The Fifth-Annual Smart Environments Awards – Roseville Branch Library

MS&R combines smart, commonsense approaches to green design with an attention to user experience to create a neighborhood beacon.

Roseville Branch Library
Roseville, Minnesota
Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Minneapolis

Those who doubt the relevance of libraries today should walk past the full parking lot into the newly renovated public library in the first-ring Twin Cities suburb of Roseville. On a recent winter weekday morning, it was buzzing with activity. In a soaring, light-filled atrium, patrons perused the catalog, read in comfy chairs, checked out books at convenient self-serve stations, and studied in glass-walled rooms. In the spacious children’s reading area behind the atrium, mothers and toddlers crowded into the storybook room. In their orange-tinged dedicated space, teens studied in groups or alone—or joined forces at the video-gaming station. In the staff area, books, DVDs and audiobooks clicked down a conveyor belt and into scores of reshelving bins.

Enlarged and transformed, the Ramsey County branch library reopened last July. The expansion by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis, a firm nationally known for its library work, created both a smoothly functioning library and a community gathering place. “Libraries are fulfilling a very fundamental need—a need for interaction,” says Jack Poling, MS&R’s principal in charge. “There is not another institution like that.” As its LEED Gold certification and this year’s IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Award attest, the library is also ecologically savvy. But rather than wearing its greenness on its sleeve, with didactic messages about recycling or an array of largely symbolic PV panels, the design combines smart, commonsense approaches to create a healthy, humane environment.

The former library, a bland brick box built in 1994, was hardly old, but it was overused and dysfunctional. Visitors entered at one corner and had trouble finding their way through the dark, mazelike interior. “There was no sense of entry on the outside and no sense of arrival on the inside,” Poling says. Today patrons walk through a central entry to a colorful, bright place open to the library’s many uses.

The library system had bought land to the north but the architects suggested building up rather than spreading out. Adding an L-shaped second story on the north and east “makes the interior compact,” Poling says. “When you enter, everything is visible.” The tight layout also minimizes the number of staff surveillance points needed. “The library is staffed at three points—the checkout desk, the upstairs adult area and the children’s area—so staff time can be spent with patrons, not with books or walking around,” he says. “The librarian’s role has changed. They used to point a person to a piece of information in the library or help get a book from interlibrary loan. Now they help people get information from around the globe electronically.”

Taking cues from retailing, the 80-square-foot central space is dubbed the marketplace and offers access to the staff desk, the library catalogs, and the fast-circulating new books and media. Straight ahead, an angled stairway cool enough for a fashion photo shoot invites patrons upstairs to the fiction and nonfiction areas. Just left of the stairway is the broad entrance to the children’s area. The teens are sequestered off to the right in their own corner, as they prefer. (“They won’t associate with younger kids,” Poling says.)

Though the plan is simplicity itself, patches of intense color create visual complexity and aid wayfinding. In the marketplace, lime-green book carts and supergraphics pop against the white walls. “Each of the specialized areas is designated by a portal and its own color scheme,” says Traci Engel Lesneski, principal interior designer. A persimmon-colored carpet and wall of recycled glass mark the teen center. Berry-colored carpet and a ceiling fixture lined with moving LED lights draw younger kids to their room, where Arcadia Serafina chairs covered in a mix of lime, yellow, and orange fabric brighten reading areas. The library staff, Lesneski says, “wanted to bring in the colors of Minnesota spring.” Poling adds, “People get a dose of saturated bright colors. I think it’s a big part of the draw.”

More subtle but equally impactful is the variety of ceiling heights. “A lot of people are informed by subtle cues they’re not aware of,” Poling says. “The ceiling is the most important.” The marketplace space soars to 27 feet. The teen center is extra high and has glass on three sides. In the children’s area, which is almost as large as that of the Minneapolis Central Library, toddlers gravitate right to a lower-ceilinged area; elementary-age kids go left to the higher-ceilinged area. In many areas, the ceilings and ductwork are exposed (but painted white so they’re not too busy) to avoid the use of unnecessary material; lowered panels provide acoustical absorption and lighting over study areas.

What makes the Roseville Library “green”? MS&R decided to reuse 75 percent of the existing building. “The greenest building is one that’s already built,” Poling says, borrowing a phrase from the historic-preservation movement. But it applies to newer buildings too, even one that local residents considered an eyesore and wanted torn down. Keeping the sound 20-year-old structure was a given; the firm found a way to do so while transforming its image, saving both money and the energy embodied in the existing building.

Glass walls and metal panels on the second-floor addition enliven the brick exterior. Inside, every space and surface has been reimagined, except for some dark-trimmed clerestory windows. But this huge bang for the buck—a 25,000-square-foot addition to a 45,000-square-foot building—has been accomplished with only an additional 1,300 square feet in footprint.

Daylighting is key to the building’s energy efficiency and physical appeal. Natural light harvested through glass walls and clerestory windows suffuses the spaces, including the staff area, to create a welcoming, healthy environment. “It’s spacious and so sunny,” says Mary Moran, a reference librarian. “In every way we know it, people are drawn to light,” Poling says. “Especially with our climate in Minnesota, where we have harsh weather and short days, if you can go somewhere and sit by a window or in the middle of the building in a spot full of light, it is a huge draw. Sure, daylighting saves a lot of energy, but more than that it creates a compelling space.”

Poling’s statement is revealing. At the Roseville Library, MS&R pursued a humane brand of sustainability that put the patron experience first. The consumer focus drove everything from the placement of cushy chairs along the second-floor windows to the glow of two gas fireplaces in reading areas, from the delight of Brad Kaspari’s terrazzo alphabet maze on the floor of the children’s area to a layout that makes it easy to pop in and pick something up or do concentrated research. “It’s important to provide options for people, so they feel comfortable in the library and will return,” Lesneski said.

All indications are that the design is achieving that goal. Library officials report that since the reopening, circulation is up more than 40 percent, patron visits 60 percent, and library-card registration 80 percent—all in a library that already had the state’s highest rates of book circulation. “We have a teen room, which we didn’t have before, and it’s very popular from 3 to 5 p.m.,” says Lynn Wyman, the Ramsey County Library deputy director. “We’ve always had a lot of preschool families. The big change is that we’re much busier after school with elementary- age children, who enjoy the homework tables and a study room. Upstairs, there is a high demand for the study rooms and the 12-person boardroom. The light, the brightness, the sense of space is appealing.”

Poling says that during tough economic times, library use goes up. Also, more young people are coming “not just to use the library but to expand their social world—and to combat the impersonal and disjointed nature of social interaction.” Jeffrey Scherer, one of the founders of MS&R, is leading the firm’s master planning for a library system for Al-Ain, a city in the United Arab Emirates with one million residents and not a single library. “It’s very counterintuitive what’s happening around the world,” Scherer says. “Those who predict the demise of libraries—and that goes back to the 1860s—are forgetting about the human factor. People love to be with people.”

“We’ve just finished twenty-five years of absorbing technology,”
he continues. “We’re now shifting to the next stage, in which the kids
were born after PCs were invented. But each successive generation of information technology doesn’t automatically replace the last generation. It gets added. Today the libraries that are successful are the ones who aren’t whining, ‘Woe is me,’ but are embracing these changes.”
Count the Roseville Library among those leading the way.

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