Public Properties | LJ's 2019 Design Institutes, Colorado Springs and Austin

When creating sustainable library designs, planners start by looking at elements that can be reused. Much inspired and practical design has emerged by repurposing and building on or around what already exists: structures, materials, public spaces, personnel—and, as two recent Library Journal Design Institutes in Colorado Springs and Austin demonstrated—community.

When creating sustainable library designs, planners start by looking at elements that can be reused. Much inspired and practical design has emerged by repurposing and building on or around what already exists: structures, materials, public spaces, personnel—and, as two recent Library Journal Design Institutes demonstrated—community.

LJ’s Design Institutes in Colorado Springs, CO, held at the Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) on September 13, and Austin, TX, at the Austin Public Library (APL) on October 14, highlighted regenerative, sustainable design. Building from the ground up offers the chance to control variables to reflect 21st-century energy and material usage ideals, but new construction is often out of reach financially. Ratio | HPA Principal Dennis Humphries echoed Carl Elefante’s belief that “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”



Gail Vittori, co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and 2014-2019 Board Chair of Green Business Certification Inc., kicked off the Austin event with a keynote on how buildings can advance health and environmental goals. She urged library leaders and their architects to set ambitious goals for themselves and their buildings: “Do things because they’re hard,” she said, and cited the host library, Austin’s new flagship, which was organized around the central aim to be “the best daylit library in the world” while also addressing stormwater management (crucial in an area facing both flooding and drought), the heat island effect, loss of biodiversity, and climate warming. In Austin, she said, the library’s eco-consciousness was part of a larger city project to achieve carbon neutral city operations by 2020 and zero waste by 2040.

PEAK EXPERIENCE Top: PIkes Peak’s repurposed Knights of Columbus Hall welcomed the DI; bottom: Pikes Peak CEO John Spears (r.) talked nontraditional spaces with (l.-r.) ArchNexus’s Jeff Davis, Ratio l HPA’s Dennis Humphries, Margaret Sullivan Studio’s Lyna Vuong, and Group 4 Architecture’s Andrea Gifford. Photos by Kevin Henegan

To achieve those goals, libraries should not hesitate to bring in outside experts to collaborate with and mentor local firms. Austin retained the foremost daylighting expert in the country, from Seattle, to consider the quantity and quality of daylight. (Later in the event, experts echoed this approach, urging that architects with a national practice specializing in libraries team with local architects. On small projects, a consultant can provide expertise to a local architect; Jeff Hoover, principal of Tappé Architects, suggests that libraries keep the consultant on through the design phase so they can give feedback and catch mistakes.)

Vittori also touted integrative design, a process that encourages multiple stakeholders to work through options before decision-making starts, and which tries to establish principles, metrics, and benchmarks. It takes more time in the beginning, she explained, but it can prevent more costly mistakes, delays, and changes later. “The luxury of time for integrative design yields results above standard practice,” Vittori said.

To make sure that green choices don’t get value-engineered out of the process at the cost-cutting stage, Vittori said libraries need to integrate sustainable strategies into the planning and to develop a lifespan and durability matrix for systems and materials not made from unhealthy compounds. They may cost more up front but can save a lot by reducing turnover.

John Daniels, LEED AP and facilities planning manager for Austin, reinforced Vittori’s message and talked about the library’s sustainability success story. The new library, the city’s first LEED Platinum building, reduced net energy use by 43 percent with the help of a solar array, making it 30 percent more efficient than energy code and saving the equivalent of the energy used by 130 households per year. Eighty percent of the library’s public spaces are daylit; baffled clerestory windows bounce light off the building, and 97 percent of regularly occupied spaces have views of the outdoors. The library also reduced indoor potable water use by 93 percent and irrigation with potable water by 100 percent via storm water harvesting.

Construction used 21 percent recycled materials and 23 percent local building materials, including mesquite flooring. The facilities staff was initially skeptical about the value of the wood, often considered a weed locally, he said, but it has proven extremely durable. Plants help in other ways, too; a living roofscape not only provides a biodiverse garden getaway for patrons—and is a popular spot for weddings—but also serves as living insulation.



The Colorado Springs event celebrated creative reclamation beginning with its venue: A former Knights of Columbus Hall (KCH) adjacent to PPLD’s Penrose Library. Constructed in 1928, the building served as a meeting and lecture hall, gym, concert hall, and venue for school activities. The city purchased it for use as a local history museum and did duty as office space before Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) acquired it in 1991.

