March 17, 2018

Building for the Future: Design Institute Overview | Library by Design, Fall 2012

Gallery: Design Institute Denver (see full article below)

How do you plan for a future you can’t predict? By building flexibility into the design. That was one of the main takeaways from LJ’s latest Design Institute (DI), held at the Denver Central Library on May 4.

The DI, LJ’s 12th in a series on trends in library design, was a one-day symposium composed of panels, presentations, and breakout sessions, featuring a mix of architects, vendors, and librarians. On the day before the event, the Denver Public Library (DPL) and Anythink Library (Rangeview Library District), in cooperation with several local architects, organized a tour of recently designed or redesigned local Colorado libraries, culminating at Denver Central itself.

Planning to change the plan

From raised floors to fixtures on wheels, architects at the DI encouraged libraries to build their outsides to last for the long haul—and their insides to morph. “[Andrew] Carnegie designed for 100 years and so should we,” says Dennis Humphries of Humphries Poli.

Though taxpayer pressure may push libraries to build something that works for now and let the future fend for itself, Jennifer Hoffman, manager of books and borrowing at DPL, says that in the long run, it is those very taxpayers whose interests are best served by resisting that pressure. “If we take taxpayer money and create impermanent buildings, what does that say about us?” she asks.

To build within a budget without compromising quality, Denelle Wrightson, director of library architecture, Dewberry, suggests that libraries reach out to their community for supplementary funds and involve their architect in such outreach efforts by, for instance, inserting a potential donor’s name on a 3-D plan.

Bruce Flynn, of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, describes the ideal library as “noble and rich on the outside, and pretty cool and changeable on the inside.”

One specific recommendation from Joseph Sanchez of the University of Colorado’s Auraria Library: “Make sure your architects think about pulling more wire in the future.” Whether wires run through the floor or ceiling, plans should leave room for more and an easy way to install them without tearing up the library, both for future furniture and design needs and so librarians can offer users additional access to library devices, power for their own gadgets, and broadband Internet connections.

Jamie La Rue, director of the Douglas County Libraries, said on the tour that no matter how good your architect is, “in 18 months you will find yourself changing something.”

In fact, the trend is toward libraries changing in small ways much faster than that—indeed, almost continuously. It’s not just roving reference now; there’s roving furniture, too. The advantage to patrons is that they can choose their atmosphere and seating; the advantage to the library is that the carts take up essentially no square footage. Says Dan Meehan, principal of HBM Architects, libraries should “move toward mobility,” though he cautions librarians to “monitor what you have out and see what moves”—literally.

Change, but stay specific

Several participants expressed concern that planning for change in the future could leave libraries with an unpalatable present. Malcolm Holzman, from Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture, says that open plans can be a “big problem” because library spaces need “to be specific if they are going to be successful…. [A]s libraries become very generic, they become like airports.”

Traci Lesneski, from MS&R architects, suggests using enclosures, varieties of scale, and task lighting to delineate spaces that make patrons want to linger without building permanent installations, while HBM’s Meehan proposes finding functions that can share or overlap spaces, as well as installing movable walls.

Going green, saving green

Green design was a major component of the DI architects’ presentations and attendees’ questions alike. But it was coupled with acute cost-consciousness, which focused on operational savings to be realized from more ecologically conscious investments during construction—and, where possible, by making green choices that also cut costs, or at least won’t raise them, during the construction phase. “My local power utility did my commissioning [testing and fine-tuning the building’s features so they perform] for free and gave me $17,000 in rebates,” says Eve Tallman, director of Mesa County Libraries, Grand Junction, CO. The library saved so much, she says, that “after we retrofitted our light fixtures, we got a letter from our power utility asking if our meters were broken.” As part of planning for change, architects also mentioned building a solar-ready roof on new construction, even if the library can’t afford to install the panels right away.

The environmental concerns start from the very beginning. As Wrightson points out, the greenest building is one that’s already built. “If your building just won’t work, look for another in the community that will.” (Humphries suggests former retail locations, which often combine a central location with a lack of columns.) Tallman recommends scavenging used shelving, and DPL’s Hoffman urges libraries to be creative in repurposing objects whose original task is obsolete. “Use good pieces in a new way,” she suggests. Barker Rinker Seacat’s Flynn points out that the advantages of this approach are emotional as well as financial and ecological: “People appreciate it when you bring a piece of the past into the present.”

