2014 Market Winner: Cedar Rapids Public Library by OPN Architects

As the winners of the 2014 Design is … Award Market Award, Shaw Contract Group winning firms interviewed as part of a section of Shaw Contract Group blog which will last a year. Throughout the year, readers can learn more about the 40 winning projects and the individuals who perform them. These are their stories.

Mindy Sorg, Interior Designer, talked with us about rebuilding a city, engaging with the community, and creating something more than just a library.

Describe this project in one word.
Transformational.

04_Atrium Light Wall

How does this project demonstrate the power of design to impact users in a space?
In June 2008, the City of Cedar Rapids was hit by a huge flood. The city lost hundreds of homes, businesses and public structures including their public library. As the city looked to rebuild, restoring library services was a top concern and the city hired us to help the community develop a vision for library services in the community.

The new Cedar Rapids Public Library opened in August of 2013. The space truly embodies the ‘Big Idea’ behind the design, which was to create a library that in the words of library director Bob Pasicznyuk was “more like an Apple Store than the DMV.” That comment was more about the patron experience than the design, but it really helped drive the decisions to make the library a multipurpose destination and a space for the community to gather, collaborate and celebrate. As a team we embraced the themes of openness, transparency and public engagement.

06_Adult Fiction

From my perspective, the design for Cedar Rapids Public Library pushed the boundaries of what a library can do for a community, and the results have been astonishing. In the first three months alone, the library welcomed 108,900 visitors, issued 6,200 new library cards, provided space for 605 organizations to host events and booked more than 50 weddings, parties and special events. This is in a city of just 128,000 people. After five years with limited library services, it’s incredible to see the ways in which the library is serving as an economic catalyst, a community hub, and haven for users.

01_Exterior Night

Design is a process. Explain your journey.
When the flood hit we donated our services to design a temporary facility in an empty mall storefront. We contacted vendors and industry experts to donate furnishings, made a run to IKEA for lights and fixtures, and had the space up and running in a matter of weeks. We knew the space was temporary, so we selected materials that could be recycled and decided to use the library as a learning lab. Over the next few years, we tested new furniture and materials so that we could make the best choices for the new library that was under design. This part of the process helped us make informed decisions and allowed the staff and library leadership to try out some innovative ideas that made their way into the final design for the new library.

I think it’s so important to remember that a new library represents a tremendous investment of public resources. For us it was critical that we engage our client and the community in the design process. We developed a highly-interactive process that engaged the client in design decisions from kick-off through opening day and we ran focus groups regularly to make sure that our designs were aligning with the community needs. This helped us stay focused on the ‘Big Idea’ behind the design. We worked closely as a team to bring the building materials, lighting and programmatic spaces into harmony creating a simple, clean and highly-functional design. We love the results – this library is truly a welcoming and works incredibly well for patrons and staff.

08_Children's Area

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned through this project that you’d want to share with the designers of tomorrow?
Never underestimate the ability or willingness of your client to allow you as a designer, to take the design to a level that exceeds even your own expectations.

Always educate the client to make educated decisions on design. Decisions that are purposeful and reflect the conceptual foundation of the design are easy to sell, and in the end are the ones the client is most excited to see as successful solutions.

Question the programmatic status quo. In order to give the client something they didn’t even know they wanted, you need to take them outside their comfort zone. Raise and ask the hard questions about how things are done and why. That lets you get to the next level and create a design that is truly transformational.

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