At LJ’s Design Institute (DI): Charleston, held on Friday, October 21, at South Carolina’s Charleston County Public Library (CCPL), attendees from around the United States delved into how best to transform their libraries to rise to their communities’ new challenges.
Their hosts exemplified the rewards of risk-taking: CCPL Executive Director Nicolle Davies was fresh off her 2016 win as LJ’s Librarian of the Year for her groundbreaking work in Arapahoe County, CO. Meanwhile, CCPL is fresh off an even bigger win of its own: a $108.5 million building and renovation program, funded by a 2014 referendum, to build two new libraries, replace three existing buildings, and renovate 13 facilities. All of which made Charleston the perfect nexus of place and timing to consider what comprises a truly future-ready new or reinvented library.
The day’s first panel, titled “Inside the Box,” considered ideas for renovating and retrofitting existing spaces, whether already in use as libraries or being repurposed, as well as for interior spaces in new buildings. Panelists Peter Bolek, president and director of design for HBM Architects; Jeff Hoover, principal of Tappé Architects; Jim Kovach, senior associate of VMDO Architects; Traci Lesneski, principal of MSR; David Moore, principal of McMillan Pazdan Smith; and Margaret Sullivan, principal of Margaret Sullivan Studio, were led by moderator Cynthia Bledsoe, deputy director of CCPL, who served as interim director until Davies came on board. Among the panelists’ top suggestions were to focus on user input and get at the needs users don’t know they have—or the needs of those who are not yet users. Another recommendation was to employ community profiling, such as that provided by consulting firm OrangeBoy or its competitors.
To guide librarians’ own thinking, panelists suggested that along with how librarians see their existing space they should add existing nonspatial assets they have that can help achieve their goals for the renovation. In particular, Sullivan noted what she called “the great box exercise.” To get out of the scarcity mind-set that can limit brainstorming around existing spaces, she said that libraries should begin at the other end: bring images of programs they are already doing in that existing space and work with the architects to design what the perfect space would look like for each program.
Starting from scratch
After attendees tackled the real-life challenges of libraries large and small, academic and public, new and renovated in the breakout sessions (see below), the group reconvened to address laying the groundwork for on-point projects in “Before It’s Real; or, Pre-Predesign.” In this panel, architects addressed the too-often neglected work that should happen before the design process gets under way, from needs assessment and funding to the political environment and communication with stakeholders. Bolek, Hoover, Kovach, Moore, and Sullivan were joined by Jack Poling, principal of MSR, and moderated by Davies.
According to Poling, involving the community is key, and using qualitative assessment techniques, visioning, and imagery can help close the imagination gap, so community members don’t just ask for more of the same. As well as thinking big, though, he advocated not neglecting the down-to-earth realities of budget—and parking.
Kovach argued the importance of making sure the library has an advocate for the renovation or new construction in the city administration or on the library or other governing board from the outset, both to speak for it and to report back questions and concerns.
Sullivan vividly illustrated the pitfalls of jumping too fast into design details and having to backtrack to predesign work with the quote, “Oh, my gosh, we started with carpet and now we have to know who we really are!”
To do that work, she recommended using a combination of community meetings, surveys, and social media and ensuring that at least one meeting is held while the survey is still open, so attendees can follow up with informed responses.
The program—in the architectural, not library or coding sense—should be done before the architect gets there, Sullivan said, with a focus on the functional description, which should include goals for the project.
Bolek urged librarians not to be daunted by the prospect of conflict. “Visions generally always conflict,” he said, and even more so today, because “libraries are partnering more, which brings more visions to the table.” The key, he said, is to be open to those visions but not lose sight of your own: “collaborate, educate, and stay steadfast.”
He also pointed out that many mayors don’t know what the trends are in library design or in library services and recommended that when libraries feel caught in the middle between stakeholders and unable to take sides among, say, council members, that the design team can “come in as the heavy.”
The ever-vexing question of the design-build model, in which design and construction services are contracted by a single entity, persisted. The architects agreed that the model, which is required in some muncipalities and forbidden in others, has both benefits and drawbacks, as contractor input at the design stage can eliminate impractical ideas. What is ultimately key, they concluded, is good communication among all involved.
To gain the all-important funding that makes great design possible, Hoover advocated for making the library’s case in the language of investment, emphasizing the library’s role as an economic generator (including the jobs and spending the work itself will bring to the area, as well as the reward of improved library service the finished building can deliver). And when it comes to making that case, said Sullivan, architects can help tell the story.
