April 24, 2018

How a Small Net-Zero Energy Library Got the World’s Attention | Library by Design, Fall 2012

The Valatie Free Library is a small library with plans to make a big difference. The threshold for defining a “small library” in the United States, according to LJ’s Best Small Library in America Award, is a library serving fewer than 25,000 people. The Valatie Free Library serves just over 4300 people and currently does so in a 750 square foot library building. Now that’s small!

Yet this small library, in rural New York, had the spotlight on it during Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012.

The library caught the attention of the UN’s Sustainability Initiative, The Future We Want/Rio+20, for its commitment to investing in a new library facility with the goal of attaining near net-zero energy usage.

Net-zero has been defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as a building that produces as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. Net-zero energy buildings are very energy efficient. The remaining low-energy needs are typically met with onsite renewable energy.

This small rural library, with an operating budget of just over $70,000, has been saving for years to address its space issues. With just 750 square feet, the library is serving its community in a facility less than one-quarter of the size necessary.

EXPANDING POSSIBILITIES The net-zero energy building planned for the Valatie Free Library, currently a mere 750 square feet (inset), includes solar panels, skylights, and ductless air-conditioning in a comfortable location with room for all constituents. Images ©2012 Valatie Free Library, all rights reserved. Architectural design and rendering by David Bienn

An explosion of activity

In the past ten years, the library has seen a literal explosion of activity; in 2002, the library offered just six programs for the public; last year, almost 140. Program attendance is up more than 1000 percent.

“Ten years ago we could fit programs outside, weather permitting, or inside the library after regular operating hours. Now, we conduct programs in a local church hall, a former village café, and the library. Scheduling events has become a challenge as we work around usage by other groups and try to fit larger groups of children into our current very small building,” says library director Elizabeth Powhida. “In the current library, seating and workspace are very limited. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to have room for tutors and their students, patrons using laptops, and people reading a newspaper or book at the one table [we have]. To accommodate this usage, we set up card tables in corners, making a crowded facility even more crowded,” says Powhida.

When a property on the main thoroughfare near the village became available, the board perked up and started watching the asking price. As the economy nose-dived, the property owners became more motivated to sell and the price dropped. The library expressed interest early on but was firm that the asking price was not within reach. After two years of patience by the library board, the owners ended up cutting the initial asking price in half, making it achievable for the library.

The building process

The “new” building was originally constructed as the Kinderhook Steam Railroad Freight Barn in the 1890s and was moved along Route 9 in the Village of  Valatie in the 1930s. By planning to use existing building stock rather than clear-cutting land and employing new resources to build a new library, the board had already begun down the path that would garner worldwide attention.

“Valatie’s 80-year-old library building was no longer meeting the needs of its constituency. Considering the exponentially rising costs of energy, a plan to relocate to a much larger space would prohibitively deplete the operating budget,” says library board president Erica Balon.

Attention to the built environment, commitment to project cost efficiency, and an eye toward feasible operating costs in a facility three times the size of its current facility have led the Valatie Free Library to begin working with architect David Bienn, who has over two decades of experience, specifically with “evergreen” design initiatives, in conjunction with sustainable communities in Europe and the United States. While working with GEN, the Global Ecovillage Network, Bienn notes he had a front-row seat to observe emerging sustainable design technologies being applied in Scandinavia, Scotland, and other sites in Europe at the time. After almost 20 years abroad, Bienn returned to the United States to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Learning from Katrina

Bienn, with input from Powhida and the Valatie library board, has designed a facility that will create a highly energy-efficient library facility using emerging-technology materials and construction techniques that have come to the fore during the rebuilding of New Orleans.

“The community has been very patient with our existing facility. We look forward to offering a library where adults can leisurely browse, teens have their special nook, and children have a secure, spacious, and cheerful room. We envision a comfortable location in which we can conduct classes and provide speakers and presentations for groups, currently impossible,” Powhida says. “I hope people will be attracted first to the beauty and energy-efficient design of the building itself and then to what this library can provide—the means to enrich life and expand its possibilities.”

Bienn views the building as a “microcosm of the community” and is motivated not only by the exciting things happening in library services these days but also by the opportunity to have this new library serve as an inspiration for sustainable design.

“The role of the designer is to listen and help to birth that process, especially in a public facility such as the Valatie Free Library, and to try to help manifest that architectural archetype that best resonates with the needs and desires of all involved,” says Bienn. “At the same time, in the Valatie project we are trying to attain a near net-zero energy use, i.e., we are trying to implement and overlay a new set of technologies that are subject to existing codes based on conventional building techniques and striving to gain ground in practical application. There are many factors to juggle to satisfy all requirements and wishes, and the end result is still a moving target.”

The Valatie design

The design includes the installation of skylights, photo­voltaic solar panel technology, and ductless air-conditioning, with the goal of creating a facility that has a low demand for energy to light, while heating and cooling it while generating the energy load that is needed onsite.

The planned building envelope, made of materials and construction techniques developed in the rebuilding of New Orleans, will also protect against fire, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, thus also saving on insurance.

“Since the Gulf Coast experienced the devastation of the storms of 2005, a whole slew of the latest building technologies have appeared as start-ups and business incubators in the region,” says Bienn. “These technologies are focused on the viability and strength of the structures in hurricane circumstances and also improve variously fire regulation standards, termite protection, and strength of materials. We expect to use one such system at Valatie—the SIP system of wall and roof construction for the new area of the building. That’s a structural steel insulated panel system, a method that has been constantly updated and improved since being originally introduced in a simple form by one of the students of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

An opportunity is also being found with the ability to generate power from the sun during an emergency, such as an ice storm or other incident. Last year the region suffered from Hurricane Irene, and many residents sought refuge in area libraries where they could charge phones, tablets, and laptops (as well as find a functioning restroom!). With a growing number of residents who are telecommuting and those who split their work between upstate towns and New York City, the ability to connect online is vital to their livelihood.

“Maintaining the status quo among universally rising costs—especially within the context of this uncertain economy—is a primary concern for donors,” says capital campaign cochair Lori Yarotsky. “The library’s operating budget is scrutinized and evaluated against both the known current rate of inflation and the unknown but exponentially rising cost of energy. The most common question I receive from donors? Is your budget sustainable? Are you sustainable for ten years or more? The solution afforded by a sustainable library with a near-net-zero footprint brings donor focus back to the classic realm, where their generosity can help [their] community, and the library can remain open and vital.”

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

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  1. Just wow!