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Gateway to Knowledge

An extensive community effort to create 'the best public library in the country' is bringing back patrons in suburban Detroit.

June 01, 2004 |

Records of the public library in Southfield, Mich., go back 160 years, and they tell an interesting tale. In 1845, the term "public" applied to a select few patrons, namely 10 directors, each representing a local school district. Of a total of roughly 300 books shelved in the librarian's home, where the library was located, each director was allowed to borrow a few volumes at a time for three months. A few years later, other adults were given borrowing privileges — one book for one month.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Now, this upscale community north of Detroit is being served by a 30-year-old, 44,000-sf structure that is crowded, inefficient, and dysfunctional as an educational resource center. It cannot accommodate new technology, with seating, study spaces, meeting rooms, and parking that are inadequate.

In 1999, Southfield voters approved an increase in property taxes to pay for the $36 million library, but construction was held up by Southfield Mayor Donald Fracassi, who went so far as to remove three of the five library board members during the design process and refused to appoint new members to expiring terms. In April 2001, after 29 years in office, Fracassi lost his bid for reelection, and the project was greenlighted.

Despite the bumpy start, chief librarian Doug Zyskowski set everyone's sights high with a vision of the library as "a gateway to everything we know or have dreamed of knowing." The Building Team, led by architects Phillips Swager Associates, Dallas, responded. Says Denelle C. Wrightson, PSA's project manager, "What we were hearing from the library board, the city librarian, and the library staff was the desire to have a landmark building."

Meeting diverse needs

The team took up the challenge and created what may be a facility unlike any in the country.

First, it is big, especially for a public library. In addition to 106,000 sf of floor space, it also features a large café, a 154-seat auditorium, and a 200-seat meeting room. It holds more than double the number of books (approximately 200,000) of the library it replaced.


The new Southfield (Mich.) Public Library, located on the front lawn of the Southfield Civic Center, includes a variety of features from some of the best libraries in the country, as well as innovations rarely found in any library. The monumental circular ribbon staircase features substructure framing using 2x2-foot steel in a truss-like system, rolled to shape where needed.

Eighteen-foot floor-to-floor heights required by the library have made the three-story building equivalent in height to a four-story building. Detroit Free Press architectural columnist John Gallagher said that this was deliberate, to make the building appear "more like an arena than a library" to help attract and retain patrons.

Competing for children's attention against video games, TV, computers, Disney World, and movies, chief librarian Zyskowski says the goal was "to create an environment where kids want to come. We want to get kids into the library, and then get them reading." What a concept!

Inspiring visitors to discover and explore was a key theme put forth by the library board. PSA designers and the library staff worked with Creative Environs Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., in a design-build collaboration for the thematic exhibits. Made of durable and easily maintainable materials, these thematics include:

  • Gizmo Look-out Point, offering new ways of seeing, by using binoculars and telescopes.

  • A medieval-themed Storybook Castle and Dragon's Den, bringing the magic of fairy tales and childhood stories to full scale.

  • Reader's Tree House, celebrating reading, nature, and found object "treasures."

  • Storytime Space Station, offering the sensation of a fantastic, interactive media voyage.

  • Club Q&A, for teens and young adults, with a hip, club-like atmosphere.

"We tried to get this building as far as possible from the institutional nature of libraries of the 1960s," says PSA's Wrightson.

The library's brick exterior faces the corner of the city's municipal campus. Each elevation is treated with unique architectural features that vary interest, attract patrons, and bring a distinctive identity to the site. The exterior character is derived from the existing civic buildings and the adjacent corporate architecture.


A medieval-themed children’s reading room, called the Storybook Castle is located on the first floor adjacent to the Dragon’s Den reading room.

Inside, the building is organized
functionally on three floors. Staff services, computer labs, study rooms, restrooms, and fireplaces are stacked in the same spot on each floor.

Yet each floor conveys a different character, ambience, and progression, expressed in themes, lighting, furniture, and materials. Natural woods are used throughout. The youth area on the first level features bright colors, engaging shapes, and light maple wood. The second-floor adult fiction area is finished in light cherry with furnishings and materials to create a residential feel. The third floor, containing reference materials and a local history room, uses darker woods and more traditional furniture, finishes, and lighting. Pre-finished wood panels, terrazzo flooring, and plaster ribbon wall outfit the stairwell, and 254 different kinds of light fixtures are in place.