AUSTIN POWER Austin’s award-winning new library, site of the Austin DI. Photos by Kevin Henegan

For almost a quarter century, the library used the nearly 12,000 square foot building for storage and office space. In 2015, they decided to return the hall to its original use as a community resource and undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation. In 2017, under chief librarian and CEO John Spears, the building was further revitalized in collaboration with a local arts and performance group.

The current KCH comfortably seats 300 people, and has hosted everything from punk rock shows to zine-making workshops. Airy and minimalist, with exposed brick walls and understated original details, it is at first glance the polar opposite of PPLD’s cutting-edge Library 21c, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2014 (which garnered great enthusiasm from participants on the tour of area libraries). But the spirit behind the KCH—engaging all sectors of a diverse and rapidly growing community—aligns with that of the PPLD system and Spears’s vision, and the reclaimed space proved to be an apropos setting for focusing on creative and sustainable design.

In addition to Library 21C, the Colorado Springs tour brought visitors to PPLD’s striking High Prairie Library and Colorado College’s Charles L. Tutt Library, featured in LJ’s “Reaching Net Zero: Library Design.” Aspirational and intentional library design can go beyond LEED certification or even net zero and practice regenerative design with the goal of producing more than a building needs and giving energy back to the grid. While not every aspect is attainable for every library—in Colorado, for example, rainwater runoff can’t be legally collected for non-agricultural reasons—there are many ways that libraries can incorporate regenerative components into new structures.

SMART DESIGN CHOICES Maddy Orick from Margaret Sullivan Studio and Jill Eyres from Group 4 shared thoughts on regenerative design in Colorado Springs. Photos by Kevin Henegan

An expert panel on Regenerative Design all agreed: The ideal is a challenge, but not as far out of reach as many might think—and can pay off for those thinking long-term. Humphries pointed to an Idaho library that used cross-laminated timber—smaller pieces of scrap lumber glued together—for its floor and wall construction. This decision promoted environmentally responsible foresting, he explained, and produced ten percent less carbon dioxide than cutting new timber.

Resist the urge to value engineer your project yourself, said Jill Eyres, senior associate at Group 4 Architecture. “Work with designers so you don’t have to make choices between what’s affordable versus what you feel is right.”

Regenerative design is not always about physical resources. Eyres pointed to the High Prairie Library, with its garden that enables the library to partner with the local food bank. “That’s a regenerative way of looking at library service.” Community can also be thought of as a regenerative resource, said Maddy Orick designer at Margaret Sullivan Studio. “If you’re building community well, then you’re building regenerative community. If you design your library in the beginning to react to things in the future, you’re designing a cost effective building.”

The community also needs to buy into the idea of a library that may cost more up front in order to invest in its future. Local funding and grants can help, but ultimately, noted Humphries, the library needs to make a case for the value of sustainable building. “We’re the most trusted institution in America. We should have very high standards,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.” As it’s always more expensive to redesign or retrofit for sustainability than to build it in in the first place, he said, make it a point to get what you want funded at the start. John Chrastka, founder of library funding PAC EveryLibrary, addressed how best to get community buy in and to back funding at the levels needed.

If that’s not possible, added ArchNexus principal Jeff Davis, “sometimes you can plan: ‘net zero ready’ or ‘solar ready.’” He cited a project that couldn’t fund solar panels at the time of construction, so the library designed a storage room that could someday become a solar power converter room, complete with cable-ready conduit. “By the time the project was constructed, the grant had come through,” said Davis. “But whether it had been a few months or several years, the library would have been ready.”



When it comes to placemaking, said Denver City Librarian Michelle Jeske in her Colorado keynote, “The community is the expert.”

Humphries agreed: “The library should be of the community, not just in the community.” Engaging the public in the design process—and making sure it includes both non-users and power users—is crucial to designing a library that will truly serve the current and future needs of the community. And it will convince voters to fund it.

Austin architects on a panel moderated by Texas State Librarian Mark Smith emphasized the importance of getting not just library leaders, but architects, into the conversation with the community early. Tappé Architects principal Jeff Hoover emphasized, “The person who is going to put pencil to paper needs to be present at those community meetings,” both listening and asking the right questions. Amanda Rienth, principal of Holzman Moss Bottino, concurred. “It is important for us to be the loop early,” she said, particularly with the underserved and the unserved.

