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Norfolk Library Bridges Past and Future

By T.R. Witcher

Designers link a classical 1900s building to a new, technologically advanced structure to bring historic collections in Norfolk's new library up to date and out into the world.

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Norfolk’s new Slover Library joins a historical building together with a new seven-story addition. Peter Aaron/OTTO

February 3, 2015—When Norfolk began planning for a light-rail line through the heart of its downtown in the early 2000s, the lack of a nice, tidy street grid proved to be a challenge. "Just trying to stitch light-rail through that city was itself an engineering feat," says Michael Scott, AIA, an architect with New Haven-based Newman Architects. "What became apparent was [that] the best way to transition the rail through the grid system was to take it right through the Kirn Memorial Library."

The demolition of the block that held the Kirn opened up the need—and the potential—for creating a new central library for the city: the Slover Library. First the library's collection moved into the nearby Seaboard Building, a classical structure dating from 1900 that once served as Norfolk's city hall. Now the library is moving to its new home in a renovated Seaboard combined with a brand new, seven-story building and joined by an inviting new atrium.

The new portions of the $65-million Slover Library were designed by Newman Architects, along with Norfolk-based Tymoff + Moss. "We looked very hard at what it was going to take to open a viable branch in downtown," says Scott. "It turns out there was a tremendous need in the community for public meeting and collaboration space, space the public library could step in and provide."

That notion continues a trend in modern library design toward creating spaces not just for individual research but also for group study, civic gatherings, and even public performances (Read " Austin Building Library of the Future," on Civil Engineering online, and "Reinventing the Library" in Civil Engineering 's upcoming February 2015 issue.) To accommodate more meeting space, including a top-floor auditorium, the size of the new building grew from the designers' original idea of 80,000 sq ft to 90,000 and finally to 138,000 sq ft. This is in addition to the Seaboard's 38,000 sq ft.

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The Slover Library Forum is comprised of a structural steel space-frame, strong enough to support the ornamental metal sculpture of artist Kent Bloomer. Peter Aaron/OTTO

Designers began by considering how their addition would respond to Seaboard. "It's a lovely building," says Scott. "It's exquisitely detailed and exceptionally well built. We knew immediately it was going to be the wrong thing to try to copy it right next door. It would be excruciatingly expensive even if you thought it was the right thing to do."

Led by founding principal and lead designer Herb Newman, the early insight was to change the direction in which the new building faces. "Instead of looking out at Plume Street, turn it 90 degrees so it's looking right into Seaboard," Scott explains. "It steps back from the street and allows the front of Seaboard to take its place on the corner, then it stares into the side of Seaboard."

The facade uses glass on its Plume Street side, facing north, to make the library welcoming and to convey the idea that there are ample spaces for community engagement within. "Then there are the horizontal masonry pieces…meant to emulate the limestone on the Seaboard, which has a pretty rusticated base, and a heavy limestone landing," Scott says.

The remainder of the structure comprises a lime-plastered brick meant to mimic the glazed brick on the Seaboard. "We wanted the building to have a hand-made and hand-assembled quality to it like the Seaboard does," Scott says. "To me it was evocative of lime-washed brick in low country architecture from Virginia down to Florida and into Louisiana." It gives the project, he says, a "nice regional feel."

The Seaboard and the new addition are joined by a three-story glass atrium called the Forum, a central "indoor-outdoor" gathering space. The forum, Scott explains, would be "part of the library but more importantly part of the city." Its front wall and roof are built from a structural steel space-frame. The lateral load-resisting system is a combination of shear walls and moment frames created primarily by a series of nine columns, according to Ed Pence, P.E., S.E., F.ASCE, the chief executive officer of Virginia Beach-based Stroud Pence Structural Engineers. These columns are accented at each level.

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Two thin bridges cantilever off the Slover’s elevator core, linking the historic Seaboard building, left, to the new addition. Peter Aaron/OTTO

Custom-designed aluminum artwork by Kent Bloomer adorns the structure, and an elevator core extends through the roof of the atrium, which it is capped by a sculpture evocative of open books that rises 155 ft. 

