Growing Home | Design Institute Design Challenges

Librarians from around the country convened on October 20 in Washington State, at Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s Vancouver Community Library for an exploration of community engagement, sustainable design, and adapting to changing needs. The building, a 2015 LJ New Landmark Library, serves as gathering place and convener for the midsize city and exemplified the day’s themes from start to finish.

Vancouver Community Library hosted an exploration of community engagement, sustainable design, and adapting to changing needs

Librarians from around the country convened on October 20 in Washington State, at Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s (FVRL) Vancouver Community Library (VCL). The building, a 2015 LJ New Landmark Library (NLL), serves as gathering place and convener for the midsize city (population about 175,000 as of 2016) that is also the largest suburb of neighboring Portland, OR, just across the river. Designed to evolve with changing community needs, the building exemplifies the day’s themes from start to finish.

Community concepts

The first panel, Community Engagement 360°, took a deep dive into how to engage all of a library’s many stakeholders in the process of planning a new or renovated library (something FVRL engaged in with VCL), bringing along even skeptics, and how to translate that input into the design. Panelists Jennifer Charzewski, principal at Liollio Architecture, and Dennis Humphries, principal at Humphries Poli Architects, were led by moderator Amy Lee, FVRL public services director.

The panelists suggested the first step is to start not with the existing building but with how the library wants to be seen in the community—as a leader, enabler, dreamer, or disrupter. Charzewski took the concept a step further, advising libraries to “develop a brand or identity as the result of the story of who they are and have it be inseparable from the community.”

While community conversations and focus groups are important, both noted the use of alternative methods to ensure that all voices get heard. Charzewski drew on her experience working on the St. Helena Branch Library, Beaufort County, SC, another 2015 NLL, to recommend passing out cameras for community members to take pictures of things that are important to them and holding an open mic night to collect stories (with a ringer or two in the audience to get things going). One man brought a picture of his grand­father sewing a net, a dying craft, which ultimately informed the woven nautilus feature of the final design; another told a story of community sing-a-longs, with stomping on the wood floor. When the library opened, a resident who had attended the meeting hit her cane on the floor, which was elevated so it resonated, and said, “Wow, you guys listened.”

(l.-r.): The setting was FVRL’s Vancouver Community Library; public art of verbs defining what patrons can do at the library literally lined the walls inside; where challenges were chosen.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

Humphries prescribed taking locals “on an adventure to look at library and nonlibrary spaces so they don’t stick with what is familiar. Focus on what is unique to them, but think outside the box.” He also advocated documenting on Post-its “so everyone has the same voice instead of having some speakers dominate,” then reading them back so they feel heard.

Charzewski urged librarians to include their design team in the feedback-gathering process and to go where the community is, since often the power users who attend forums don’t “represent the broad spectrum of [patrons]” let alone, as Lee pointed out, community members who don’t yet use the library, a demographic Lee said FVRL tried hard to reach during the design process.

Setting up a booth at a farmer’s market and using dot voting and Sharpie markup of images from other spaces, said Charzewski, garnered a broader range of input, as did reaching out to neighborhood associations and review boards to gather info and create a sense of ownership. Other tools included giant question dice and directed storytelling—have a toolkit with a variety of options for engaging community members, she advised. She also proposed keeping the documentation to show later to politicians.

Despite the diversity of opinions gathered through such a process, Charzewski reassured attendees that common themes do rise to the top, such as “cabin in the woods” for one library she worked on and “revitalizing a blighted neighborhood,” for another. “Stories...become the guiding lights for the project.” Local materials, too, can serve as touchstones.

Humphries offered an example: the phrase “the planes and the plains” to describe what was special about a particular community arose through the public input process for a library on which he worked. A constituent made a call and was able to get the cockpit of a 737 donated to the library, and though it is in the kids section, it has become the library’s most popular feature for adults as well.

He also reminded attendees to seek local input not only about what to change but what to keep the same, particularly in cases of renovating a beloved iconic facility. For instance, he said, when renovating a building designed by ­Michael Graves, he sought to “find out what people cherished” about the existing structure—and found it was not what he expected. Humphries also urged librarians to include homeless patrons in these conversations and to remember that small ideas are as important as big ones.

