New Castle County Delaware wished to create a new public library and emergency medical services station as an iconic community center for a diverse neighborhood on a suburban highway site. In creating a unique civic experience for the community, the County desired to employ sustainable elements and construct 23,000 square feet for a very modest budget of 6 million. Our challenge was to create an inspired public building within a difficult site context for very little money.
The project houses a branch public library and an emergency medical services station. The library contains: main reading room, fiction and non-fiction collections, information technology center, a young adults library, a childrens library and a community center. The Emergency Medical Services Station houses a three bay garage for ambulances, staff offices, showers and dressing rooms and a staff lounge.
The site is located along a highly trafficked commercial highway in Delaware. Shopping malls and fast food restaurants flank both sides of the highway where this library is located. Large graphic signs and billboards form the visual corridor of the highway. One block in from the highway are small-scaled two story houses that make up the neighborhood. It is within this commercial highway environment that a public library is to be placed and become recognizable as the civic community center.
Inspired by the unusual highway context for a neighborhood public library, the design approach explored how to make roadside billboard architecture that conveys civic quality and permanence within a modest budget. Early in the exploration we created numerous three dimensional models that used the physical characteristics of a book for a billboard expression of the library. Most of the early explorations were abandoned in favor of a more restrained modest expression that conceptualized the faade as a series of stacked books and was within the clients budget. We created bas relief models to study faades inspired by stacked books on a highway as a sign for a library. Inexpensive cement fiber board siding is utilized to create a series of boxes that abstractly represent the edge of books piled up on their side. Facing the highway, the building faade of stacked horizontal siding is suggestive of books piled up vertically This billboard approach to signing the building as a civic facility illustrates the sensitivity to the American highway condition and the clients modest budget for a civic identity. It also allows the library to be appreciated as a piece of civic art and identity. Adjacent to the parking area, a double height canopy cantilevers from the faade, like a page of a book, providing shelter to the front door. Internally, the program is arranged parallel to the highway to increase visibility of the library from the highway and to shelter the entry side from traffic.
The main glazed reading room, at the western end, is covered in a renewable cedar sun shade that allows desirable views out while controlling solar gain and harvesting daylight. Other sustainable elements included in this facility include radiant heating and cooling, recyclable and natural materials, photo optic lighting controls and on site bio retention systems.
The library program is distributed on one floor making it economically feasible to staff this larger facility with the countys current staff. In addition, the long low building arranged parallel to the highway signs the function and identity of this civic facility for the automobile experience and is sympathetic to the billboard context in which it is sited. The library cost 6 million to construct and took 11 months to design and 16 months to build and met the countys budget and schedule objectives. Upon its opening in summer of 2009, the library fueled a controversial debate over the appropriateness of its character. The public debate, illustrated in local newspapers and websites, brought regional attention to the library, increased patronage and established the library and emergency medical station as the civic center for the Mill Creek community in which it is built.