Book (Un)bound

Oct. 28, 2005
Design, technology transform the concept of what a library can be

By David Weiss

Libraries are places where those interested in design go to read about groundbreaking architecture, not experience it.

At least, that used to be true.

The Central branch of the Seattle Public Library changes all of that with one bold stroke, transforming the entire concept of how a library can look, what it can do, and how it does it.

Designed jointly by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture ( and Seattle-based LMN Architects (, the third edition of the Central Library is as progressive as you might expect coming from this Northwest city, which serves as a perpetual epicenter of technology and culture.

“This building was very much about being a library for the 21st century,” says Sam Miller, project manager and a principal at LMN Architects. “Libraries are undergoing a significant transition now, and information technology has changed how libraries are thought of.

“There’s been an explosion of media that has occurred over the last 100 years with the advent of different technologies beyond just books, including CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes, [and] videotapes. Libraries have had this explosion of services that they provide. The library is not just a quiet place to go and read - how people are accessing information is changing as well, with the Internet and computers available. With this project, there was a lot of thought early on about what the library of the future would look like, deconstructing to some degree what the library is and reassembling it with what makes the most sense going forward.”

Ambitious Goals
The seeds of Seattle’s startling Central Library, located downtown at 1000 Fourth Ave., were originally sown in 1998 when Seattle voters first approved a $196.4 million “Libraries for All” bond measure to double the square footage of Seattle’s 23 neighborhood libraries and build a new Central Library on the existing site. The awe-inspiring five-platform/11-level, crystalline steel-and-glass structure that was completed in 2004 followed in the footsteps of two others: a 55,000-square-foot beaux arts building that opened at the same address in 1906 and a 206,000-square-foot international-style facility dedicated in 1960.

Not surprisingly, library officials, whose region had become known for global forces from Microsoft to Starbucks, had ambitious goals for the architectural team, with unparalleled access to information and the surrounding community at the top of the list. “Early on we had a meeting with Rem and he had us go around and speak about our dreams for the library,” says Jill Jean, the library’s director of public services. “I wanted it to be a place of lifelong learning for all ages, and a research library for collections we cared about, especially aviation history, genealogy, and our Seattle history. It sounds trite, but we also wanted it to be a destination for families, a place where people would feel it’s a good gathering spot, so we really needed it to have spaces that would work for all kinds of people.”

Structure Floats
The building’s stunningly futuristic design has engendered multiple awards for its creators, including the ACEC of Washington’s 2005 Platinum Award to structural engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA) for structural solutions. The MKA team was given a laundry list of challenges to tackle in executing its design. Chief among them were a prohibition of corner or vertical columns, part of a plan that would allow the building to appear to float without support.

Working with structural/mechanical/electric engineering firm Arup, MKA developed new kinds of structural systems. For example, the multistory-deep perimeter platform trusses are supported by carefully positioned sloping columns. The result is maximized counterbalancing opportunities for carrying the Central Library’s gravity loads. These platforms cantilever as much as 52 feet and are cantilevered on all four sides in some cases. Additionally, the firms devised a diamond-shaped steel gird that handles four key tasks simultaneously:

  • Resistance of wind and earthquake loads.

  • Interconnection of platform trusses.
  • Provision of interior architectural finish.
  • Support of an expansive glass curtain wall.

Taken together, these advanced elements help shape a building that is a significant departure from the symmetrically stacked high-rise. The steel-and-glass-encased Central Library features 11 levels spanning five platforms/levels that serve primary library functions, including an innovative “Book Spiral” that manages to make 75 percent of the library’s 1 million-plus collection immediately available to the public. In addition, the 19,500-square-foot Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber is where award-winning innovations in wireless technology help to provide unprecedented levels of expert interdisciplinary assistance to patrons.

