Western Kentucky University – The Commons at Helm Library

Gensler transformed the historic Helm Library into a dynamic learning and social hub at Western Kentucky University, emphasizing connectivity, natural light, and versatile spaces.

  • area / size 80,000 sqft
  • Completed 2022
  • Fulfilling a desire to create a new destination for students, faculty, and the campus community, the Commons at Helm Library is a new intellectual hub at the historic academic heart of Western Kentucky University’s campus. A team of Gensler education designers worked in partnership with Luckett & Farley and the university to develop a vision and program that combines social spaces — such as food services venues that can accommodate 900 guests — along with library and areas for student support.

    The building has always served as a natural gathering space on campus. Dedicated in 1931, the Health & Physical Education Building held basketball games, but it also hosted concerts, dances, and student class registration. When the basketball program moved to Diddle Arena in 1963, the building was transformed into the Helm Library where individuals could meet to study, research, and learn. The Commons at Helm Library continues the tradition by offering a flexible space to engage individuals and connect disciplines across campus.

    By removing enclosed sections of the exterior and restoring 14 skylights, the design of The Commons visually connects all the levels of the three-story building while giving the main space ample daylight. A central stair and circulation path connects the two spaces at the heart of the building at the former center basketball court. The entire west facade of the building was replaced with a glass curtain wall, which acts as a window to the outside world, showcasing academic and social happenings in the interior.

    The lighting specifications and material selection helped suggest the way the space was intended to be used from higher contrast, moody hospitality selections on the lower level with the larger food venues to a more subdued palette in bright, daylit library and study areas.

    The project is a catalyst for improving learning outcomes as a new Academic Hub for the University. While social spaces activate the building, learning support services are at its heart, encouraging utilization by students and faculty from across the University, while creating a connected and inclusive network for all students.

    Design: Gensler
    Gensler Team: Meghan Webster, Brian Vitale, Janette Scott, Brian Watson, Sarah Adams, Carli Papp, Ryan DePersia, Elisabeth Goodrow, Leticia Murray
    Architect of Record: Luckett & Farley
    Contractor: A&K Construction
    Photography: Nick McGinn