1. FVRL executive director Amelia Shelley (l.) welcomed librarians. 2. Amy Lee (r.) moderated a panel on translating deep community engagement into design with Humphries Poli’s Dennis Humphries (l.) and Liollio’s Jennifer Charzewski.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

An audience member asked how to resolve the disconnect between features that residents like in theory but don’t use in practice, such as whiteboards. Both architects recommended rapid prototyping. In one example Humphries cited, a library built its service desk out of plywood and kept changing it as it was used until a design that was sure to work was reached.

Sustainable substance

Another major theme of the day was sustainability, as befitted VCL’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold–certified setting. Patti Southard, program manager for the “GreenTools” building program in King County, WA, delivered a keynote on transforming our environment through regenerative design. Southard emphasized connecting environmental considerations to equity and social justice, citing King County’s strategic plan, impact review tool, training, and scorecard and its partnership with Miller Hull to develop equity training for architects. She laughingly commiserated with attendees about this new item on an already ambitious agenda: “in addition to everything else you have to do, you now have to combat fascism.” But, she said, it’s important and, in collaboration, achievable. “We’re in it together, y’all.”

She also spoke on the Living Building Challenge, saying “it’s an advocacy tool and it really is a challenge” to push past minimal damage or even zero damage goals to aim for buildings that make things better. Southard said the water and energy components of the challenge are reachable; “the biggest challenge is finding materials that are toxin free.” But, she said, we must “balance easy wins with pushing the envelope” because the role of libraries as examples for others to follow is important for the good of all.

Following Southard’s inspirational presentation, Amelia Shelley, FVRL executive director, led a panel on Smart Sustainability featuring Jeff Davis, principal, Arch Nexus, and Chris Noll, principal, Noll & Tam Architects. The primary focus was on people—specifically staff and patrons who will use the building.

1. Tech Logic’s Anthony Frey answered questions about automatic materials handling and offered a case study. 2. Panels and presentations took center stage in the Columbia Room.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

Davis suggested Inhabit, a tool that trains those in the building on how their behaviors impact energy usage. There are also tools that help with energy conservation, such as lights that let staff know when to override the HVAC and open the windows. Noll emphasized the importance of training a broad range of staff, not just a few key facilities point people, saying the latter are usually “pretty forward thinking and willing to buy in; the problem comes at the back end.”

Davis also said solar panels are a good return on investment as costs are coming down and suggested focusing on the areas around the windows and where the roof meets the wall—libraries can even implement “envelope commissioning” to see how those spaces are performing.

Davis and Noll both emphasized the importance of daylighting. “Not just sticking a skylight in anywhere and calling it daylighting but thinking it through to maximize light and minimize heat” through complex modeling computer programs, said Noll. Water conservation is a tougher sell because it doesn’t save libraries much off the bottom line, he added, but at least in drought-prone places such as California, consciousness has been raised. Davis concurred. “If you think about the costs of conveying it to your building and away, those are huge costs. It gives the community a return on investment,” he said, even if it doesn’t show up in the library budget specifically. However, some green features don’t deliver a good ROI, even though they help a building qualify for LEED status. Davis recommended skipping electric car charging stations. “Nobody uses them,” he said. Noll said the same of employee showers (which count as sustainable because, in theory, they encourage employees to walk, run, or bike to work rather than drive).

1. Keynote speaker Patti Southard from Washington State’s King County GreenTools shared thoughts on regenerative design. 2. Lunch was served at Fort Vancouver’s nearby historic Red Cross Building. 3. Attendees carved out a separate space for teens during Puyallup PL’s challenge session.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

Adapting & evolving

The final panel of the day addressed how libraries can create buildings that can change with the times, how to implement change to even recently constructed buildings—and how to sell stakeholders on the necessity of such changes without fostering the perception that the original plan was a mistake. Meredith Schwartz, executive editor, LJ, moderated a panel featuring Ruth Baleiko, partner, Miller Hull Partnership; David Schnee, principal, Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning; and David Wark, principal, Hennebery Eddy Architects.

“A building is not something you finish but something you start,” said Wark. Within a building, each system has its own life span, leading to short- and long-term alterations. In addition, he said, buildings must respond to external factors, such as the continued expansion of tech and, particularly in the Northwest, sheer population growth.

Baleiko added, “It’s not if your building will be renovated but when.” She cited Bruce Ziegman, former FVRL director, who built VCL, as saying, “This has to be a 100-year building—the most flexible chassis to change after we’ve gone.”

Specifically, Baleiko suggested fewer columns, better sight lines, and raised floors as gifts to librarians’ successors to allow easy relocation of shelving, power, and lighting. “Embrace the idea that people after you need to be nimble” and respond to users.” And what are those users likely to ask for? According to Schnee, the basics: “more power, more data, more seats.”