The day wrapped up with several fast-paced rounds of speed networking, at which attendees had the opportunity to present the details of their own design challenges. In return, they received specific solutions to their real-world questions from the attending architects, as well as from vendor sponsors 3branch, Demco Interiors, Overton & Associations, and Tech Logic.
While every design scenario presents its own challenges, several strands ran through the day’s content: design must be deeply user-driven, from first vision to finishing touches, and the world holds an increasingly sophisticated array of tools that target potential users as well as current ones, identifying their needs and desires and garnering their feedback—as well as their buy-in to build something better.
Clemson University Libraries SC
ARCHITECT: McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture
THE CHALLENGE: Built in 1966, the R.M. Cooper Library is the busiest building on the Clemson campus, with more than 8,000 students entering daily. Despite its lobby, with a grand center staircase and open atrium-like spaces above, the library, open 24-5, faces a host of issues: underground floors with low ceilings and exposed pipes; too few electrical outlets; nonreconfigurable, dated classrooms; a lack of individual study spaces and collaborative areas; poorly designed and located staff space; and inadequate security at the library entrance from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., when security personnel are stationed at the exit. While students must swipe IDs, it is difficult to spot “tailgaters.”
THE BRAINSTORM: Library staff, led by Maggie Farrell of Clemson, shared that security for books is no longer a concern. What is, however, is security for students. While security does have line of sight of the floor, students in search of quiet space can be hidden from view. Under the guidance of architect David Moore, the group focused on improving security on a limited budget, while avoiding revolving doors. One option considered was to move the security desk, so that security can see who enters rather than who leaves. A second was to reroute students rather than staff, so that at night they can exit only on the left side of the building. However, this might prove confusing as it would vary from the day use pattern. The third option was to create an airlock vestibule that would add not only access control but also energy efficiency. If the security desk is moved to the center of the vestibule, staff can see both entrances, allowing both sides to be used.—Leesa Aiken
Cuyahoga County Public Library OH
ARCHITECTS: BCWH Architecture & Tappé Architects
THE CHALLENGE: This 15,806 square foot branch serves a population of 15,500. The exterior is outdated, with no street presence or features to draw people inside. The interior is also unappealing, with chopped-up and crowded spaces. There is no distinct teen space, though 40–60 students come daily from a nearby middle school. Adults avoid the library after school and in the evenings. The library hopes to create an attractive, updated, welcoming façade that provides natural light and pleasant views, as well as new interior finishes for a cleaner, brighter, more contemporary space. Among the ideas being considered is an addition for middle schoolers that will offer homework help along with fun programming; a new entrance; a reactivated full-service drive-up window; glass-enclosed group study rooms; and a smaller reference desk consolidated from two larger ones.
THE BRAINSTORM: An influx of young families need different library services. While the building is in good condition overall, the library needs to address issues with parking, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and condition, particularly of the HVAC systems and roof. Raising the roof could help with natural light, attendees suggested. Because the site is landlocked and possibilities for expansion are limited, flexible space and furniture to serve different populations at different times is key. Attendees considered half, mobile, or Lucite walls, or movable shelving to delineate areas. However, permanent walls will be needed for sound control around a video space. The design must also address collaborative seating to enable group work and after-hours access to meeting rooms.—Denise Lyons
Dorchester County Library St. George, SC
ARCHITECTS: Liollio Architecture; Margaret Sullivan Studio
THE CHALLENGE: Constrained by lack of space, flexibility, dedicated children’s and teen areas, parking, and more, the library has a $30 million bond referendum on the ballot to replace its current facility and add another branch or two. Still in the early dreaming stage, the planned 35,000 square foot library will be either in a new building or a renovated location with ample parking. The library serves a diverse population of 153,000. The aim is to provide a variety of large, medium, and individual gathering spaces, Maker spaces, study rooms, and collaborative areas dedicated to children and teens, with cutting-edge technology for all, in a building that meets community needs today and is easily reconfigurable in the future.
THE BRAINSTORM: As the plan is so early in the process, Margaret Sullivan and the team from Liollio took the group through user journeys as a design tool, separating attendees into smaller units, with each focusing on a profile of a real library user. The assignment: design the library that would best meet that particular user’s needs. Selecting from predefined library spaces (from classroom to marketplace to reading nook) as well as photos of inspirational spaces from beyond libraries that could capture a mood or experience, participants assembled a map of how those services should relate to one another to create a successful journey. The results would take some work to translate into a floor plan, but they spurred animated discussion and new ways of conceptualizing how services fit together.—Meredith Schwartz
Lancaster Public Library System SC
ARCHITECT: HBM Architects
THE CHALLENGE: The Lancaster County Library has been offered the possibility of relocating to an existing building on Main Street. It is more than 40,000 square feet, two and a half times the size of the current 16,000 square foot library, which has inadequate space to serve the varying needs of a community of almost 85,000. Users range from retirees and young families with high readership to inner-city residents who use the library to access PCs and Wi-Fi to close-knit rural residents who want everything from schoolwork help to gentle reads. Ideally, the new facility would be community-centered, spacious for people to attend all kinds of programs, able to accommodate whatever new technologies arise, and environmentally sound.
