersed periodical resources. Study spaces were defined by sliding glass walls and doors leading into the small community group study rooms placed at the perimeter of the open area. This provides visual connectivity and a link to the active environment while facilitating required acoustical privacy.


R3A is an experienced architecture firm specializing in design for higher education, manufacturing, and workplace environments. R3A has designed highly effective collaborative spaces for Butler County Community College, Community College of Beaver County, Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, the RAND Corporation, and various other private corporations. R3A brings 25+ years of experience working with higher education stakeholders to deliver quality design on time and budget.

R3A believes that architecture has the power to truly transform people’s lives, and does not take this responsibility lightly. R3A creates environments that aim to improve and enrich experiences by promoting wellness, productivity, sustainability, and even a sense of joy. With personal attention paid to each project by its principals as well as its flexible and proactive approach, R3A has formed working relationships with clients that last years and even decades. R3A has earned 30+ awards, and it’s all due to these lasting relationships and clients’ continued trust.


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