Holzman calls for libraries and architects to use local materials, not only to reduce costs (especially if donated) and the carbon footprint of shipping but also to “root the building in the ­community.”

Natural lighting is also a big player: not only from skylights and solar tube collectors but from windows themselves. Architects are designing more and bigger windows, as well as shrinking towering stacks to allow more natural light. Denver Central, for example, is striking a balance between keeping the display pieces of its 1995 Michael Graves design and allowing more space and light.

MS&R’s Lesneski feels there’s aesthetic benefit to be found in reducing artificial light as well. “In this country we overlight our spaces,” she says.

Fewer books, more findable

The move toward a retail style of discovery isn’t new, of course. But as libraries built for crowded stacks are gaining the luxury of space, they are finding that face-out display still works its magic, as does getting books up off the bottom shelf (and, if the shelving hasn’t been swapped for something shorter, down off the top one). The impact of ebooks can’t be underestimated ­either. When HBM’s Meehan took a poll of the audience to find out how much they expected their print collections to shrink in the next ten years, the majority of librarians voted for 50 percent. Sanchez advises not waiting ten years to react to the trend, saying, “start repurposing those collection development dollars now.”

Noisy is the new normal

Where once all of a library was a place for quiet, with small, self-contained zones carved out for noisier activities (such as storytelling, meetings, and group study), now libraries are creating designated “quiet zones” and treating conversational tones as the default everywhere else. It’s “the library as extrovert,” says Lesneski, “more about energy and people, less about storage.” How much quiet space one needs and how it is used, however, varies.

Among the tropes that came up in several breakout sessions is the design principle of flowing from active to quiet zones, so that those who want the least sound have no one traipsing through their domain to get elsewhere. Other considerations may trump such concerns; designated spots for teenagers may be noisy, but they’re also best off being self-contained, as teens are territorial. “Adults don’t need ownership of space as much as teens,” says Matt Hamilton, IT manager of the Anythink Libraries in Thornton, CO. Not surprisingly, teens also prefer their space to be as far from the children’s section as possible.

Special spaces

In creative tension with the trend toward open plans is that of creating spaces for specific clienteles. “Maker” or “creative” spaces are hot, featuring everything from FinalCut Pro to Rock Band to 3-D printers. “A local history room was sexy and fun five to ten years ago,” says Lesneski. “Now it is these digital labs.” But while they have their place, “I wouldn’t get hung up on digital content creation,” says Hamilton.

Sanchez concurs. “You may have an interest in fab[rication] labs, but that doesn’t mean everybody should have them,” he says, adding that he’d turned down an early 3-D printer for his former library (at Red Rocks Community College) because he didn’t think it would be used. “We’re not Apple stores,” says Sanchez. “They treat everyone as if they’re the same height. We’re not like that. It’s a question of segmentation.”

HBM’s Meehan lists “community center, business incubator, band practice rooms, meeting rooms, and living rooms” as possible offerings, as well as a teen recording booth; ­Lesneski names interactive public art and subject matter collections collocated with less traditional resources (such as a blood pressure machine in a public health area). Hamilton goes beyond the building, suggesting outdoor classrooms and community ­gardens.

Holzman emphasizes that libraries should play to their strengths when building specialized spaces, not just follow trends. “Genealogy or some special collection might be strong,” he says, “build on those and make them more accessible.”

Alone in a crowd, together in privacy

One aspect of how patrons use libraries that drives design change is something librarians may see so often they no longer notice—the table or seating area that theoretically holds multiple people but in practice is used by only one person. Patrons are looking for “proximity, permission, privacy,” ­Lesneski says. That means “furniture that is easy to move and spaces that allow for different kinds of collaboration.” But, she cautions, “collaboration is not all about open spaces—people need to feel they are not interrupting others or being interrupted.”

Representatives from AGATI Furniture, Demco Interiors, Jasper Library Furniture, and TMC Furniture presented a range of ingenious solutions to this issue, from “pinwheel” seating to dividers that retrofit tables into high-tech pods.

Building on the DI

Despite the formidable challenges of planning and executing a construction project, the mood among DI attendees was enthusiastic about taking home lessons learned and applying them to their own libraries. Indeed, Dewberry’s Wrightson describes the process as practically addictive. “I know so many librarians who have changed jobs because they want to do it again,” she says.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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