Forging a Resilient Revitalization
Architect's rendering of the Norman Mayer branch, which is under construction and scheduled to open this year.
By Anthony Rohr and Robert Riccardi
In the six years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has begun the process of rebuilding, slowly yet persistently returning to life. The city's public libraries are no exception: Libraries in New Orleans served as one of the beacons of hope, but in the wake of Katrina many libraries were severely damaged and their collections ruined.
The city agencies responsible for capital projects were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of rebuilding that was required. In 2009, the administration of then-Mayor Ray Nagin decided to privatize capital improvements and hired MWH, a global project management and construction firm, to oversee the recovery and construction of New Orleans’ public buildings and streets. Gould Evans, with Lee Ledbetter Associates, in a design/build partnership with Gibbs Construction, found ourselves working for MWH as library architects to design five branches, four of which are currently under construction.
The first challenge was an unusual one: There wasn’t a client in the normal sense. City agencies, including the library system, simply weren’t functioning at capacity. Consumed with immediate issues like digging out collections of ruined books, library staff members were simply focused on recovering as best they could. Local residents, normally a part of community input during library design, were overwhelmed with survival, and many were no longer in New Orleans. MWH became the de facto client—and MWH’s experience was with water and infrastructure systems. Libraries were a whole new game for them.
Donna Lauffer, county librarian for Johnson County, Kansas, was retained to play the role normally reserved for library staff. She provided the technical expertise acquired over a lifetime in library science to help Gould Evans program and design the new generation of New Orleans libraries. The challenge faced by the design team was to compress what is normally a six-month process into 10 weeks—that was the political, social, and cultural mandate.
The team addressed funding issues as well as design and construction. By aligning library reconstruction with infrastructure needs, the team was able to identify FEMA funding that could be utilized for the branch libraries.
Technical issues dominated the early design discussions. Foremost was how the new libraries would withstand future hurricanes and floods.
The initial request for proposals stated that the new libraries would have floor levels nine feet above curb height. While that would be high enough to avoid most flooding, the resulting facility could be disengaged from the surrounding community. The steps and ramps required by an elevation change of that height would be expensive and potentially discourage casual use of the library—the same mental obstacle that exists when a retail store is above street level.
In most cases, we were able to demonstrate that adequate flooding safety could be achieved by raising libraries only3-4 feet. With FEMA approval, designs proceeded on that basis, a small but important improvement.
Glazing systems were of equal concern when considering the effects of hurricane force winds against large expanses of glass, a common design feature in many libraries. Our approach to this concern was twofold. We specified a superior glazing system (a combination of PPG Solarban and Dupont Century) that was able to withstand extreme wind loads, so natural lighting in the libraries did not have to be sacrificed. In addition, individual glass panels are limited in size to no larger than 5-by-7 feet—a size that can be well supported by window framing and mullions. The glazing systems underwent so-called missile testing, in which simulated projectiles are launched at windows to establish their ability to withstand debris flying during a hurricane.
The selected glazing system carried a premium cost. At approximately $100 per square foot, glass was considerably more expensive than conventional windows. To make up the price differential, we specified stucco wall systems on the remainder of the buildings, balancing out the cost of the more expensive glazing.
Vapor barriers were another unique design problem brought about by the extreme climate conditions. In New Orleans' often-humid climate, vapor barriers are critical in order to maintain conditioned air within buildings for personal comfort and the care of books and documents.
Typically, vapor barriers are placed immediately under a building skin, outboard from the insulation system. In order to prevent water and vapor from entering the libraries, we specified vapor barriers to be on the inside of the insulation system. This unusual placement of the barrier was predicated on the need to protect the building contents from water from three directions—flooding from below, humidity through walls, and copious rainwater from above.
We sought ways to create the most responsive designs within the budget and time constraints faced by the city. One of the simplest design decisions may prove to be the most prescient in terms of library facilities—stack spacing. We selected a structural grid with columns at 30 foot centers. This allows stacks to be initially placed at six-foot intervals. As the collection expands, the stacks can be shifted to five-foot intervals, adding one row per structural bay with no imposing columns in the aisles between stacks.
American Libraries, Wed, 05/11/2011 - 11:29