Libraries are proving to be examples of restorative design at its best, with utmost attention paid to marrying human and environmental systems. But by providing access to information and encouraging education, these facilities underline core principles at the heart of sustainability.

“Libraries are excellent showcases for sustainability principles – they are hubs of information dissemination, research, and due to their public nature are good vehicles for demonstrating principles of various kinds,” explains architect Nina Maritz, who recently designed three Regional Study and Resource Centres (RSRCs) in Namibia.

“The expected user profile cuts across all sectors of society and there is a large audience. In our case, as the libraries are regional hubs, their impact is enormous.”

Solid Green Consulting founder Marloes Reinink, who has worked on the National English Literary Museum project in Grahamstown, says because most often libraries are public buildings with modest budgets that rule out expensive HVAC systems, architects are required to implement core elements of passive design from the start. “This goes back to the first principle of green building,” she says.

Chapter 1: Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Library design relies on community cohesion as they are a direct response to the people that need them. “The character of the building was defined through community interaction,” says Nicola Irving, part of the team that designed the Harare Library in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. “Sensible, good design starts with engagement with the end user.”

As part of the greater Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme in Harare, Khayelitsha, house-to-house surveys and interviews with residents were conducted. Crime hotspots were identified and the community’s needs from a safety perspective were established.

“The crux of sustainability when it comes to libraries is to ensure that people return to them to keep learning. This means that you have to make them attractive, comfortable and user friendly,” says Architects of Justice (AOJ) partner Mike Rassmann.

AOJ has received recognition for its imaginative work on the SEED library at MC Weiler Primary School in Alexandra, Johannesburg, which led to the development of the Micro-SEED libraries.

Once you know what the community wants and needs, it’s about collaboration and systems thinking, emphasises Irving. “We called on every consultant to sit in on every meeting so that well-rounded discussions took place from the design phase, rather than trouble shooting at the end,” she says.

Once open to the public, the collaboration should continue. “People are keen to see how much energy or water a building is using,” says Reinink. “If you extend these initiatives to tips for people to make their own homes more sustainable, this benefits the greater good.”

Chapter 2: Embracing complexities

More than a mere repository for books, libraries have the potential to be the epicentre of a community, providing access to information, which in turn spurs development. In southern Africa libraries provide an essential service, but they should not be complex, isolated places.

“Books and technology on the one hand and humans on the other have very different environmental comfort needs – think of daylight and fresh air,” says Maritz. “Although we need a lot of it for people, computers and books don’t do well with dust, glare or ultraviolet light. It’s definitely a balance, especially since libraries have become open vessels for human activities.”

Another factor that emerged as very important during community consultations in Namibia, and South Africa, was women’s safety. There should be no dead-end aisles in the bookshelf area, thereby allowing people an escape when feeling vulnerable, generous width between aisles for the same reason, and a reduced maximum aisle length.

“Another aspect is reconciliation of security for the contents of the library with a welcoming and non- threatening character to avoid alienating potential users, especially in a context where the community is not used to libraries and a reading culture,” adds Maritz.

“We tried to do this by creating public plaza entrances with ample seating and shade to entice passers-by to linger and converse.”

She emphasises that activity flow and circulation routes are key to the proper management of a library, including control of entrances with escape routes. Irving concurs on the complexity of space.

Chapter 3: Lessons well learned

When transforming the SEED project into the Micro-SEED, there were some elements that had to be retained. “We kept the outdoor reading space,” says Rassmann. “But the shape of the shipping container was restrictive, and we had to do a lot of modification. The square footprint of the Micro-SEED is a lot more flexible, and we had the opportunity to have a classroom set up.”

Reinink adds that on the NELM project, the green roof provided a multitude of benefits. It is built over the archives, which helped with cooling the space and mitigated community concerns because the pre-site was a field where people walked their dogs.

Maritz says a non-negotiable is the sight-lines for librarian staff over the main hall of the library, especially with a new user community. There should be no need for electronic surveillance. “A pragmatic mix of low and high- tech, with passive design as the armature, is the best strategy,” she says.

“The more basic the construction systems, the more easily they are maintained and repaired, and of course, the more labour opportunities they provide. This gets more buy-in from local communities.

The full feature appears in the December – January 2014/15 issue.