1. Discussing adaptable design were Hennebery Eddy Architects’ David Wark, Group 4 Architecture’s David Schnee, and Miller Hull’s Ruth Baleiko. 2. Chris Noll from Noll & Tam (l.) and Jeff Davis from Arch Nexus talked smart sustainability. 3. Charzewski shared her expertise during the speed sessions.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

Community needs are constantly evolving, and by the time a new building comes to fruition, “new behaviors are starting to manifest,” Baleiko said. “That’s how the tweens [area] came about [at VCL]. We had to retool and carve out a space. The idea that any update means we failed is wrong. Change is more rapid now, and it’s a good thing.”

Schnee cited the Santa Clara Central Park Library, CA, as an example of a relatively recently remodeled library in need of an update. Its reading room, finished almost 20 years ago, featured a reference desk and periodicals collection. So, said Schnee, “we brought in drawing tables to replace the reference desk and got rid of the periodicals collections and put in a virtual reality gallery instead.”

Schnee urged attendees to “take lessons from the hospitality and retail worlds. The public expects things to change. We have to tell them there’s a price tag for that.”

To adapt to the evolving needs of their own users, attendees applied the lessons of the day in breakout design sessions (see p. 38ff.) and brought their own challenges to the architects through speed sessions. For those who want to know more, join us at the next Design Institute, in Salt Lake City, April 26–27.

Design Challenges

Corvallis–Benton County Public Library  OR

ARCHITECT:  Arch | Nexus

THE CHALLENGE: The Corvallis–Benton County Public Library is located in a university town of about 57,000 people, with a service population of approximately 87,000. The library’s foundation was recently bequeathed the building next door and is planning to fundraise before remodeling. The current library facility encompasses more than 55,000 square feet. The system would like to expand the library to meet demand and activity levels, which have outgrown current space, and has a vision to “complete the block.”

Architect Jeff Davis from Arch Nexus (l.) presented an aerial view of the proposed Corvallis-Benton expansion and engaged participants in roughing out alternative uses for the new space. CBCPL librarian Ashlee Chavez (r., in pink) offered context to Davis and the group.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Because the opportunity to acquire the adjacent building is driving the timing, the library faces the unusual decision of having space it doesn’t know what to do with. A key concern is to keep the work affordable “without donor fatigue,” says the library’s Ashlee Chavez, since they will be going to the voters for a levy renewal soon, yet deliver high value that’s not already part of the package. After architect Jeff Davis and his team brought the attendees up to speed on the project and basic constraints, the group brainstormed together and divided in half to explore in more depth the two most popular suggestions: one focused on an addition and one on outside space. In practice, however, both plans converged on similar themes: a glassed-in or partially glassed-in area, inspired by one at a local university, which would provide outdoor room in the summer yet be usable (and programmable) year round; space for events; expanded real estate for kids and teens, including Maker projects; and change and activity visible from outside the building. One librarian even suggested a scratch and sniff garden!—Meredith Schwartz

Cottage Grove Public Library  OR

ARCHITECT:  Miller Hull

THE CHALLENGE: Cottage Grove is in the early dreaming stage of planning a new library. Just south of Eugene, OR, the city is home to 10,000 and serves an equal number from the surrounding area. It has a history of logging, farming, and, recently, ecoliving. Director Pete Barrell (a 2017 LJ Mover & Shaker) hopes to double the current 20,000 square foot space and “create an amazing, inspiring, energy-efficient building that will serve the community for a minimum of 50 years.”

Miller Hull’s Ruth Baleiko (l.) listened as Cottage Grove director Pete Barrell (r. front, gesturing) put forth the aspirations for a new 50-year library.
Photo by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Miller Hull’s Ruth Baleiko dubbed the breakout the “Big Picture” and led participants through a series of core questions that stimulated discussion, such as, What does the library of the future mean to you? How are your communities evolving? How can we be inclusive and approachable? How do we feed curiosity across life’s journey? How does the library lead on renewable energy and resource stewardship? Besides flexibility, the answers to nearly all the questions and future needs focused on gearing the library to the community, including demystifying the library, giving people permission to move things, creating spaces that feel small and noninstitutional, and building skills and learning in adults and across families, with workshops open to all ages. “The future is responsive,” said one participant, and that means developing programs and spaces with input from those who will use them. Specifics ranged from digital signage and info screens to cooking areas and live-streaming programs, from satellite library outposts and story walks to renewable energy, edible landscapes, and living walls. One participant suggested, “A Maker space should be an empty room; maybe it becomes a writing center, or an outgrowth of what the community wants.”—Francine Fialkoff

