March 19, 2018

Change Is Coming: Design Institute, Cuyahoga County, OH | Library by Design

LJ’s Design Institute (DI) in Cuyahoga County, OH, was itself an example of one of the major trends it planned to cover—flexibility. When Hurricane Sandy rendered New York–based LJ staff and many presenters incommunicado or unable to travel to the event on its originally scheduled date, architects and the event’s host, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), worked with LJ to pull off a rescheduled get-together only a month later on December 14, 2012. Attendees re­arranged their schedules to provide a full house despite the short notice and approaching holiday season.

Flexible thinking

By the time architects and attendees alike made it to the Focus on Flexibility panel, everyone involved had already practiced what they preached and were ready to get down to brass tacks. Gillian Miller, operations project manager, Queens Library, NY, led a panel on the practical aspects of how to deliver a flexible facility that can adapt to the challenges we can’t predict, decades down the line.

Adrianne Ralph, facilities design coordinator, King County Library System, WA, recommended designing for simplicity: a rectangular or square space with as few columns as possible, with an intuitive flow of traffic, to minimize the need for signage (or asking a librarian where the bathrooms are).

Richard Ortmeyer, principal, Bostwick Design Partnership, took the principle of repurposeable space one step further, suggesting that libraries choose their sites with room to expand—and to look at “soft space” that can be easily adapted to satisfy a variety of uses without professional intervention. Ortmeyer also suggested putting the windows where people can see fun things happening in the library—that the building should “be its own billboard.”

Meanwhile, Tracy Sweeney, project architect/designer, senior associate, Fanning Howey Associates, suggested that “mass customization,” which works with computer-aided manufacturing to produce custom output, will make having some features tailored specifically to a single library’s users’ needs and tastes more affordable in the future. She emphasized the importance of making room for content creation but cautioned against becoming “so future-­focused that you don’t invest in current expectations.” She also pointed to the trend toward making the back end of how the library works visible to patrons via things like transparent sections of raised floors or visible automatic sorters. Sweeney noted that, ironically, it can be “[hard] to design a high-end space that shows some of the ‘stage magic’ but not all.”

Taking a broader interpretation of future-focus, one that encompasses the planet and not just the library, solar tubes, storm water for irrigation, and geothermal heating were concepts all raised during the day. (Investing in these ecofriendly technologies may cost more up-front but will save on operating costs, as well as environmental impacts, in the future.) Ortmeyer summed up the essence of a flexible design by saying, “Everything that can be furniture, should be.”

Furnishing the future

Furniture vendors were certainly ready to take up that challenge. In the Product and Furniture Showcase, moderated by Rebecca Miller, editor in chief, School Library Journal, panelists from Spacesaver Corp., Demco Interiors, Tech Logic, TMC Furniture, Brodart Contract Furniture, and AGATI Furniture highlighted trends in library furnishings, which included many different configurations of freestanding banquettes and lifting desks.

The theme of showing the stage magic was repeated—“libraries today want materials handling systems to be more visible to patrons, transparent from book drop to workroom,” Steve Day, sales consultant, Tech Logic, explained, which can be a challenge in legacy buildings. Other trends included a focus on ergonomics in general, and senior citizen-friendly furniture in particular, which is not too deep or low, so patrons can get their feet under them to rise. Tiltable bottom shelves make the lower collection items more visible without stooping, and Lucas Fanning, marketing manager of Brodart, sounded a green note, citing demand for locally sourced lumber and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) chain-of-custody documentation.

The community library

On the Incorporating Community panel, Sari Feldman, CCPL’s executive director, polled architects and fellow librarians on how to give a library local flavor, a discussion that proved, ultimately, to be less about incorporating local construction materials than about how to discover and meet the needs of the patrons who will actually use that library. For example, Feldman’s library focus groups and feedback processes have generated top priorities ranging from cafés to meeting space.

