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Library Services Building

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Xululabs, Xululabs

Project Name

Library Services Building

Project Status



Harvard Real Estate Services


  • Interior Designer: Samuel Anderson Architects
  • Landscape Architect: Stephen Stimson Associates
  • Structural Engineer: Lim Consultants
  • Electrical Engineer: Cosentini Associates
  • : Cosentini Associates
  • Plumbing Engineer: Cosentini Associates
  • Civil Engineer: Green International
  • Construction Manager: Jackson Construction
  • Lighting Designer: Brandston Partnership
  • Acentech (Core/Shell); Acoustic Dimensions (Tenant Interiors)
  • Kessler McGuinness & Associates
  • Water Energy Distributors
  • Solutions Engineers
  • Faithful & Gould

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Project Description

Learning from mistakes can be great--especially when they aren't yours. When LeersWeinzapfel Associates (LWA) and Samuel Anderson Architects (SAA) embarked ondesigning a new LEED-certified Library Services Building for Harvard University in 2002,they already knew that a big, flashy building wasn't the way to go. A bulky avant-garde design by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Hans Hollein had previously been shot down by the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) forbeing incongruous among the smaller, more traditional structures surrounding it.

"The problem with the Hollein design was that they designed it without really talking to the community, so it was too big for the site and didn't address some of the issues the community had," says Natasha Espada, an LWA project manager for the design. "We had to come in and really talk to the community and get them on board." While working in heavy collaboration with community groups was time-consuming and restrictive in some ways, in the end, the feedback dovetailed surprisingly well with sustainability measures that helped the building gain a LEED rating.

Known for its refined, context-sensitive designs, Boston-based LWA concentrated on the shell and core. New York City-based SAA, which designed the interior, brought an expertise in designing conservation labs to its work on the building's Weissman Preservation Center, which preserves old, rare materials for all the Harvard libraries. The building is also home to library information systems staff and a non-Harvard bookstore on the ground floor. Library workers had a strong say in the design, as did community groups such as the CHS. The society requested a building of limited height, and it even worked with the architects to make sure its proportions and base spacing would resonate with neighboring architecture. In addition, the CHS expressed concerns about noise pollution. Because the university requested a LEED Silver rating (it actually received Gold), the architects knew the new building would have to refrain from impinging not only on its neighbors but on the environment as well. The architecture firms received help from the then-new Harvard Green Campus Initiative, which served as the sustainability consultant; engineering company Green International; and recycling expert Institution Recycling Network, among others.

The architects addressed both the community's height and noise concerns at once by excavating down to create two stories below grade, where the structure's two HVAC and other mechanical systems were placed. A geothermal heating and cooling system also obviated noisy rooftop mechanical systems and offered energy efficiency. Using a concrete structure helped keep the building height down and was eco-friendly. It also eliminated the need for extra layers of other materials, Espada says. To add texture in the stairway and core area, LWA used molds made of 2x4s, which imprinted the concrete with a wood texture.

The conservation lab needed special attention to light, temperature, and humidity control, due to the specialized work and fragile materials there; in fact, that lab and conservation workrooms on the third floor required a separate HVAC system altogether. Assisted by a curtain wall that resists condensation, a climate control system regulates the temperature and humidity. Engineering consulting firm Cosentini Associates equipped the energy-efficient system with carbon dioxide sensors, so only as much outside air as needed is taken in. Another sustainable strategy in the lab was to design fume hoods to run at a very low level of energy most of the time, says Sam Anderson, principal of SAA. Nine skylights are equipped with Nysan louvers with movement controlled by light sensors that monitor the amount of even light on the tables below.

SAA custom-designed the lab tables and work areas throughout the building with FSC-certified clear cherry and stained maple ApplePly plywood from States Industries, among other woods, which offered the advantages of being relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly. The firm specified the same materials for the bookshelves that line the walls along some private offices, the plywood's striations mimicking the look of the tomes within. Other eco-friendly products include low-VOC Ducks in a Row recyclable modular carpet tiles by Shaw; Marmoleum Real linoleum by Forbo International, which is both green and durable; and recyclable Xorel fabric by Carnegie, Anderson says.

The four above-grade stories were made as visually unobtrusive as possible with abundant glass for a transparent, airy look; elsewhere, a light-hued terra-cotta rain screen mimics the look of Boston's traditional brick, according to Espada. The north side of the building, which faces the street, is covered with a high-performance glass curtain wall, which gives abundant daylighting, a sustainability measure. "At least 75 percent of the spaces get daylight, if not more," says Espada, who is a LEED AP. Northern light was a boon for the conservation lab on the fourth floor, because it offers an ideal color temperature for conservation and preservation work, Anderson says. The architects created space for open-plan workstations on that side of the building on the second to fourth floors, shifting the core to the southern side. Private offices are clustered around the core, on the sides or the back of the building.

The building opened in May 2006, garnering an AIA New England design award the following year. While crafting a design after Hollein might have been intimidating, LWA took it in stride, Espada says. "We've worked in Cambridge a lot, and I think we knew what the issues were before we started. We made sure it was very inclusive and everyone was involved from the beginning," she says, adding, "It's great when you hear that people are using the building well. ... During the day, they typically never have to turn on the lights in the conservation lab, which means that the louvers are working well and that they have enough natural, even light." On the lower-tech side, a tree-lined pathway beside the building that connects to Winthrop Street has proven highly popular and gives a nod to the neighborhood's past, when such paths were more common. At least in this case, the dreaded "design by committee" seems to have led to some highly successful—and sustainable—results.

Note: Harvard University does not endorse the products mentioned in this story.
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