Pierce County Library System  WA

ARCHITECT:  Liollio Architecture

THE CHALLENGE: Pierce County Library System comprises 20 branches and serves a population of nearly 600,000 people. Many are in smaller communities and were built prior to the Internet age. Pierce County is interested in cost-effective ways to bring several libraries up-to-date with new technology, furniture, and more seating. It is also looking for ideas that would help each facility reflect the local community and could be scaled up or down depending on the funding raised.

Liollio associate Angie Brose (l.) discussed space allocations suggested by attendees for Pierce County’s renovation of similar libraries with different needs. Liollio’s Jennifer Charzewski (r.) shared her thoughts on the results.
Photos by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Liollio principal Jennifer Charzewski and associate Angie Brose divided participants into two groups to explore renovating the Buckley and Steilacoom buildings. Both share the same basic design, are about 4,000 square feet, and were built in the early 1990s. Buckley is “above the fog and below the snow” and conjures images of timber and flannel. Steilacoom has a proud tradition of civic involvement; it’s an idyllic small town. The architects provided a variety of design devices, including an easy-to-replicate diagramming method dubbed “the spider tool.” On a sheet of paper, in two columns, attendees listed desired activities (both existing and ones in which the public expressed interest) and desired spaces for each library, including ideas for different age groups, programs, and services, as well as the lobby, lawn, and even parking lot. Then participants drew lines between each activity and any space where that could take place. This highlighted which spaces were most useful.

Since each branch had unique projects, in addition to more traditional programs and services, the list of important spaces was different. For example, Buckley has yoga and poetry slams, which added value to flexible indoor spaces, while Steilacoom has a Summer Farmer’s Market, which suggested stronger development of outdoor areas. The next task was to make sure the high-priority spaces were well placed. Attendees used cardboard circles of varying sizes and colors to position the spaces in appropriate relationships around the building. Additional elements were also considered. For example, Steilacoom has a small stand of old oak trees on one side. This fueled discussions about creating a community room that could open onto an outdoor patio under the trees, which would create one large space for summer events, or two smaller spaces.—Sam Wallin

Puyallup Public Library  WA

ARCHITECT:  Noll & Tam Architects

THE CHALLENGE: Puyallup Public Library is located near Tacoma, in Pierce County, WA, not far from Seattle. The 12-year-old, 40,000 square foot facility features two floors with a beautiful rotunda and serves 66,000 cardholders. Situated across from Pioneer Park, a pedestrian-friendly area with views of Mt. Rainier, the library is a popular spot for the community; however, teens don’t spend much time there. With little more than a few shelves and chairs to call their own, they hang out in the parking lot instead. Inspired by the Teen Zone at the Vancouver Community Library, Director Patty Ross hopes to incorporate a 15,000 square foot teen center into the existing building.

Noll and Tam’s Chris Noll (c.) showed participants how to work with cutouts to create a teen space in the Puyallup rotunda.
Photo by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Architects Chris Noll and Scott Salge led attendees through a design exercise to help them understand various elements of a teen area and why they are important to allow teens to experiment and learn what it means to be responsible. Space considerations include: Open or enclosed? Independence or supervision? Active or quiet? Individual or group? Armed with a floor plan of the library and paper cutouts of furniture, fixtures, and equipment, participants split into groups to come up with new ideas for a teen area.

All incorporated the rotunda, and glass was the most popular option for a wall, letting teens be part of the larger library while enjoying independence (and the view!). One group used the rotunda for group study tables and lounging, the area outside the rotunda for seating and materials, and extended to the other side of the second floor to encompass a Maker space. Another included video games to encourage group activity. And a third suggested rounded furniture to mimic the lines of the rotunda and low shelving so patrons can enjoy the mountain view from anywhere in the room.—Kim McNally

Woodland Community Library  WA

ARCHITECT:  Hennebery Eddy Architects

THE CHALLENGE: Fort Vancouver Library District recently purchased 2.4 acres in Woodland, WA. With a population of just over 6,000, Woodland is part of a rapidly growing area spanning two counties. The current Woodland Community Library was identified as needing a new, larger, and more modern building through a 2013 districtwide facilities study. A predesign survey in 2014 recommended a 10,000 square foot facility to replace the existing two-story, 2,000 square foot structure that has served as the community library since 1926. The new library should reflect a strong sense of area history and include a generous outdoor space with integrated access to a flexible-use interior.

