Remodeling on a Budget

These California projects show that a low-cost approach can pay off with big returns

April 12, 2010

A review of recent plans and completed projects at a variety of California libraries instills a sense of excitement about the possibilities inherent in taking a low-cost approach to the remodeling of libraries. Interviews with sources involved with recent projects throughout the state reveal much of the thinking that has guided successful fiscally frugal remodeling efforts.

Linda Demmers, for example, has served as a consultant on projects as elaborate as the information commons in the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Library at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Learning Commons, Technology Center, and Library at the University of Santa Clara in the San Francisco Bay Area. Demmers consistently seeks ways to adapt what she has learned to meet the needs of clients with fewer resources. She acknowledges that low-cost remodeling can involve as little as repainting an area with attractive colors or adding new, vibrant signage. “Low cost” can also be a relative term, depending on an organization’s financial resources; one academic library had planned to pursue a $30-million project to create an entirely new building, but is now planning to spend considerably less—approximately $1 million—to remodel an existing building. Developing an overall project description—the building program—helps those with limited resources to divide  projects into manageable pieces while not losing the overall cohesiveness a master plan provides.

Success, says Demmers, begins by not concentrating solely on existing problems: “Start thinking about tomorrow’s problems and don’t make everything so specific.” An example is avoiding niches created specifically for a piece of equipment such as a photocopy machine or some other existing feature that may have already disappeared. “I had an architect recently who tried to design a circ desk with slots for date-due cards,” she notes. Demmers also   recommends looking for ways to upgrade existing spaces by improving signage; adding interior finishes such as painting, carpeting, or items that can be placed on existing walls or columns; and eliminating outmoded services to provide space for functions that will attract users back into areas they have abandoned. Examples of such visual improvements include a project at Anaheim Central Library incorporating clouds painted on a ceiling, the full-scale figure of a giraffe, and colorful carpeting installed in the children’s library. The City of Orange Main Library added attractive ceiling decorations to hide unattractive light fixtures.

Zero-cost remodeling

Darcel Jones, a community library manager for the Contra Costa County Library system in the San Francisco Bay Area, actually oversaw a “zero-cost” remodeling project for the system’s Pinole Library, one in which no new equipment was purchased and no demolition or construction was needed. It was inspired by her efforts to bring the branch into compliance with the system’s strategic plan. “We had to change the layout of the library, beyond changing a few chairs around, to provide space for general reading and a separate area for adults and seniors to relax during the after-school hours.”

The overall structure provided by the strategic plan was a mandate to create a service model in which library users can complete 80% of what they want to accomplish independently, faster, and with privacy—a self-service model— so staff can dedicate time to assisting users with the remaining 20% of their endeavors.

Jones and her staff met to discuss their concerns, which included a new-book area that was too small, a poorly located newspaper and periodicals area, insufficient space to accommodate the Friends of the Library bookselling operation, and conflicts caused by teens’ desires to have a social area where they could talk and adults’ desire for a quieter space. They decided that a well-designed program to weed the reference collection and recapture space would be at the heart of their efforts. Furthermore, the weeding didn’t discard the underutilized reference books: Although approximately 75% of the collection was weeded, 60% simply moved into circulation, so that it went into the hands of library users rather than taking up shelf space. This released approximately 25% of the space in the building to support other services.

“The changes were dramatic [and] Pinole is still a work in progress,” Jones says. “I’m currently writing a proposal to have a single-service workstation . . . another self-service checkout machine, and another public computer.
At the end, I want the library service model to be in compliance with the county’s strategic plan.”

What made the project successful, notes Jones, were engagement on the part of staff and other stakeholders; support from members of library administration; a focus on trying to resolve conflicts that had been voiced by users; and a recognition that remodeling is part of a continuing process, not a one-time project to be completed and then forgotten.

Designing for Disabilities

As members of library staff consider low-cost projects involving the introduction of new furniture, carpet, or signs, they can easily accommodate the needs of library users who have disabilities, says library consultant Rhea Joyce Rubin. “Users and potential users with disabilities must be included in the planning process,” she urges, adding that “Signage is important to create a sense of welcome. I have had members of focus groups of people with disabilities go on at some length about their appreciation of signs as simple as, ‘Let us know if we can help you find or reach things.’ Another example is floor coverings.

It is essential that floor coverings are not slippery and yet not so plush that wheelchairs and scooters have trouble moving.” “Furniture is another example,” Rubin continues. “I’m all for pretty, but functionality is more important. To meet the demands of most people, it is necessary to have multiple styles of furniture: some chairs with arms and some without, some with standard legs and some with sled legs that can be pushed under and away from a table more easily, some upholstered with cushions and some bare. Each of these variations speaks to a specific need.”