INTENTIONALLY INTEGRAL John Chraska (l.) discussed how to get public buy-in for funding; DPL’s Michele Jeske (r.) talked about how to forge community connections. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Hoover said the same applies to the business community, but that nonusers may feel they don’t have an important perspective to offer. To combat that, he says, employ narrative. “I like to do story time. This is a day in the life of your future library. Then you ask the room, ‘did you see yourself in the story? If not, what was missing?’”

That narrative approach goes both ways: Visioning sessions, including phototyping—asking residents to bring pictures of what’s important to them and then tell stories about those images—can help uncover unexpected needs.

The key to hearing every voice and not allowing the loudest to dominate is to offer different channels for communication. Rienth listed face-to-face discussions, focus groups, and online surveys, and Hoover added paper surveys and a pop-up library presence at popular local destinations. At least some of the methods should “give people a chance to respond not in the moment,” Hoover suggested, adding that ideally libraries and their design teams should parse the resulting data by demographics rather than simply tabulating it to get more meaningful design input.

Rienth said she likes “to take all the feedback we’ve heard and form guiding principles for the project,” such as “ultimate patron convenience.” These can be taken back to the community to demonstrate that they’ve been heard, can be used during the value engineering process as a guide to what can be cut, and ultimately can demonstrate that the project achieved its goals.

Though it may seem daunting to meet seemingly incompatible public desires, the architects felt it was doable to provide for a variety of needs. And for those who simply don’t want to pay taxes and don’t intend to use the library, Hoover advised speaking in terms of what the community as a whole needs, such as a place for teens to go after school—and teens themselves should be given a say in the process to give them a sense of ownership.



At the beginning of her keynote, Jeske said that she has been thinking extensively about the public that Denver Public Library (DPL) serves A bond approved in 2017 will ultimately finance the renovation of 11 system branches, including the Central Library, and she has done her best to approach the process slowly and thoughtfully. Local trends include a sharp uptick in the sharing and gig economy, an aging population, and increasingly diverse neighborhoods. The question she leads with, said Jeske, is: “How do you make spaces feel welcoming when you have so many kinds of people coming in the door?”

In the many community conversations that DPL leadership has recently undertaken, Jeske has been struck by a growing lack of interpersonal connection. People feel that their relationships are more tenuous than ever, and cite an increasing degree of isolation, with limited opportunities for dialog—the fallout of the drive for efficiency that has given rise to self-checkouts, online shopping, and meal delivery services. According to, three in ten millennials say they often or always feel lonely, and 22 percent say they have no friends. People over 75 are particularly prone to social isolation.

DPL’s vision of working to create welcoming spaces—and its values of curiosity, connections, equity, and stewardship—have helped guide its planning processes. Jeske pointed to sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s emphasis on social infrastructure, and to the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, which calls on public spaces to serve as connectors, increasing access to opportunities that already exist.

Pay attention to community needs, Jeske said; during the 2018–19 government shutdown, the library hosted potluck dinners for people who were out of work. Set up spaces that bring people together, she continued, and triangulate by bringing several elements together at one time.

Create spaces that allow users to be alone together as well; people don’t necessarily want to be social, but they don’t want to be isolated at home. Low-fi connectors, such as publicly posting questions with a pile of Post-it notes nearby, or the cardboard Harry Potter maze built by DPL librarians, can bring people into each other’s orbits in different ways.



No report from DPL would be complete without mention of the 24-foot-high chicken skeleton displayed in the Central Library’s main hall. “This is the kind of surprise, and the kind of exhibit, that stops people in their tracks,” said Jeske. Any element that makes patrons stop and talk to each other serves the purpose of the community, she added. “Casual interactions make people feel mentally healthy.”

A move away from conventional space design can help inspire this kind of interaction, noted Group 4 Architecture principal Andrea Gifford on the expert panel “Alternative, Nontraditional Spaces,” by building the element of surprise and delight into the library, as well as designing spaces in response to unique differentiating factors in the community.

