Architecture students help tractor museum explore expansion options

tractor in a field
August 20, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —More than 3,000 guests from across the world visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum every year.

Lance Todd, museum manager of exhibits, and museum stakeholders wanting to see a rise in visitation numbers have partnered with the College of Architecture to explore expansion options for the museum.

The design project, originally planned as a way to kick off the museum’s 100th anniversary, was scheduled for this summer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration has been moved to 2021, but the design process forged ahead with the help of the university’s architecture students.

“We have over 30 tractors in our collection, the oldest being a 1910 Minneapolis Ford tractor,” said Todd. “Adding to that collection with additional rare pieces is one of our goals. I would love for us to be known for how unique and rare our collection is. We want to be a museum where you’ll find models and pieces you won’t find anywhere else.”

Located on East Campus, the current museum began as a tractor testing laboratory built to satisfy a 1919 Nebraska law mandating that every model sold in Nebraska must pass specified power and performance standards. It was the first tractor testing facility in the world and became recognized as a museum by the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents in 1998, with a new testing facility located adjacent to the original building.

Given that the museum had gone years without a major renovation, the college’s Fabrication and Construction Team, led by Professor Jeffrey Day, was a welcome strategic partner. Working remotely, the studio spent eight weeks researching, designing and imagining what the next chapter for the facility would look like.

The studio usually takes on projects that engage creative, nonprofit clients and communities in collaborations that span design and construction.

“The museum collaboration was a perfect fit for the FACT studio,” Day said. “The project offered our students a unique challenge to design concepts that would not only engage visitors with the past but also the future of agricultural technology. It’s very rewarding for our students to take on projects that don’t have predetermined solutions. Such projects lend to the creative process and stretch the designers’ skills.”

The students were asked to address certain museum criteria and goals. Ideally, the new development would expand the exhibit space by two to three times its current size, transforming the aesthetics and accessibility of the facility into a first-class museum with an inviting reception area and office space. It would also engage the campus and the public with innovative programming while featuring additional classroom and learning areas for students and clubs.

The remote studio was split into four design teams, each coming up with solutions for the museum to consider. The first team proposed merging new construction with repurposed service buildings for a museum complex. Another suggested extending the exhibition beyond the future building and distributing tractors throughout East Campus using a grid of display frames. The third team explored a new building site on East Campus with greater public access and visibility, and the last — with a thematic nod to the museum’s past — proposed a complex of buildings with a “living street” for increased community engagement.

“For the short amount of time they were given, I was very impressed with the ideas the students came up with,” Todd said. “It definitely gave us a lot of options to look at moving forward. What we generally do with projects like this is pull from ideas presented by each group and then add it to some of our own ideas, and usually what we come up with is a really unique plan.”

The student concepts were presented to the university’s Executive Campus Planning Committee and the Aesthetic Review Committee for feedback.

“The committee responses were very helpful for the students’ project development,” said Day. “They offered input regarding the pluses and minuses of each proposal and suggestions for how each team could advance their designs.”

The next phases for the museum project are fundraising and concept refinement. Day said the students can continue to work on the project as a UCARE assignment, independent study or possible future studio.

“I was really happy with the work the students did for this eight-week remote studio,” Day said. “Ideally, I prefer in-person studio instruction. I think there’s something to be said about making physical things, whether it’s building mock-ups in the shop, or models or something like that. However, the students made some solid digital designs and concepts for further development that I’m pretty proud of.”

Working remotely did present students with some skill-strengthening opportunities in adaptability.

“This is my first fully remote studio,” said architecture student Sunkist Judson. “Since we didn’t have access to go visit the Larsen Museum and Splinter Labs in person, I feel like we did not get the opportunity to fully experience the space. Looking at images provided by Lance Todd and using Google Earth is one thing, but being there at the site in person is a little different. Personally, I feel more connected when I visit a site.”

However, even with the drawbacks of working remotely, Judson said he wouldn’t want to change his experience.

“This is a unique experience for me, and I look forward to seeing how the next group will take these ideas and elevate them to the next level,” said Judson. “I love that we are looking into a project where it might become part of a reality someday, even though it is just the beginning. I love that I get to be a part of this design where we are working for the community and the university.”

by Kerry Vondrak | Architecture