Each year, the Weis Center hosts dozens of live events that bring thousands of guests to the 1,200-seat space on the historic Bucknell University campus. Audiences gather to watch world-class jazz, dance, and theatrical performers. Dominic Silvers is there too, but not only to watch a show. He’s often more interested in watching the crowd.
Silvers is Bucknell University’s director of planning, design, and construction. He joined the private liberal arts college in 2001 after working inside Wilkes-Barre’s top firms for a decade. The Pennsylvania native says one thing he appreciates most about a long tenure in education is the chance to revisit projects to see how each space is actually being used.
“I go back frequently just to observe how students, faculty, and the public are really interacting with what we’ve created,” he says. “It’s important to see what worked as intended, what’s being used in a way we didn’t expect, and what design needs may have gone unmet.”
Bucknell’s popular majors include accounting, political science, and biology. Like the nearly 4,000 students who come to Bucknell from all over, Silvers is there to learn. He carefully considers the valuable information his team has gathered from each past project when designing small classroom renovations, large building projects, and everything in between.
The university opened its doors in 1846. Its first building cost $8,000 and its first graduating class included 7 students. James Buchanan was an original board member. This legacy is part of what motivates Silvers to take time to sit back, absorb, listen, and learn. “My goal is to get a high-level view of challenges and understand functionality and purpose so we can deliver modern spaces that fade into this rich historic context,” he says.
How do Silvers and his team deliver modern buildings that match 178-year-old structures? They focus on blending classic materials like brick with modern design elements while never straying too far from the hallmarks of Georgian design style to “pay homage while avoiding mindless duplication.”
Positioning helps, too. A grove of oak trees divides the university’s 450-acre campus. The lower campus houses many of Bucknell’s classic structures while the upper campus is home to more contemporary buildings.
Silvers has seen the Bucknell campus evolve over the past two-plus decades. His team has helped open highly visible recreational centers, academic buildings, labs, commons areas, residence halls, research facilities, libraries, and more. But the biggest success story that flies under the radar is a series of renovations at what was once BU’s historic quad.
Years of programmatic changes had given the area a bit of an identity crisis. The Carnegie Building on Seventh Street was once the library. Then it was classrooms, and later, a bookstore. To the west sits Roberts Hall, which was a strange combination of student housing and office space. In between sat an overgrown and underused quad.
Today, the zone has been completely redone. Silvers renovated Carnegie and restored its historic details to make it a fitting offshoot of the newer and larger Bertrand Library. Bucknell students come to Carnegie to visit the writing center, access other support services, or study in a central quiet area. Design teams removed the offices from Roberts Hall and changed the layout from residence halls to semi suites while adding in ample student social space. A revitalized and accessible quad unites interior and exterior spaces. Carnegie opened in 2015 with Roberts following in 2016.
Today, Silvers and his colleagues find themselves in phase two of an important housing project. Last year, they delivered two large apartment-style buildings in phase one. Now, they’re working on two additional buildings with a total of 280 new student beds. Exterior amenities include social spaces like volleyball courts, firepits, and food truck parking. Phase three, set for later this year, includes a fifth building with 94 beds.
Bucknell’s strategic plan was created to guide the university through 2025. In presenting the plan, its creators wrote that “Bucknell’s rich history and heritage will influence its planning for the future.” The methods Silvers has developed throughout his career are perfectly aligned and will help Bucknell achieve its goals.
The university’s leaders charge staff and faculty to prepare each student for a “lifetime of critical thinking and strong leadership characterized by continued intellectual exploration, creativity, and imagination.” At Bucknell, students interact with passionate educators. Silvers is creating the spaces where those interactions can come alive.