Library Journal: Rebekkah Smith Aldrich


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Library Journal: Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

  1. 1. 2The Valatie Free Library is a small library with plans to make a big difference. The thresholdfor defining a “small library” in the United States, according to LJ’s Best Small Library in AmericaAward, is a library serving fewer than 25,000 people. The Valatie Free Library serves just over4300 people and currently does so in a 750 square foot library building. Now that’s small!Yet this small library, in rural New York, had the spotlight on it during Rio+20, the UnitedNations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012.The library caught the attention of the UN’s Sustainability Initiative, The Future WeWant/Rio+20, for its commitment to investing in a new library facility with the goal of attainingnear net-zero energy usage.Net-zero has been defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as a building that produces asmuch energy as it uses over the course of a year. Net-zero energy buildings are very energyefficient. The remaining low-energy needs are typically met with onsite renewable energy.This small rural library, with an operating budget of just over $70,000, has been saving for yearsto address its space issues. With just 750 square feet, the library is serving its community in afacility less than one-quarter of the size necessary.AN EXPLOSION OF ACTIVITYIn the past ten years, the library has seen a literal explosion of activity; in 2002, the libraryoffered just six programs for the public; last year, almost 140. Program attendance is up morethan 1000 percent.“Ten years ago we could fit programs outside, weather permitting, or inside the library afterregular operating hours. Now, we conduct programs in a local church hall, a former village café,and the library. Scheduling events has become a challenge as we work around usage by othergroups and try to fit larger groups of children into our current very small building,” says librarydirector Elizabeth Powhida. “In the current library, seating and workspace are very limited. It isdifficult and sometimes impossible to have room for tutors and their students, patrons usinglaptops, and people reading a newspaper or book at the one table [we have]. To accommodatethis usage, we set up card tables in corners, making a crowded facility even more crowded,”says Powhida.When a property on the main thoroughfare near the village became available, the board perkedup and started watching the asking price. As the economy nose-dived, the property ownersbecame more motivated to sell and the price dropped. The library expressed interest early onbut was firm that the asking price was not within reach. After two years of patience by thelibrary board, the owners ended up cutting the initial asking price in half, making it achievablefor the library.
  2. 2. 3THE BUILDING PROCESSThe “new” building was originally constructed as the Kinderhook Steam Railroad Freight Barn inthe 1890s and was moved along Route 9 in the Village of  Valatie in the 1930s. By planning touse existing building stock rather than clear-cutting land and employing new resources to builda new library, the board had already begun down the path that would garner worldwideattention.“Valatie’s 80-year-old library building was no longer meeting the needs of its constituency.Considering the exponentially rising costs of energy, a plan to relocate to a much larger spacewould prohibitively deplete the operating budget,” says library board president Erica Balon.Attention to the built environment, commitment to project cost efficiency, and an eye towardfeasible operating costs in a facility three times the size of its current facility have led theValatie Free Library to begin working with architect David Bienn, who has over two decades ofexperience, specifically with “evergreen” design initiatives, in conjunction with sustainablecommunities in Europe and the United States. While working with GEN, the Global EcovillageNetwork, Bienn notes he had a front-row seat to observe emerging sustainable designtechnologies being applied in Scandinavia, Scotland, and other sites in Europe at the time. Afteralmost 20 years abroad, Bienn returned to the United States to help rebuild New Orleans afterHurricane Katrina.LEARNING FROM KATRINABienn, with input from Powhida and the Valatie library board, has designed a facility that willcreate a highly energy-efficient library facility using emerging-technology materials andconstruction techniques that have come to the fore during the rebuilding of New Orleans.“The community has been very patient with our existing facility. We look forward to offering alibrary where adults can leisurely browse, teens have their special nook, and children have asecure, spacious, and cheerful room. We envision a comfortable location in which we canconduct classes and provide speakers and presentations for groups, currently impossible,”Powhida says. “I hope people will be attracted first to the beauty and energy-efficient design ofthe building itself and then to what this library can provide—the means to enrich life andexpand its possibilities.”Bienn views the building as a “microcosm of the community” and is motivated not only by theexciting things happening in library services these days but also by the opportunity to have thisnew library serve as an inspiration for sustainable design.“The role of the designer is to listen and help to birth that process, especially in a public facilitysuch as the Valatie Free Library, and to try to help manifest that architectural archetype thatbest resonates with the needs and desires of all involved,” says Bienn. “At the same time, in theValatie project we are trying to attain a near net-zero energy use, i.e., we are trying toimplement and overlay a new set of technologies that are subject to existing codes based onconventional building techniques and striving to gain ground in practical application. There aremany factors to juggle to satisfy all requirements and wishes, and the end result is still a movingtarget.”
  3. 3. 4THE VALATIE DESIGNThe design includes the installation of skylights, photo-voltaic solar panel technology, andductless air-conditioning, with the goal of creating a facility that has a low demand for energyto light, while heating and cooling it while generating the energy load that is needed onsite.The planned building envelope, made of materials and construction techniques developed inthe rebuilding of New Orleans, will also protect against fire, hurricanes, and other naturaldisasters, thus also saving on insurance.“Since the Gulf Coast experienced the devastation of the storms of 2005, a whole slew of thelatest building technologies have appeared as start-ups and business incubators in the region,”says Bienn. “These technologies are focused on the viability and strength of the structures inhurricane circumstances and also improve variously fire regulation standards, termiteprotection, and strength of materials. We expect to use one such system at Valatie—the SIPsystem of wall and roof construction for the new area of the building. That’s a structural steelinsulated panel system, a method that has been constantly updated and improved since beingoriginally introduced in a simple form by one of the students of Frank Lloyd Wright.”An opportunity is also being found with the ability to generate power from the sun during anemergency, such as an ice storm or other incident. Last year the region suffered from HurricaneIrene, and many residents sought refuge in area libraries where they could charge phones,tablets, and laptops (as well as find a functioning restroom!). With a growing number ofresidents who are telecommuting and those who split their work between upstate towns andNew York City, the ability to connect online is vital to their livelihood.“Maintaining the status quo among universally rising costs—especially within the context of thisuncertain economy—is a primary concern for donors,” says capital campaign cochair LoriYarotsky. “The library’s operating budget is scrutinized and evaluated against both the knowncurrent rate of inflation and the unknown but exponentially rising cost of energy. The mostcommon question I receive from donors? Is your budget sustainable? Are you sustainable forten years or more? The solution afforded by a sustainable library with a near-net-zero footprintbrings donor focus back to the classic realm, where their generosity can help [their] community,and the library can remain open and vital.”