Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center – Partially funded by a Legacy Grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, this project is the result of active engagement between Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the community. BPL required the new building to double the size of the previous building, provide additional exterior space, and integrate interest in environmental education. Beyond serving as a site for discovery, information access, and community support, it was imperative that this branch demonstrate sustainable design principles, meeting LEED Gold Certification. A community advisory committee was formed early in the process, whose input was essential to the building’s programming and design.
Architizer chatted with Jason Roberts, Director at Marble Fairbanks Architects, to learn more about this project.
Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?
Jason Roberts: The project is located in a neighborhood with limited outdoor green space, so the massing of the building was developed to maximize opportunities for landscape to be integrated into the experience of the building at all three levels. Designed to address past toxic history, the library provides expanded programming including adult, young adult, and children reading rooms and collection spaces, and community spaces. Lab spaces for interactive projects, a large community event space (which can be divided into lab spaces), a lounge, small meeting rooms, and staff spaces distributed throughout the two levels.
This project won in the 10th Annual A+Awards! What do you believe are the standout components that made your project win?
The project models new partnerships and unique, community-driven goals in public library planning – pairing state-of-the-art library services with community spaces for environmental education-related activities. A demonstration for innovative approaches to sustainable design, the library also promotes community, social, and cultural sustainability through its newly expanded programming.
Outdoor spaces are highly valued and creatively programmed. The street-level civic space is a front porch for the community, a place for informal uses, and public gatherings. The reading garden hosts storytime, book talks, and sewing classes. The demonstration garden provides food for the community and programming ranging from pickling to stargazing.
The outdoor landscape also provides habitats for native birds and pollinators and bioswales for stormwater retention, minimizing combined sewer overflow events. Water is also collected on an upper roof, stored in a visible cistern, and accessed by community members to water the raised-bed community gardens.
What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?
The greatest design challenge faced during the project was the potential limitations imposed by a particular portion of the zoning resolution. Specifically, the requirement for a street wall of a certain height to be built directly adjacent to the sidewalk that would have significantly reduced the amount of public space and vegetation available at the street level. This presented a significant obstacle to achieving the desired design outcome: opening up the corner of the site to the public and making this place an active, educational space for the community. Through collaboration with zoning experts, the library, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), the design team was able to make a compelling case for an override of this requirement to the Mayor’s Office, ultimately enabling the successful realization of the design.
How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?
Industrial waste and oil spills contaminated over 50 acres in this community, and, during construction, we removed toxic soil from previous building fill on this site. The library includes three essential civic spaces, tiered from street level to upper planted green roofs. The reimagined landscape features granite outcroppings of recycled stone skins from New York State quarries, aligning with the NW to SE movement of the Laurentide Ice Sheet across Brooklyn 18,000 years ago. Native forest plantings of grasses, groundcovers, and a planted bioswale create an educational entrance to the library. The Reading Garden off the second floor includes wood benches for solitary or group activities at the edge of a mounded shrub thicket with native and fruit-bearing plants providing food and habitat for birds and insects. On the third floor, the Demonstration Garden provides community planting space in raised beds, and a Pollinator Garden, planted with sedum beds.
What drove the selection of materials used in the project?
Material selection was critical in the development of this project. Over 25% of all building materials utilized on this project use recycled content; 29% of materials are regionally sourced. Over 87% of all wood comes from sustainably managed forests. Steel was chosen as the primary structural system to utilize recycled materials. We recycled over 91% of construction waste. A healthy interior environment was achieved through careful selection of low-emitting adhesives and sealants, paints and coatings, carpets, and composite wood products.
We worked iteratively with a local craftsperson to develop and fabricate the exterior wood and concrete wall panels by developing a sand-blasting technique for finishing the wood panels that accentuated the natural pattern on the facade. The cedar panels were then used to cast the glass fiber reinforced panels used on the lower facade of the building.
What is your favorite detail in the project and why?
One of the notable features of the project is the integration of what we refer to as the “solar windows.” These windows serve a dual purpose, providing natural light while also functioning as an educational tool. The unique geometry of these windows is designed to align with the spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice. On each of these days at noon, sunlight shining through the windows will align with corresponding markings on the floor, effectively turning the building into a sundial. This innovative design not only enhances the aesthetic of the building but also provides an opportunity for visitors to learn about the movement of the sun throughout the year.
How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project?
The Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center is located in a community with a significant history of industrial development, toxic waste, and environmental activism, therefore, it was imperative that this branch demonstrate sustainable design principles. With the ambition “to create environmental stewards and nature lovers out of future generations of New Yorkers,” moments highlighting environmental awareness and sustainability are integrated throughout the interior and exterior spaces of the building. Part of a multiscalar ecosystem – the library supports its own local ecology, is part of a neighborhood cohered around activism, is critical social infrastructure in New York City, and is related to regional and national efforts to remedy toxic environments.
In what ways did you collaborate with others, and were there any team members or skills that were essential in bringing this Award winning project to life?
This project entailed a robust, inclusive design process that engaged with individual community members and numerous community organizations. The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) served as integral participants in the design process. Their suggestions informed key design decisions and provided digital technologies for the full range of community events and workshops. We toured related projects and local organizations with stakeholders to see their work first-hand and adjusted the program to better support their needs, and we adapted our program to support their future work. Through this process, the expanded community established a shared vision for this project, shaping an utterly unique branch in the BPL library system that links a library with an environmental education center.
How have your clients responded to the finished project?
“With the help of our partners from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund to Marble Fairbanks, we created a space for everyone in the community that is as inspiring as it is versatile. We need more libraries like this one: that make vital knowledge and beautiful design accessible to all, that empower people from all walks of life to come together and building a more sustainable and more just world.” – Linda E. Johnson, Former Brooklyn Public Library CEO
Karen Fairbanks, Scott Marble, Nicholas Desbiens, Jason Roberts, Peter Adams, Benjamin Hait, Keenan Korth, Lauren Espeseth, Spenser Krut
Structural Engineering: Robert Silman Associates LEED: ads Engineers, PC MEP/FP Engineering: ads Engineers, PC Landscape Architecture: SCAPE Landscape Architecture Lighting: Tillotson Design Associates AudioVisual: InToTo Professional Services, Inc. IT & Security: Cosentini Associates Wayfinding: MTWTF Code Expeditor: JAM Code Consultants, Inc. GM/CM: Westerman Construction Co., Inc. Cost Estimating: Accu-Cost
Products and Materials
Evan Eisman Company, Custom Sandblasted Cedar Panels ConcreteWorks East, Custom Glass Fiber Reinforced Panels
For more on Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.