Some adaptations designed for one purpose can ultimately serve another, notes Rubin. Standing internet stations, designed to encourage people to use computer workstations quickly and then move on so others can take their place, are comfortable for library users who have back problems; choice of various colors of paint rather than monochromatic color schemes can help “older adults and people with vision problems [who] would walk into the walls or walk into doors because they couldn’t distinguish the difference between the floor carpet color and the wall or door color. Using different palettes in a different part of the library is a good idea . . . and is especially
important for people with disabilities,” she suggests.

Other projects underway include one that Demmers is currently working on with architect Rick D’Amato and interior designer Chris Lentz—both with the Irvine, California–based LPA Inc. architecture firm—remodeling the County of Los Angeles Public Library’s Malibu Library. The project involves phased work within a building that was originally completed in 1963 and has just under 13,000 square feet of space. The goal is to create a community space that attracts 30 to 40% more people per year than are currently visiting the building.

“The Malibu remodel is finding space by removing a four-person circ desk and two-person reference desk [and replacing them with] one customer-service station,” Demmers explains. An unused circulation collection is being removed to add “more comfortable seating and a dedicated children’s space.”

“One thing that is really special about Malibu is their connection to their history and to their community,” D’Amato notes. He and Lentz are proposing low-cost alterations that will incorporate that sense of connection into everything that is done, such as creating an abstract version of a lighthouse within the building as a reference to a local home that was built in the shape of a lighthouse. To create connections to the area’s equestrian past, a community meeting room will include colors and materials suggestive of stables without trying to literally re-create a stable within the library. Wall-sized photography is also being incorporated into the project. “It’s very inexpensive to do that, to blow up photographs and put them on an entire wall,” D’Amato says. “What we’re doing is treating them like wallpaper. They’re done on vinyl; you can take an entire wall and create an image.”

“The whole point is, if you have a goal or a story or a theme, it helps to drive the decisions,” Lentz adds. “You’re not just decorating the space. There’s a meaning behind it, and it means something to the community. . . . There are things that we want to highlight, so you play up the special features of the building.”

At a cost of $5 million, another project that D’Amato and Lentz are working on, the Santa Fe Springs Library, is far from low-cost; but a glance at the plans provides ideas for anyone interested in how they can adapt an existing space to meet the changing needs of library users while building flexibility and a sense of library as place into the remodeled space. “Their whole library is going to revolve around a coffee house,” D’Amato notes. That does not mean that traditional and new uses are secondary: With a circular space in the center of the building dedicated to the coffee shop, a variety of open spaces providing various services wrap around that space: main book collections; a children’s area; a young adult area; computer terminals grouped together in an area close to study and literacy rooms; an information desk that is nearly as centrally located as the coffee shop; a reading/quiet area somewhat removed from the coffee shop; a community room; and a staff area. Space adjacent to the building includes an outdoor reading garden. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a library with a smaller budget than is available for the Santa Fe Springs project could rearrange existing spaces both inside and outside a building to create a central focus and specially grouped spaces to meet its own needs.

A final example of a project with almost no cost was recently completed in the Main Library in San Francisco, where the solid white walls of the Fisher Children’s Center gained some color: Pale pink and pale green shades drawing from what exists in the carpet have brightened up one side of the center, and a combination of pale blue and pale peach-orange is fulfilling a similar function on the other side: “That’s it—just a couple of gallons of paint,” Center Manager Loretta Dowell notes. “People marvel at the space and say it’s warm.” Paperback racks that had been removed have been brought back so that audiobooks can be displayed face out—an addition that augments an earlier decision to arrange all the Harry Potter books, in a variety of languages, into a display area that facilitates access to and use of the entire collection.

“It’s about creating a welcoming atmosphere to help John Doe and Jane Doe find what they want,” says Dowell. “Before, the room looked sterile or institutionalized; now, it welcomes you with open arms.” Seeing remodeling as a process rather than an isolated event leads to decisions that draw from an existing building’s strengths and create the possibility that changes will lay the foundations for additional successful renovations. Having a framework within which the project is developed—an organizational strategic plan, a building program that provides the opportunity to complete changes in a series of low-cost phases rather than in one more expensive endeavor, a theme that is used throughout the remodeling effort, or a decision to create a strong central project around which other elements of the remodeling plan are designed—can result in attractive remodeling projects that respond to the needs of library users and staff.

PAUL SIGNORELLI is a writer, trainer, and consultant ( who is active in the ALA Learning Round Table and on the American Libraries Advisory Committee. He can be reached at paul@paulsignorelli .com.


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