Susan Kotarba, director of public service, Denver Public Library, (DPL) offered the Green Valley Branch of DPL as an example of how local feedback can shape planning within a larger system. The library uses demographic data to determine which of three basic branch styles a community is most suited to—one focused on families, with collocated materials so parents and kids can be in the same space; one focused on language and learning; and the “contemporary” model, which centers on the latest trends, a fast pace, and self-service. But within that, feedback from residents acknowledged Green Valley’s iconic self-image as “the plains and the planes” (from the nearby airport), Kotarba said, and how discovery informed the character and architecture of the building. Wavy aero­dynamic shapes hang from the library ceiling, and four sections of the library’s overhanging roof tilt up at a slight angle reminiscent of airplane wings, LJ reported in the Fall 2012 issue of Library by Design (LJ 9/15/12). Abstractions of aerial views of crops are found in the carpets and landscaping, and a Discovery Pod constructed from a 737 cockpit attracts the most attention.

Another theme that emerged was providing community members with background in what other libraries and public buildings are doing, so they have a common architectural palette or vocabulary to use. Otherwise, Richard McCarthy, principal, Dewberry, said, “If you ask what they want, they’ll say the same [as what they have now] but bigger.” Other suggestions included remembering to ask community members what they don’t like or want, as well as what they do, said Daria Pizzetta, partner, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. And Peter Bolek, principal, HBM Architects, suggested getting community members involved in planning adjacencies.

Likewise, there was broad agreement for getting the community involved in the ongoing design process, not just the initial brainstorming phase. Successful examples ranged from community members putting pieces of themselves into the design—McCarthy designed time capsules in cornerstones and laminated glass featuring handprints of local kids—to documenting the ongoing progress and (figuratively) inviting the community backstage to watch the construction, whether documented by a local photographer, as Kotarba did with a recent project, or by using automated technology: Pizzetta mounted a camera on a pole and had it photograph the site every 12 hours, so community members could see it take shape over time. Tracy Strobel, CCPL deputy director, added the finishing touch by tying building projects back in to regular, ongoing library services. Cuyahoga built on the interest generated by its ambitious program of building and renovation—which included seven new branches, two groundbreakings, and nine renovations and counting—by making its summer reading theme “construction” (something that also lends itself to common boys’ interest and the nonfiction emphasis of Common Core).

One final fruitful topic was what to do when a substantial subsection of the community doesn’t want a new library at all, because they’re attached to the old one. As an extension of the idea of educating community members on what is possible, Pizzetta recommended bringing community members on a bus tour of a new branch or neighboring library. McCarthy suggested providing a list of all the operations the library would like to encompass but can’t within the existing facility, and Bolek gave a nod to translating the “essence” of the old building into the new, as well as finding a purpose for the old facility so it remains a part of the community.

A challenging choice

Rather than running a second round of challenge breakout sessions, as was done at previous DIs, the architects instead presented a summary of the initial challenge and their brainstorming group’s response to it to the whole audience in the form of a panel, a move that several attendees hailed as taking the pain out of deciding which breakout to attend.

Photos 1, 2, 3, 6, 14, 15, 16, 17 & 18 by Kevin Henegan; all other photos by Michael McElroy/Getty Images



Bostwick Design Partnership
Richard L. Ortmeyer AIA LEED AP, Principal

Denelle C. Wrightson, Director,
Library Architecture

Fanning Howey
Tracy Sweeney, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BC+C,
Project Architect/Designer, Senior Associate

H3 Hardy Collaboration
Architecture, LLC

Daria Pizzetta, Partner

HBM Architects
Dan Meehan, AIA,
LEED AP, Principal


AGATI Furniture
Teresa Downs,
Downs and Associates

DEMCO Library Interiors
Janet Nelson,
Director, Business Development

Lyngsoe Library Systems
Corey McCoy, Director;

Milissa Rick, Director of Corporate Marketing;

Tech Logic
Mike Heitzman, Engineering Consultant

TMC Furniture
Spike Oliver, Marketing & Sales


Cuyahoga County Public Library
Sari Feldman, Executive Director

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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  1. Fran Mentch says:

    Cuyahoga County Public Library has put the home of it’s South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch up for sale. The building, called Telling Mansion, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an Ohio Landmark.

    According to the Library, It would cost $5million to renovate Telling Mansion and it will cost $12.6 for a new library that will look like the Warrensville Library in the photo above.

    The community does not want Telling Mansion to be sold for pennies on the dollar. It cost $700,000 to build in 1930, so you can imagine how beautiful it is. The Library Board and Director Sari Feldman are negotiating to sell it for $755,000.

    Please compare the photo of the Warrensville building (above) to this:

    Should librarians and library boards sometimes listen to what the community wants? Or at least survey them?