Cover Story: Good Vibrations

June 23, 2009

UC Berkeley’s historic Bancroft Library underwent a renovation of seismic proportions.


If there were a Richter scale for architecture, the $64 million seismic upgrade and renovation at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library would benchmark a new upper limit for positive impact on the environment when sustainability and preservation strategies are purposefully aligned. Indeed, the magnitude and implications of this project were palpable: The library was cramped and antiquated—a seismically vulnerable structure paradoxically housing rare collections valued in the billion-dollar range.

The building’s location in the heart of Berkeley’s protected historic district presented an unusual dichotomy: Exterior renovation plans were subject to stringent historic preservation guidelines and review; but the system-wide goal of LEED®-certified equivalence at the University of California also applied. What’s more, air quality and energy-use strategies for occupants had to mesh with the needs of curators responsible for holdings as fragile as a fragment of a lost play by Sophocles or a second century A.D. papyrus fragment of the Iliad. The challenges and multi-layered objectives would leave many good architects quaking in their construction boots.

“We did a national search: Requests for proposals [RFPs] were published in local newspapers, and architectural firms from all across the country applied,” recalls Frederick Yasaki, director of library planning at UC Berkeley, and a licensed architect himself. “We then formed a selection committee and vetted all proposals and companies—the university is very strict about that.”

Yasaki says the process came down to a short list of six firms, all of which were very good candidates. In the end, the committee did not stray far from home: The coveted project went to Ratcliff, an award-winning, third-generation Bay Area firm steeped in the city of Berkeley’s architectural history.

Yes, what goes around comes around: Walter H. Ratcliff Jr., founder of the 103-year-old company, designed UC Berkeley’s famously elegant Morrison Library in 1928. He began his career in the office of renowned San Francisco [and Berkeley campus] architect John Galen Howard, designer of the Beaux-Arts classical Doe Library. Ironically, in 2006, as the firm celebrated its 100th anniversary, the architects at Ratcliff began the monumental task of transforming the Bancroft Library into a state-of-the-art facility that would complement the Beaux-Arts grandeur of the adjoining Doe Library—a national historic landmark.

In perfect counterpoint, Ratcliff collaborated throughout the project with Noll & Tam Architects, a Berkeley-based firm acclaimed for its work on the assessment, planning and design of libraries. “We teamed up in the RFP stage, as we have on several projects in the past,” explains Bill Blessing, associate principal at Ratcliff and the firm’s lead architect on the project. Notably, the collaboration has even deeper roots: Kit Ratcliff, third-generation head of the eponymous firm happens to be married to Noll & Tam principal, Janet Tam.

“Our firm led on the space planning issues and security management component, and Ratcliff led the large seismic renovation,” says Chris Noll, principal and lead architect on this and most Noll & Tam library designs. Noll says that after six months of programming the two companies created a blended project team that was headquartered in Ratcliff’s office. “The two firms are complementary in terms of expertise,” explains Yasaki. “We knew Noll & Tam and were very pleased with their integrity, service and honesty. Ratcliff is well known in the area and had done a lot of work with our university over generations.”

It is only fitting that Blessing and Noll, both UC Berkeley alums, became lead architects on the modernization project for the Doe Annex/Bancroft Library. The building was originally designed by Arthur Brown Jr., class of 1896, who became one of San Francisco’s most distinguished architects. Brown was meticulously trained at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was eminently suited to carry forward John Galen Howard’s classical “Athens of the West” master campus plan.

But the 130,000-foot Doe Annex was built to house the Bancroft collections in 1949, when Brown had already embraced the minimalism of Art Moderne style. “The Doe Annex was built as a plain vanilla addition to the Doe main library,” explains Blessing, “and as part of the project, the university wanted us to create a modern interpretation of its Beaux-Arts architecture.”

Walk in through the library’s new bronze front doors, and the two-story classical entry rotunda appropriately heralds the magnificence of the Bancroft’s scholarly treasures, which include three major research collections—the Mark Twain Papers, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) and the Center for Tebtunis Papryi—in addition to more than 600,000 volumes, 60 million manuscripts, millions of photographs, and numerous maps, paintings and diaries.

“It’s beautiful! The aesthetics now reflect the quality of the collections,” Yasaki says of the dramatic entry rotunda—crowned by a gold-leaf ceiling dome and Neidhardt bronze chandelier, and replete with grand staircase. “We gutted the whole building and blasted a corridor that had originally connected the Bancroft and Doe libraries [but had been sealed since 1972],” explains Noll. Then the design team developed a palette of elegant colors and classic materials: limestone columns and entry portals; terrazzo flooring; and a floor starburst of multi-colored marble and onyx with cast bronze medallions representing key library collections.

“Bronze is the metal of choice for this project,” says Blessing. It recurs throughout the space in custom railings by Julius Blum, custom Neidhardt sconces, as well as in doors, hardware … even in the new fire-rated interior windows from SAFTI FIRST and O’Keefe’s, both local San Francisco sources. Rich cherry wood veneer is incorporated in reading and reference rooms, recalling the clubby look of the senior Ratcliff’s design for the Morrison Library.

Drab and uninviting before the renovation, the main reading room was reconfigured to take advantage of northern light. And though its new cherry millwork and arched ceiling reference the Beaux-Arts style, the Decoustics ceilings and resilient Expanko cork flooring create the desired Old World look while absorbing sound. Blessing points out that Armstrong Marmorette used for inset borders in the upstairs atrium and reading room floors becomes the primary flooring in adjacent high-traffic areas.