THE BRAINSTORM: The HBM team opened by providing images of the potential site and its surroundings and then broke the group into three smaller teams. Each was provided with rough floor plans and cutouts to represent various spaces. Library Director Rita Vogel expressed a desire to offer “partner space” within the building where other operators such as a coffee shop could provide services. Teams discussed how best to complement the historic nature of downtown and create a frontage that would draw in people. HBM’s Peter Bolek said the teams should consider “mind-breaking and building-breaking,” meaning that people should “see beyond physical barriers.” With that in mind, the teams created designs that modified the current building by adding windows and outdoor spaces and connecting to adjacent buildings.—Toni Pattison
New City Library NY
THE CHALLENGE: How to create a cohesive, user-friendly space from complexity wrought by years of makeshift solutions? The 33,000 square foot building from the 1980s is otherwise well situated in town, with lots of parking and on bus routes. Detailing some of the spatial issues, New City Library director Marianne Silver and the MSR team noted basic wayfinding problems despite signage; a plethora of stairs and hallways; poor use of natural light; and a “tricky” entry experience. On the wish list: space for children’s programming, quiet study, and meetings and maximized for staff. Also up for consideration, the need for a larger auditorium to accommodate overflow crowds that already burst the seams of a downstairs room that feels “sunken.”
THE BRAINSTORM: Launching the challenge session with some inspirational images of real projects to “whet your whistle,” MSR’s Traci Lesneski noted that all too often the word play refers only to children’s services, but adults like to play, too. The MSR folks then broke the group into three teams for a user persona–driven exercise, based on real New City patrons. Taking the point of view of a persona, participants imagined new configurations focusing on the entry/pathway experience, meeting/gathering spaces, or staff/service areas. All agreed the library should create transparency so users would be able to walk in the door and see all the various spaces, communicating what the library offers on first sight. Participant Becky Miller extended the thought to the outside entryway, noting that “in Charlotte, access for everyone is a focus, it’s a civil rights issue—everyone goes through the same door”—describing an entry plaza concept with ramps and stairs as well. Discussion of staff space revolved around engaging staff early and often in the process to create transparency there, as well as buy in.—Rebecca T. Miller
University of South Carolina Columbia
THE CHALLENGE: The university library is in the planning stages for the renovation of the main level of a 1970s building to reflect current programming. The building is approximately 300,000 square feet and sees 8,000–10,000 visitors per day, which includes a student population of 30,000. The library’s goal is to achieve a balance of collections, study space, and services, with a main level that is inspiring and reflects the library as a center for learning and discovery. The renovated space should accommodate research support services, student study areas, meeting/program space, and room to highlight the university’s research output.
THE BRAINSTORM: VMDO’s Jim Kovach led off the breakout session with questions about library use. Who is the user? What is their motivation for coming to the library? Do they want resources, materials, assistance? What equipment do they require? And so on. To build a picture of user needs, Kovach gave each breakout attendee a persona to flesh out—such as a first-timer, seasoned faculty member, prospective student, grad student, commuter student, and public user—which informed the discussion of the physical layout. Attendees emphasized the need for a more open, visually appealing entry, with offices moved to the wall and the café near the front for greater visibility and access, perhaps behind a glazed partition, suggested Kovach. Other ideas included tiered mobile desks as service points and mobile desks for users, as well, that could be combined easily; larger and more study areas; convertible spaces for collaborative work, meetings, or Maker spaces; and an Apple genius bar–type help desk.—Francine Fialkoff
Challenge photos by Kevin Henegan
Special thanks to our sponsors for their generous support of and participation
in LJ’s Design Institute
Chuck Wray, Principal
Peter Bolek, President and Director of Design
Jennifer Charzewski, Associate Principal
McMillan Pazdan Smith
David Moore; Principal
Jack Poling, Principal
Margaret Sullivan Studio
Margaret Sullivan, Principal
Jeff Hoover, Principal
Jim Kovach, Senior Associate
Donna Longo, Director of Customer Marketing
Overton & Associates
Bill Overton, President
Paul Ridgeway, Director of Marketing
Joe Frueh, Vice President
Charleston County Public Library
Nicolle Davies, Executive Director