Manipulatives and craft supplies from Hennebery Eddy helped attendees grapple with Woodland Community Library’s children, outdoor, adult, and teen areas.
Photo by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Hennebery Eddy principal David Wark and interior designer Ashley Nored introduced the project by directing our attention to three posters: photos depicting the setting and surrounding area of the town; a collection of inspirational concept ideas; and aerial views of the property. The satellite photos included a graphic of the noise impact from the adjacent arterial roadway and major freeway along with three possible building locations, designating potential combinations of areas for parking, outdoor events, green space, and excess property for future subdivision and sale. Participants divided into four groups, each focusing on a specific area: children, outdoor, adult, and teen. Each was provided with a large sheet of paper, a wide variety of manipulatives, and craft items to stimulate creativity and visualize spatial concepts. Movable furniture, children’s story time space, innovation lab, stroller parking, outdoor poetry walk, individual study pods, and family Internet stations were a few of the great ideas that emerged from the exercise. Collaborating, generating ideas, and building on each other’s suggestions provided new perspectives and produced a wealth of solutions for each specific area.—Jennifer Hauan

Yakima Valley Libraries  WA

ARCHITECT:  Humphries Poli Architects

THE CHALLENGE: Yakima’s Central Library and Service Center needs a reallocation of space. According to Director Kim Hixson, the 40,000 square foot building in the heart of downtown Yakima includes about 13,000 square feet of public library space. The 1957 building houses all service departments as well as branch staff: about 50 people altogether. Finding an off-site location for Service Center staff is off the table, says Hixson. Although the library was remodeled in 2012, with refreshed restrooms, a centralized circulation desk, mobile computer desks, and a new teen space, further adjustments are required. With no designated programming area, quiet study on the mezzanine is often interrupted by children’s activities directly below. The library needs more room to accommodate its users.

At the Yakima Valley Libraries challenge, run by Humphries Poli, participants broke into groups to approach the library’s space reallocation: one as dreamers and one as disrupters. Using various kinds of candy to indicate function, the two came up with deliciously different designs.
Photo by Kevin Henegan

THE BRAINSTORM: Architect Dennis Humphries and designer Caitlin Bullock reviewed the importance of branding and community engagement before starting a project. Introducing brand archetypes created by branding experts Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, Humphries described the library we grew up with as the “Enabler,” providing consistent support and service. The library of the future is the “Dreamer,” leading, inspiring, and forward-looking, or the “Disrupter,” ahead of the times, challenging, and risk-taking. Bullock discussed community engagement techniques as she showed a series of inspiring images to spark creativity. Attendees then broke into two groups—Dreamers and Disrupters—and got down to designing. Dreamers displaced staff and returned prime real estate to the public by moving the computer lab and adding space for laptops; moving the library entrance to a corner near the drive-through book drop; and giving teens their own domain. Library activity was kept near the street where it would be visible through the windows. Their wildcard was a small Maker space near the new entry, providing engaging activity with natural lighting. Disrupters also reduced the amount of computer space, adding checkout laptops to the mix and creating more variation and flexible seating. The circulation desk was reduced, and a self-checkout zone added. A new corner entry featured a waterfall, and artwork made the mezzanine stairway more inviting. Disrupters proposed moving Service Center staff to the lower level (now mostly storage), investing in making the space usable and attractive for employees.—Mary Campbell


Special thanks to our sponsors for their generous support of and participation in LJ’s Design Institute


Arch Nexus Jeff Davis, Principal; 916-443-5911 Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning David Schnee, Principal; 650-871-0709 Hennebery Eddy Architects, Inc. David Wark, Principal; 503-227-4860 Humphries Poli Architects Dennis Humphries, Principal; 303-607-0040 Liollio Architecture Jennifer Charzewski, Principal; 843-762-2222 Miller Hull Partnership Ruth Baleiko, Partner; 206-682-6837 Noll & Tam Architects Chris Noll, Principal; 510-542-2200


Tech Logic Anthony Frey, Senior Solutions Specialist; 800-494-9330


Fort Vancouver Regional Library District Amelia Shelley, Executive Director; 360-906-5011
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