Hearing from the community

Tom Marchesano, PE, of Marchesano & Associates, Plymouth, Mich., was engaged to act as owner's representative and overall project manager. He worked with the library staff and board to develop the criteria for the selection of architect/engineer and construction manager through a qualifications-based selection process.

A key factor was the relevant public library experience of the individual team leaders at the designer, project manager, project architect, and engineers, as well as their team structure and previous experience working together. By focusing on individuals rather than firms, and by bringing architect, engineer, and construction manager on board at one time as equal team members with the owner's rep, a strong team triangle was formed. "The lead team members were selected based on their individual, relevant experience and teamwork skills," says Marchesano.

The Dallas office of Phillips Swager Associates, with extensive experience in public libraries, was picked as architects/engineers. PSA was teamed with George W. Auch, Pontiac, Mich., as construction manager; Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, Northville, Mich., landscape architects; and Peter B. Larson, structural engineer.

A library building authority was created, with an organization chart, mission statement, and documented goals. The library also conducted focus groups among citizens.

Library officials then presented that information to PSA, who met with the focus group facilitators. Every library staff member, from the city librarian to maintenance and mailroom personnel, was interviewed.

Library administration and designers toured numerous library youth areas and children's museums around the country to benchmark competitive models and best practices for involving children in interactive and educational experiences.

The culmination of all these efforts is the interactive World of Wondering, which offers children energetic and colorful variety of museum-quality thematic experiences, aimed at making reading and learning fun.

Tower of power

The building's most distinctive architectural element is a three-story all-glass tower that provides an entrance from the southeast approach. This striking feature is a tapered, elliptical shape that serves as a grand entry to patrons. Conceived as a room within a room, the tower provides a versatile public space at the lower level. Within the tower, on the third level, is what appears to be a floating room, which is actually the executive conference room.

Using a design-build package, the team of architect, engineer, construction manager (and specialty consultant Advanced Structures Inc., Tenafly, N.J.) addressed the challenges of centering the executive conference room and fitting each individually cut pane of glass to the 14-degree taper of the tower.

They decided to use a cable truss system. The elliptical form and tapered shape of the glass tower required a unique sequence of construction and the custom fit of each panel of glass to its opening. Using a butt glazed system of Kawneer aluminum glazing, each piece of glass was field measured to fit the slope and taper of the tower, with rows of glass decreasing in size toward the top of the tower. This method saved $1 million in costs over a point-supported glass system.

The hovering effect of the "floating" conference room was achieved through a cable thrust system with horizontal aluminum receivers fixed to the cable to allow for stress of up to 8,000 pounds. Cables at different levels provide structural stability. The cable thrust system hangs from the roof structure, with cable trusses hung from support steel at the roof level.

Within the tower, the boardroom could not be completed nor finish work installed until the tower was totally enclosed and environmentally controlled. Special scaffolding was built to provide access and allow the wood panels to be installed.

The ribbon stairway also posed special construction demands. Auch worked with specialty contractor Couturier Iron, Comstock Park, Mich., and Ross Structural Steel, Detroit, to execute the stairway. The substructure framing for the ribbon wall used 2x2-foot steel in a truss-like system, rolled to shape where needed.

The library opened in June 2003, on time and on budget. In its first three months of operation, book circulation had increased 65%, library card registration was up 300%, and computer usage jumped by 150%.

According to Marchesano, the close coordination of the Building Team resulted in "a cohesive project, thorough documents, minimal coordination errors, and excellent bid pricing on a project of significant size and complexity."

Adds PSA's Wrightson, "The team achieved what we set out to create — one of the best public libraries in the country."

Construction Costs

Sitework, landscaping and water feature $2,842,500
Concrete 1,446,800
Structural and other steel 2,878,000
Masonry 1,300,000
Carpentry 1,000,000
Roofing 490,000
Aluminum, glass and glazing 1,290,000
Glass tower 1,040,000
Hollow metal and hardware 97,000
Drywall systems 1,835,000
Acoustical 435,000
Carpet and resilient 498,000
Tile and terrazzo 500,000
Painting and wallcoverings 435,000
Window washing equipment 94,000
Thematics 720,000
Specialties 300,000
Audio/video systems 227,000
Elevators 250,000
Mechanical systems 2,762,000
Electrical systems 3,300,000
Other 3,009,700
TOTAL $26,750,000

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