TALKING DESIGN IN TEXAS top photo, l.-r.: Gail Vittori, keynote in Austin; Texas State Librarian Mark Smith (r.) led an Austin panel on public engagement with (l.-r.) Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture’s Amanda Rienth and Tappé Architects’ Jeff Hoover. Bottom row: Austin’s John Daniels touted his library’s LEED stats; (l.-r.) VMDO’s Jim Kovach and Noll & Tam’s Trina Goodwin looked ahead to new services with Austin Communty College’s Julie Todaro. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Margaret Sullivan Studio experience design director Lyna Vuong cited recent community planning sessions for a library that revealed a large community of crafters selling on Etsy, leading to the development of workforce development programming areas, a robust Maker space, and a business incubator similar to a WeWork environment.

Don’t let operational requirements stand in the way of what the community needs, said Vuong. For example, she helped California’s Stockton Library reboot services by rethinking book distribution rather than creating alternative spaces within the library, partnering with a local rec center that has outdoor locations. “Look around you,” she suggested. “What are local institutions doing? What are local experts doing?”

Panelists added few caveats: Don’t make any new space dependent on hiring staff, unless there is dedicated money set aside to do so. Don’t force a new space on the community; if something doesn’t work, give yourself room to rethink it. Make sure all agreements come from the community as well as the library, and are set up to last beyond the tenure of any one individual signing them.

In an Austin panel on the same topic, moderated by Julie Todaro, dean of library services at Austin Community College, Trina Goodwin, associate principal of Noll & Tam Architects, emphasized the importance of deriving library spaces from the uniqueness of the area they serve. “What do you have that no one else has?” she asked.

Jim Kovach, senior associate of VMDO, asked the complementary question, “What from beyond the library should be incorporated?” That can include aspects of retail, such as side-by-side service points to see a shared screen; it can be drawn from museums or schools, such as gallery, studio, or classroom space; or it can be a reaction to trends elsewhere, such as an anti-tech zone in the library to escape from pervasive devices elsewhere, something Kovach suggested and Goodwin said was, ironically, practiced in Silicon Valley. Connections to nature can make the outdoors effectively a library space, such as a small branch Goodwin is working on that provides a pavilion in a park near a wintering spot for monarch butterflies.

Many new services—and spaces—may not even be library-run. Goodwin cited the popularity of the gym in a library/community center colocation project as a draw, as well as social services in places like San Francisco Public Library, while Kovach and Todaro pointed to health and wellness services in academic libraries, and even student food pantries.

Whether a library project involves new construction or renovation and reclamation of an existing space, library leaders and architects have a lot of options. But as experts and guests at these two events have shown, there is one critical step between concept and execution that can’t be skipped: The library must discover what its community needs, wants, and has to offer. Whatever the approach, involving all stakeholders in the planning process will get patrons and staff invested and excited.



Staff involvement is as critical to library design as is public input, but the questions may be different. Rienth suggested bringing up global topics in community forums and specific ones at staff engagement sessions. Her best staff stories emerge later in the design process, she said, after running community ideas by staff for feedback.

• Kevin Kennedy, principal of HBM Architects, said to get staff involved early, show staff images of international libraries to get them excited about possibilities, and encourage them to look at nearby libraries.

• Jeff Bulla, principal of PGAL, said to lead with a kickoff meeting with staff, to establish the project’s parameters, and then conduct a listening tour, including interactive exercises, among all staff and embedded services.

• Bulla underscored that flexibility is important in staff spaces, because the way they work will change. Staff members spend more time on the floor instead of at a desk, making some work spaces “a little less proprietary,” said Kennedy. Some libraries giving up dedicated desks and offices in favor of shared collaborative areas. Others are using mobile pedestals that staff can bring where they need to be, and still others are seeing staff spaces attached to their functional areas of the library instead of grouped together.

• Bulla suggested putting aside a small contingency fund until after the opening for staff to adapt their space as needed. Kennedy said that sightlines are particularly important to staff.To that end, they want lower shelving and lots of glass. Bulla agreed, citing the importance of central service points. However, he said that while staff wants to see patrons, they don’t necessarily want to be.

See more on events in Colorado Springs, CO, and Austin, TX.



Arch Nexus

Group 4 Architecture, Research + Planning, Inc.

Ratio l HPA

Margaret Sullivan Studio


Easy Risers

Tech Logic


Pikes Peak Library District


HBM Architects

Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture

Noll & Tam Architects


Tappé Architects



720 Design Inc.

Easy Risers

Public Information Kiosk, Inc.

Tech Logic

Austin Public Library


Author Image
Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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