Designing a sustainable library
October 7, 2011, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Urban Sustainability Library has a new home! Thanks to Chad Dickinson, a furniture maker from Nashville who recently set up shop in Detroit, we now have a thoughtfully designed and beautifully built library inside the Green Garage.

The library is one of the first things you’ll see when you enter the building from its Second Avenue entrance (along with two more of Chad’s incredible pieces, a welcome desk and bench). Situating the library so that it’d be immediately accessible to visitors was important to us, since it represents a point at which the communities inside and outside the Green Garage intersect. We believe that if we’re going to successfully help people in Detroit make more sustainable choices, our first steps must include having meaningful conversations and building supportive relationships with them. The physical library was designed to facilitate those conversations.

Several concerns guided the library’s design and construction. We wanted it to be semi-private, at once part of the larger Green Garage environment and intimate enough to encourage one-on-one and small group conversations. We also wanted the design to reflect several core Green Garage values:¬† accessibility, transparency, and acknowledgment of the past-present-future continuum that we’re all part of. We wanted the space to be repurposable, as well, keeping in mind that styles of learning vary by person, and that our work will surely change over time.

These concerns were met by two relatively simple, dominant design elements: an L-shaped shelving unit made of 3/4” birch plywood and a walnut peninsula table.

The collection seemed bigger before...

The generous shelves, to start, are being used to house a small collection of books with a focus on sustainability. While we don’t expect most of our work to involve books (we’re thinking of the Green Garage community as our most important collection), we’re all book lovers and believers in their transformative power. We’re also conscious of their value as familiar symbols to community members, who might be thrown off by a library without books. But the shelving unit does much more than house books: for one, it establishes the semi-privacy of the space, enclosing it comfortably while not reaching so high as to cut it off from the rest of the building. It also allows for repurposability, as individual shelves are easily removed to transform the spaces behind them into display surfaces.

What’ll we display? That’s where the past-present-future part comes in. The Green Garage building and its surroundings have a pretty fascinating history. When we began deconstruction in 2008, we found a number of documents and artifacts from businesses that previously occupied the space (most from between the 1920s and ’40s). We’re thinking about hanging some of those materials from the shelves, as well as historical photos of the building and its immediate surroundings.

The building in 1922

We’re also going to display work produced by the Green Garage’s learning communities. From our library meetings to business development sessions and the conversations taking place in the sustainability labs, there is an abundance of new ideas being generated at the Green Garage all the time. Many of our design sessions result in the production of wonderfully illustrated diagrams that render these ideas in organic forms. (We’ll share and explain some of our library designs in an upcoming post or two.) By hanging these illustrations from the shelves, we’ll display some of the ideas that are currently animating the Green Garage’s growth, and provide a window into what Detroit’s sustainable future might look like.

Green Garage "org chart"

David Lankes, whose book¬†The Atlas of New Librarianship provided us with a conceptual framework for our library, writes that a library is not the heart of its community, as common wisdom holds, but rather its circulatory system, facilitating the vital flow of information to community members. One way we’re applying this principle at the Green Garage is by hanging work produced in our learning communities from the physical library itself, giving the ideas new life outside each individual learning community and making them accessible to anyone who walks in the door.

Finally, the intimate quarters and beautiful table were designed to be a place where conversations happen. We don’t have a reference desk, with a clearly defined space on one side for the librarian and the other for the member of the public. We have a table: a place to meet, one on one or in groups, a place to talk, and a place to learn from each other. The table leads into the shelving unit, terminating at a wall that can double as a projection bay.

Members of the library group getting a surprise visit from Chad (right) during our first meeting in the new space

Chad, whose process is heavily influenced by the work of the architect Christopher Alexander and his classic design book A Pattern Language, constructed the library using the natural building method. (Check out his philosophy page for more information about what motivates and informs his practice.)

Chad during construction

The shelving unit is made out of plywood harvested in the US. The two individual pieces that form the L are not glued together, but connected with fasteners (from Perry’s Screw & Bolt Corporation, a family business that’s been in Detroit since 1919). As a result, at a time well into the future when the unit has outlived its usefulness, it will be easily deconstructed, allowing its materials to be repurposed rather than thrown away. The black trim is made from leftover oak and ash used for the Green Garage’s hardwood flooring, and provides important structural support in addition to contributing to the piece’s bold aesthetic. The walnut table, meanwhile, is hand-joined to a Douglas fir base, making it, too, easily deconstructable. Chad sees these natural, internal reinforcement systems as metaphors for healthy, sustainable communities. We are stronger, the library’s design suggests, when we support one another.