An internal courtyard, a cortile, was carried over as an organizing principle from Seaboard into the new building. "Based on that same geometry, we built something similar on every floor, connecting the two parts of the structure with bridges across the atrium," Scott says. Two thin bridges, made of structural steel, cantilever off the elevator core and span the atrium space, linking the old and new portions of the library. "The hearts of the two buildings are literally stitched together," Scott says.

One of the biggest challenges was working on a very tight site. "The foundations for this building were required to be on very deep pilings," Pence says. Because of the proximity of Plume Street as well as a parking garage and a 1930s building—the Selden Arcade—that adjoins the new addition, engineers didn't want to use driven piles, which would have caused vibrations that could have negatively impacted all of the existing structure crowding the project site. "So we specified augured, cast-in-place concrete pilings for the support of the structure," says Pence.

The engineers faced many unknowns because there was little construction documentation of the Seaboard building. "We couldn't go in and do destructive investigation while the building was open, before construction began," Pence explains. "So we didn't really know the full extent of some of the issues until [we were] under construction, when [crews] actually began to do work and remove some of the finishes."

The engineers had to leave in place the load-bearing elements within the building. "In one area where one of the collections was going the floor was undersized," Pence says. "We had to rip out the floor and put in a new concrete floor-and-beam system inside that part of the building." Additionally, the structural steel trusses in the attic had to be reevaluated for new mechanical equipment and in some cases strengthened to support the weight.

And then there was water. The basement in the Seaboard had to be expanded to encompass the new building, but in Norfolk, the water table is very high and the basement was below the table—it leaked and even flooded during major rain events. "Below the water table, you have to worry about hydrostatic uplift pressures on bottom of basement slab [and] building water-tight walls," Pence says. "There was a lot of effort to ensure the watertight integrity of the old basement and the connection of the new basement to the existing building."

The library was jump-started by a $20-million donation from Norfolk philanthropist Frank Batten, Sr., whose only mandate was that the library be the most technologically advanced in the country. So Newman and its information technology consultants, The Sextant Group, of Pittsburgh, devised myriad touch screens that both help patrons find library materials and find their way to those materials.

Behind the concierge desk in the library's main entry is a display posting upcoming activities at Slover. Toward the rear of the forum, there's a large display called the word wall that can display library events or feeds with updates on sporting events, elections, or breaking news.

Interactive displays will allow multiple users to search for content at the same time, says Mark Valenti, the president and chief executive officer of the Sextant Group. All of the display windows can be resized, and patrons can browse the entire collection with their fingers. "Think of it as a very, very large iPad," Valenti says.

The most noteworthy of the library's large holdings is the Sergeant Memorial Collection, one of the country's premiere historical collections. It includes John Smith's initial maps of the Chesapeake, extensive genealogy collections, and items related to the Civil War, early race relations, and desegregation. But much of the collection is too rare to allow for hands-on browsing. The library uses "touch walls" that are larger than doors to make the collection more accessible. "We used technology to bring the collection forward to the general public in a way that would be engaging, fun, and ultimately meaningful," Scott says.

The screens, he continues, display random bits of information, and when visitors touch a piece of the collection as it floats by, similar items will appear on the screens. "The concept that really drove us at the library was at the Las Vegas Hard Rock [Café]," Valenti explains. "They were a very early adopter of this technology. They have something they call the rock wall; they have their whole rock-and-roll memorabilia collection digitized on a very large, multitouch, multiuser wall. You could pull up John Lennon's hand-written lyrics, and you could call up Elvis's brocaded jacket. You can run a video or audio file. That was the impetus behind the digital collections notion at the Slover Library."

To accommodate these very high-tech displays, the entire new building was built with an access floor, an 18 in. tall interstitial space between the actual structure and finished floor that allows for routing and rerouting of all the infrastructure and cabling for data transfer. The floors are built on a 2 sq ft grid systems—each of the floor tiles can be lifted, providing access to any part of the underfloor system. In addition, Scott notes, the access floors deliver moderately temperatured air at low pressure, which ends up being quieter and more efficient than other types of heating and cooling systems.

Scott notes that despite the rise of e-books and the Internet, libraries are still growing in terms of circulation and visitation. "This was one of the most demanding, challenging projects of my career," says Pence, due to both the intensity of the design and the structural requirements. "Bottom line, the architects did a fantastic job pulling all this together."


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