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Sustainable libraries: a community effort

Sustainability in the 21st century takes various—often inventive—forms. Several industries are making changes to the physical structures of their business in order to be more environmentally conscious. One such industry is quickly becoming a global leader in this initiative: libraries.

Some libraries are constructed entirely from recycled materials, such as the Microlibrary Bima in Indonesia, built with upcycled, used ice cream buckets. Others fit into the landscape itself, like the TU Delft Library in the Netherlands, almost vanishing into the lush greenery surrounding it. Many libraries work diligently to design LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified environmentally sustainable spaces that not only use the renewable resources found in abundance around them, but also reflect the beauty and grandeur of the local landscape.

One such library that successfully pairs function and sustainability is the Vancouver Community Library in Vancouver, Washington. “Libraries for the last 10 or 20 years have been reinventing themselves to stay relevant in today’s communities”, says Jackie Spurlock, Branch Manager of the Vancouver Community Library. “This reinvention involves embedding ourselves in our communities and working with the community on its priorities and aspirations.”

One such aspiration of the community of Vancouver, Washington was to design a space where education, research, and leisure can flourish in harmony with the environment. Thus the idea for the Vancouver Community Library was born. The building opened on 17 July 2011, welcoming patrons to walk on the reclaimed walnut wood floors in the Vancouver Room, to read a book on the fifth floor terrace where the green roof captures and absorbs storm water, reducing run off, and to bask in the daylight streaming through the large glass windows.

“Deck” courtesy of the Vancouver Community Library. Used with permission.

The library contains a long list of environmentally sustainable features, such as the raised access floor system. The plenum space created by this raised floor houses much of the wiring, plumbing, and network cabling used throughout most of the building, and enables easy access to the systems below, which cuts down on maintenance costs and provides for future flexibility should changes need to be made. Faucets and toilets in the bathrooms are hands-free, and low flow water saving fixtures powered by sensors that harvest the room’s existing light eliminate the need for electrical power. Over 20% of the materials used in the building contain recycled content. One of the most impressive features, however, has to be the daylighting.

“The daylighting is the most beneficial, most impactful part of building to both employees and patrons of the library”, explains Marla Young, Executive Assistant of the Vancouver Community Library. “Not only is it just a visually stunning architectural feature, but it also contributes to the wellbeing of the patrons and staff. Studies have shown that productivity is much higher in buildings with daylight views, there is higher employee retention, and employees take fewer sick days.”

Making the library a sustainable space and becoming LEED gold certified while doing so, however, is no easy task. Young explains that maintaining an environmentally sustainable building is often “more labor intensive and more expensive” than buildings that are not LEED certified, and the building team hit a few snags along the way. The cork floors in the Community Meeting Room are a renewable resource—cork being a bark that grows naturally on trees and is harvested without killing or damaging the existing tree—but the material is less durable than other non-renewable resources.

“It is a beautiful material and helps to maintain the sound control of the room”, says Young, “but it turned out to be a very soft product, so it’s been damaged in the years that it’s been installed.” Still, Young believes the positives of an environmentally sustainable building far outweigh the downsides.

“Exterior of the Vancouver Community Library” courtesy of the Vancouver Community Library. Used with permission.

“It is more complicated to operate the building and to keep the green features compliant with certification”, says Young, “but the building’s longevity is classified as having a life span of 75-100 years.”

Despite any challenges, the community still sees the library as a vital part of their neighborhood, and worth the time and money spent to create it.

“I give tours of the building, and the one thing that always surprises me,” says Young, “is that the members of the community who are touring appreciate that we are good stewards not only of the environment, but also of their tax dollars.”

With an average of 1,500 people visiting the library daily, it is clear that the community is proud of the building and enjoys the benefits of the services it has to offer.

Much of the programming occurring within the library originates from the desires of the community members. The library staff has created maker spaces for patrons to experiment with technology, has spearheaded civic engagement programs where people come together to talk about issues pertaining to the community, and has started an early learning center for children to prepare them for school.

“The environmentally sustainable design of this building is the reflection of the consciousness of the community,” says Young. “Their input was key in its creation and maintaining this is a reflection of the community and the priorities they hold.”

The libraries of today are working to be a resource for both the patrons and the environment in which they live, serving patrons in many aspects of their lives, and preparing them for a successful and sustainable future.

Featured image credit: hands world map global earth by stokpic. Public domain via Pixabay.

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