Meanwhile, in between the platforms are public gathering areas that give the distinct impression of floating. These spaces include the 15,000-square-foot Faye G. Allen Children’s Center, 275-seat Microsoft Auditorium, a unique reading space called “The Living Room,” a colorful meeting level painted in deep reds and pinks, and the nearly 12,000-square-foot Betty Jane Narver Reading Room featuring vignette views of Seattle’s Elliott Bay and 40-foot ceilings that gaze down on dark, walnut-stained wood floors with brightly colored area carpets.

“It’s a very modern building and a surprise to people in Seattle - most things here go straight up and they’re not very interesting,” says Jean. “We were very conscious of the functionality of the building and didn’t want to short-shrift people in terms of aesthetic.”

The building team challenged each other to make it happen. “I didn’t always have an easy time with the architects, or them with us, but we worked well together. The architects took us to new levels in our thinking, and I was a little startled in how much they immersed themselves in how our library works,” Jean explains.

An excellent example is the Book Spiral, a series of flat tiers connected by gentle ramps gradually sloping at 2 degrees as they wind their way through four floors of book stacks. “As much as I hate to use the analogy, it’s like a parking garage,” says Miller. “This is a switchback spiral that goes up 6 feet in 200 feet, then goes back over itself. Embedded in the floor are rubber mats with the Dewey Decimal System identifier in very large, 1-foot-tall numbers. The elevators also have an LED that reads out the Dewey run for that particular floor, so to get the book, you just need to know the call number.”

Communications Mastery
The aforementioned Mixing Chamber, where patrons can get help with general questions or in-depth research, was also a touchstone for the Central Library’s groundbreaking wireless communications. The librarians’ complex needs there would prove to be an extremely intricate challenge for electrical engineering and technical consulting firm Sparling (, which found that the library’s unique layout and advanced research service objectives made simple communication between librarians anything but simple. Sparling’s search for the right technology proved successful beyond all expectations, however, resulting in revolutionary solutions that would eventually net them a 2005 ACEC National Engineering Excellence Award.

“Seattle’s Central Library required different approaches to traditional wireless,” says Scott Roberts, project manager for Sparling. “The driver for all of this wasn’t necessarily public Internet access - it was actually to get communications to the librarians. They needed some type of wireless or portable phone as a way to talk from librarian to librarian and back to the help desk, where people call up and ask questions. A lot of engineering was needed to make this system work, and we evaluated a lot of options.”

With rubber walls, metal ceilings, and wide open spaces wreaking havoc on wireless signals, Roberts’ team had to look beyond the usual suspects in wireless communications devices. “Walkie-talkies are limited and very disruptive, their cost per unit is quite high, and the building’s construction materials prohibited a lot of the signals, so that got eliminated very quickly,” explains Roberts. “Cell phones had similar issues, and it’s difficult to transfer calls in a traditional phone system to a cell phone. So what we looked at was an internal wireless phone system using a traditional wireless protocol like 802.11b, which is what we use here.”

Sparling had exacting criteria for the system they would choose. “We started evaluating devices that would have a good form factor for librarians to use, that they could expand and integrate with the phone system,” Roberts says. “We also wanted it to be able to, if possible, work hands-free, and make point-to-point or librarian-to-librarian communications easy. It was a tall order!”

After extensive evaluations, Sparling took a chance on a system that was brand new at the time, specifying the Vocera ( wireless voice communication system. Combining software that manages call activity with a wearable voice-controlled communication device, Vocera fit the bill perfectly for Sparling’s client.

“It definitely had not been used in a library before,” says Roberts. “It was a leap of faith to deploy this system, and it was extremely successful. These can be worn on a lanyard or clipped to a belt, with an earbud. You push a button and a genie says, ‘Vocera. How can I help you?’ Then you can verbally tell it who to call, so it’s one-button activation and completely voice-activated from there. It also provides localized paging. Instead of an overheard page, we use Vocera to page to a localized group of people, so it’s far less noise-disruptive than overhead pages would be. That’s key in a library.”

