The ashes of burned books formed piles that looked like small mountain ranges. Melted metal beams lay in heaps, and broken glass littered the ground.

“It was eerie,” said Amanda Milella, one of five Virginia Tech architecture students who visited Mzuzu University in Malawi, Africa, in October. It was the first time that the students had seen the rubble-filled site where the university’s library once stood. A fire destroyed the structure in 2015.

Since then, an events hall has served as the university's makeshift library, filled with more than 40,000 books that were donated to the university, mostly through a book drive organized by Virginia Tech in 2016.

Nearly three years after the fire, Hokies are helping Mzuzu University turn a new chapter.

Seven students and an adjunct faculty member from Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies are creating the design for a new library for Mzuzu, a 4,000-student institution in the country's northern region and Malawi’s second national university.

The Virginia Tech students are not only designing a place to house hundreds of thousands of books, far more than the number lost during the fire — they are drafting a symbol of hope for the university and its surrounding community.

Mzuzu University's former library

Mzuzu library before fire
Mzuzu University's library before the 2015 fire.
Mzuzu Library fire
Mzuzu University's library during the fire in 2015.

The library serves as an essential information gateway at Mzuzu because of the region’s poor technology infrastructure. Less than 10 percent of the people in Malawi have electricity.

“They have a greater appreciation of the book,” said Milella, a fifth-year undergraduate student who will earn her bachelor’s degree from the School of Architecture + Design in May. “It’s beautiful.”

This isn’t the first time that Virginia Tech has worked with Malawi. The university started TEAM (Technology, Education, Advocacy, and Medicine) Malawi in 2015, a program that works across academic disciplines to create research, development, and educational programs in one of the world’s most impoverished nations.

Ralph Hall, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, has a unique connection with Mzuzu as part of TEAM Malawi. He was teaching with a study abroad program at Mzuzu when the fire happened.

Back in Blacksburg, he proposed that Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design’s Center for Design Research help to create a plan for a new Mzuzu library. Ultimately, Hall wants to add a data analytics and visualization research and learning facility in the new library. It would connect Virginia Tech with Mzuzu through virtual learning environments.

Three architecture faculty members — Professor Robert Dunay, Professor Jack Davis, and Assistant Professor Nathan King — visited Mzuzu in February 2017 to assess the needs and talk with employees and students. Professor Donna Dunay and Assistant Professor Kevin Jones are other architecture faculty working on the project.

“They want a traditional library [with bookshelves], but one that projects into the future,” said Dunay, who is the T.A. Carter Professor of Architecture.

At least 20 students who were enrolled in several of the college’s architecture courses worked on library design proposals this past fall, but the team of seven undergraduate and graduate students and one adjunct faculty member are the primary designers.

For the past seven months, they have spent long afternoons in a third-floor Cowgill Hall studio, developing site models and initial concepts of what the new library could be. They presented three different design schemes to Mzuzu officials via a video conference in December and in person this week, when 11 university representatives visited Virginia Tech.

Mzuzu delegation presentation
James Wood (left) and Lindsey Blum, who are working on the Mzuzu library design, discuss one of the team's library schemes with the Mzuzu University delegation.

Simeon Gwayi, who is director of studies at Mzuzu and a Virginia Tech graduate, led the team. He studied curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis on instructional design and technologies, in Virginia Tech's School of Education, earning his master's degree in 2003 and doctorate in 2009.

Virginia Tech's three designs represent distinct approaches to the new library.

In one, the library would become the entrance to campus. In another, the structure would be defined by a large central skylight. In the third, two buildings would connect via ramps.

Students worked on different parts of the designs, depending on their interests. Some focused on the building’s natural ventilation, while others considered energy-efficient uses.

“The big push is to bring something innovative, but we want it to be contextual,” said Milella, of New York, who said she wants to be an architect because “I have always had an interest in the way things come together.” The Mzuzu library design is her thesis project.

Student with Mzuzu official
Amanda Milella, a Virginia Tech student and member of the library design team, talks with Felix Majawa, Mzuzu University librarian.

Another member of the design team, Pablo Cabrera, a Fulbright scholar and graduate student, consulted on the library’s environmental design function.

“I look at the building for its performance, not its aesthetic design,” said Cabrera, of Bolivia, who previously worked as an architect and professor. Still, maneuvering a diverse team of undergraduates and others who have worked as architects was a challenge and an important learning experience, he said.

“Architecture is the work of teams,” Cabrera said. “That’s a big part of the training for a future architect.”

While at Virginia Tech this week, Mzuzu officials met with the design team multiple times, reviewing the library schemes and further sharing their vision for the new space.

Because only 20 percent of Mzuzu’s students live on campus, the library is an important gathering place for those who live off campus, said Felix Majawa, Mzuzu University librarian.  “When they come to campus, the library is their home,” he said.

Majawa is thankful for Virginia Tech’s design work. “It would be difficult for Mzuzu to find this expertise,” he said.

Mzuzu delegation visit
Simeon Gwayi, director of studies for Mzuzu University and a Virginia Tech alumnus, discusses library designs with Virginia Tech students and Mzuzu delegates.

Ultimately, Mzuzu officials choose the portal scheme for the new library design, which situates the library as an expansive entranceway to the campus. They hope to break ground on the library this spring.

Virginia Tech may remain as a consultant on the project, Dunay said.

Dhawal Jain, a graduate student from India and a member of the Virginia Tech design team, said it was rewarding to see the library plans moving forward. “It will be built, it will be real,” he said.

He used his finger to trace the lines of one of the architectural drawings hanging in the Cowgill Hall studio. “The lines will become walls,” Jain said.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

Photos and video by Ray Meese

Martin Angst, an architecture graduate student, works on designs for Mzuzu University's library.
Martin Angst, a Virginia Tech graduate student, works on designs for a new Mzuzu University library in a third-floor studio in Cowgill Hall.