Just as remarkable as the transformation indoors is the architects’ skillful preservation of the Bancroft Library’s exterior—achieved while moving the building from a “poor” to “good” seismic rating. “We were able to save the shell and add seismic protection,” explains Blessing, noting that the façade’s trompe l’oeil “granite” exterior [actually terra cotta] and original aluminum Kawneer windows were protected in the historic district. “We added heavy-duty shear walls throughout the building to bring it up to current seismic codes—our target was a ‘good’ rating,” adds Blessing.

Prior to the renovation, Bancroft’s historic collections were threatened by more than its poor seismic rating, however. Precious works were stored in tenuous conditions, the aging HVAC and fire safety systems were inadequate, and there was little or no protection from theft. “The collection is so important to the UC system as well as the state of California that the issues of security and climate control quickly rose up on the priority list,” says Blessing.

“We had museum-quality collections that were just locked up in vaults and stored remotely because the Bancroft Library had no exhibition space, no facility for documents to be viewed, no plan for climate control or for security,” says Yasaki, explaining that the 1940s building had evolved erratically without a coordinated master plan.

Planning to rectify those problems would become Noll’s biggest challenge. The sizes and types of storage needed involved six months of programming and intensive collaboration with library administration, collections supervisors and curators. “Usually you have basic measurements, but this collection is not just books; it involves photography, maps and old art—some in boxes, some rolled. Many of the pictures were in huge frames up to 12 feet tall,” reports Noll.

“We did quite a bit of custom work with Spacesaver. We needed shelving for microfiche, tons of flat files as well as 12-foot-tall, high-density mobile shelving,” says Noll, noting that storage space was increased by about 25 percent by collaborating with Spacesaver on custom compact shelving. As a result, collections that had been stretched over nine different levels before the renovation were consolidated into three floors.

With the modernization, high-performance environmental conditions and security controls were integrated into the collections’ storage areas at the basement level and first floor. The architects created a system of three different climate zones and balanced conditions from one to the other. State-of-the-art cold storage vaults were designed to maintain the optimal conditions for storing film and prints. Specialized storage with sliding panels of steel mesh provide ventilation for framed works of art, and oversized storage cabinets used for large-format items now permit the viewing of stored items without the necessity of handling the works.

“We went from 20 entryways and exists with very little security, to one main screening point where every is bag checked going out—including top executives,” says Yasaki. In addition, 250 closed-circuit cameras and motion sensors now protect the collections.

The client’s goal of LEED-certified equivalence for this rare books library within a historic building was achieved by the coordination of sustainability and preservation strategies. “Fortunately we did not have to compromise preservation goals with big, over-insulated windows—we benefited from the climate being mild,” notes Blessing. Interior design choices deliberately aligned air quality goals for occupants and library curators. The designers specified low-VOC paints and sealants; high recycled content for furnishings; and highly renewable products like cork flooring and FSC wood products.

For best energy use, the long-term collections storage was located in below-grade spaces to help conserve energy over time (by isolating the controlled temperature and humidity areas). Wherever possible, office, seminar and reading rooms utilize perimeter, UV-filtered daylight. Additionally, occupancy and daylight sensors with integrated lighting controls reduce energy demand from building lighting and corresponding cooling loads.

“Our biggest challenge was the increase in HVAC equipment for the library’s massive storage requirement—but we made it as green as possible,” says Blessing. Ratcliff used the PG&E [Pacific Glass and Electric] Savings by Design program to model energy needs, which helped save the building shell, historic windows and doors.

“The goals for a healthier environment and the lasting preservation of materials are matching: no chemicals,” explains Blessing. “Of course, the greenest element of the project was reusing an old historic building and repurposing it for the 21st century,” he concludes. Perhaps that’s what Walter Ratcliff was thinking years earlier when he said, “Buildings should grow old gracefully.” With all the help it received from dedicated clients and architects, this building undoubtedly will.

Carol Tisch is a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant based in Sarasota, FL. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Shelter Interiors magazine and Home Furnishings News (HFN), and has developed communications programs for commercial and residential design industry clients. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Steelcase | 1
(800) 333-9939


Spacesaver | 2


Associated Terrazzo
(415) 641-1995

Stone Selection
(510) 477-8700

SW Mertz
(209) 368-3949

(800) 387-3809

(717) 397-0611

(888) 653-3333

(415) 822-4222


(717) 397-0611

Forbo Flooring Systems
(570) 459-0771

SW Mertz | 3
(209) 368-3949

(800) 345-6202


(408) 938-1600

Julius Blum & Co.
(800) 526-6293


SPI Lighting
(262) 242-1420

Neidhardt | 4
(800) 978-8828

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Bancroft Library
Berkeley, CA 94720-6000
(510) 642-1458


5856 Doyle St.
Emeryville, CA 94608
(510) 899-6400

Kit Ratcliff, principal
Bill Blessing, associate principal
Peter Tsugawa, associate principal
Kevin Thornton, senior project architect
Bonnie Thomas, interior designer


Noll & Tam Architects
729 Heinz Ave., No. 7
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 649-8295

Janet Tam, principal
Chris Noll, principal 
Diane Rogers, interior designer

McCarthy Builders  

David Wakely

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