The librarians’ needs were just one part of a larger wireless puzzle that Sparling had to solve. “The architecture was extremely challenging to the wireless,” Roberts confirms. “A leading wireless manufacturer refused to design this facility for wireless: They said it was not possible to do this space without excessive access points - 770 to be exact. The reason for this is the amount of open space: You can stand on the fifth floor and see all the way to the eleventh, so, as a result, your laptop can see six or seven access points at any one time.”

Sparling’s search for answers at this phase led them to another relatively new company, Airespace (, producers of an innovative system for supporting business applications over a wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure. The Airespace solution required a much more affordable 75 access points. “It adjusts the power level of access points dynamically within the space to support the movement and congregation of devices,” says Roberts. “The software detects how many users are in a particular area, takes the closest access point, and reduces the power of that closest access point and increases the power of the surrounding ones to try and draw some of people in the group away and balance the system. Airespace rewrote their code to support the unique environment for this library, and that code has now become part of their standard release.”

Channel assignments of wireless devices are dynamic as well, meaning that, as with the power levels, the software can constantly re-evaluate and re-optimize the system to adjust to the number of users in a given area at any time. “The access point, which is the wired node that all the wireless devices talk to, dynamically changes the channels (of different devices) to avoid cross-channel interference. This is important in this particular space, since you could see access points from all over. Making unique channel assignments in that type of environment was impossible, so dynamic assignments were pivotal.

“Particularly in wide-open spaces, you have to look at dynamic wireless solutions. The traditional static approach doesn’t work in a space designed to allow the free flow of people. That’s definitely an architectural trend, to allow for these congregation points. The architecture is wonderful, but it presents challenges to the technology, especially wireless signals now because everybody is sharing (a network). Being able to dynamically change the power level is crucial to support that.”

Behind the scenes, the Central Library has a powerful system in place that takes the once-staid task of book handling to a completely new level. Built around a system made by Tech Logic (, it can process an average of 1,400 books per hour and represents a completely new paradigm for the way materials are checked in, sorted, and readied for reshelving. With Tech Logic, when a book, CD, or other item is returned, it gets dropped onto an automated conveyor system, carrying materials through the ceiling to a sorting area near the loading dock. Each item gets automatically checked in thanks to a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip affixed to it, which is in turn detected by an RFID antenna in the library’s circulation system.

Once the book is checked in, a machine orients it for either the Central Library or to delivery to one of the branch libraries. If it’s the former, the book goes to one of 12 machines that places items on book carts for reshelving. A branch library-bound book, meanwhile, goes to a series of motorized interagency bins for truck delivery. Each bin has movable floors that raise or lower as items are added or removed, saving staff the considerable strain of constantly bending down to reach deep into the bins. “The Central Library is the hub of the 27-library system,” Miller points out. “Every book that goes from one branch to another goes through this building. The Tech Logic system saves the librarians a lot of time routing the books.”

Reinventing city landscapes, communication techniques, and even software programming approaches, Seattle’s Central Library is a perfect example of how sizable a step can be made from one generation of a building to the next. “The idea of deconstructing and reconstructing a library in this way is very risky,” Sam Miller reflects. “The library and the city board are to be commended for having the courage to do it. If it hadn’t worked out, they could have all been fired! Instead, they’ve been celebrated as visionaries.”

Sponsored Recommendations

Two New Reports Offer Groundbreaking Guidance for Carbon and Material Health

Perkins&Will and Healthy Building Network launch resource for selecting products that champion both environmental and material safety, spotlighting a shift toward holistic sustainabilit...

The Durable Coated Fabrics Task Group’s Guide to Specifying Healthcare Materials

Here are the best questions to ask and what to prioritize in today’s post-pandemic world.

i+s Spotlights Those Giving Back for Thanksgiving

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, we’re applauding some of our industry’s greatest charitable initiatives.

KOVA’s Dan Sullivan Talks Optimization for Adaptive Reuse

What makes a building a prime candidate? And what technology advances are streamlining the process? Sullivan answers all this and more. Read, then listen...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!