In fall 2009, Bing Thom Architects (BTA) won a stimulus grant from the Canadian government to build the new $36 million (Canadian), 77,000 square foot Surrey City Centre Library, envisioned as a centerpiece of this fast-growing community outside Vancouver, BC. The caveat: use it or lose it. In exchange for the funding, construction had to be finished in 18 months—half the usual time allowed for such a project. “We got the grant in November and started working in December,” says Michael Heeney, principal at the Vancouver-based BTA. “By February, we were under construction.”
The accelerated schedule meant there was no time to conduct essential public meetings and focus groups to find out what the community wanted from their new library. BTA’s solution: use social media.
The birth of the Ideabook
Collaborating with the Surrey librarians, BTA set up an “Ideabook,” using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and a library blog to display design concepts and ask for public input. Right away, “People started chiming in,” says Heeney, in an undertaking that would have significant impact on both design and service.
At the height of the process, the sites were getting 6000 hits per month. By contrast, about 30 people typically attend one community meeting, says Heeney. And while focus groups tend to draw an older crowd, the largest percentage of the new library’s online “fans” were under 25. Also, in Heeney’s view, the second largest group, women between 35 and 44, reflected a segment of Surrey’s working family population that would not usually take time to attend evening and weekend forums.
Some requests were predictable, says Surrey chief librarian Melanie Houlden: more computer training, more books and DVDs, and more programming in general. Others were less anticipated but just as important. The Muslim population asked for a prayer room, Heeney says. The rising number of people who work at home wanted small rooms they could use for meetings. Kids requested a clock in the spacious children’s area, a place to draw pictures, and couches where their parents could relax while waiting for them.
On Flickr, people posted images of architecture they liked, much of it in keeping with the soaring, open environments they were seeing in BTA’s plans. Pictures of China’s ultramodern Shenzhen Library showed that structure’s dramatic, grand staircases, which double as informal seating. Images of the Central Library in Amsterdam revealed biomorphic chairs and airy white spaces. Other pictures ranged from the open-plan Seattle Central Library to colorful murals in an airport in Moncton, NB.
All of this feedback informed BTA’s existing commitment to creating an uplifting community destination, with central areas that could double as performance spaces. The architects also saw a need for smaller, “living room”–type places where people could read or work.
“We spent a lot of time making sure there were opportunities for people-watching,” says Heeney. “There is a sort of natural, voyeuristic desire for people to know what’s going on around them.” A request for a quiet workplace resulted in a glassed-in study area.
Two enormous staircases ringing the central atrium are key to the Surrey library’s final design, a sleek four-story building, which, owing to the tapered shape of the site, also conjures associations with a ship. As Houlden says, “These beautiful staircases work in two ways—either you sit and enjoy the view outside, or settle in with laptops and books.” In addition, the stairs serve as bleacher-type seating for events and performances.
On opening day last September, 10,000 people filed through the building. Now that the community has opined on the library, Houlden and staff are soliciting more online input “about where to go from here,” service-wise, she says.
The new facility replaces a 10,000 square foot, “sad little building” that was built in 1974 and used to be a plumbing supply store, Houlden notes. The library staff went from providing eight public computers to 80; from running a suburban-type, “drive-by” facility to a city library envisioned as a community hub. There is “so much opportunity,” she says.
Opportunity knocks for BTA, too. “We got into this process by necessity,” says Heeney of the Ideabook approach. “But it’s now become a standard part of our practice.”