Vancouver Community Library Wayfinding

Open Book

Vancouver Community Library opens its books and its doors with a building design and wayfinding that welcome the future. The project was a 2014 SEGD Global Design Award winner!

Libraries have always been at the core of community life, and that hasn’t changed even though these days you don’t have to be in a library to pursue knowledge. Libraries today are portals for accessing technology, and community gathering spaces. So when the Fort Vancouver (Wash.) Regional Library District moved its main branch to the heart of the city’s commercial district, it had a true community center in mind.

The new $38 million, 83,000-square-foot Vancouver Community Library, designed by The Miller Hull Partnership to LEED Gold standards, will eventually be the cornerstone of a four-block, 600,000-square-foot mixed-use development including a public events plaza spilling out from the library’s atrium.

The building was planned with the future in mind, says Karin Ford, public services director for the library district. “Flexibility and adaptability were our major mantras,” she explains. “Libraries are constantly evolving and changing, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to exactly predict our proportional needs for collections, technology, and meeting and gathering spaces in the future.” Large open floor areas and a flexible raised access floor containing mechanical and electrical systems allow for spaces to be arranged easily as functional needs change.

Signage was also designed with flexibility and the library’s LEED goals in mind. Mayer/Reed (Portland, Ore.) developed a system that’s minimal, adaptable, and sympathetic with the architectural concept. The firm’s landscape studio was on the master plan team for the civic development, “so we came to the project with an understanding of the big picture—the mission and goals and how wayfinding and signage could support them,” says Kathy Fry, Mayer/Reed associate partner. 

Saying hello
The library says a warm and welcoming hello from its front door. At the main entry—and future nexus of the public plaza—bright lime green letters spelling “Library” spring 27 inches high from a planter, as if growing there. On the building’s east façade, most visible to vehicular traffic, a glass-and-steel identifier is integrated into the building exterior. The remainder of the wayfinding system uses the same minimal color and materials palette, primarily dark painted steel and lime green acrylic.

Drawer full of knowledge
A “drawer full of knowledge” metaphorically describes the building design as well as the wayfinding concept for the new library. A 200-foot- long, four-story atrium is the open drawer, exposing the library’s contents and encouraging exploration.

Wayfinding is integrated into the library’s “adventurous staircase” and an adjacent Knowledge Wall (by AldrichPears Associates) that immerses patrons in the experience of using and navigating the building. To reinforce the “drawerful of knowledge” concept, Mayer/Reed intervened with superscaled letterforms painted on the exposed concrete undersides of the stair landings. Reaching the full height of the atrium, they provide an “at-a-glance” index of collections and programs.

“The atrium is an extension of the future plaza, separated only by a wall of windows,” explains Fry. “The view into the library drove the desire for large-scale typography at the main stair that would create a draw into the library.”

Ford, a self-proclaimed minimalist when it comes to library signage, remembers the idea seemed “bold” at first, “because we couldn’t visualize what it would look like. But it really works well. It very quickly gives people an understanding of the building.”

Beyond the atrium, wayfinding is relatively straightforward thanks to the plan’s open views. Two directories—a freestanding pylon at the bottom of the main stair and another comprised of etched and infilled stainless steel panels integrated into the elevator walls—provide supplemental wayfinding information.

The rest of the wayfinding system was developed with legibility and flexibility in mind.

“Legibility for the general public and changeability were the highest priorities for the library,” notes Fry. “We addressed the legibility component with color tests for contrast, and we selected a bold typeface.” The team opted for a minimal color palette of dark gray with pops of lime green. They chose Interstate as the project typeface for its legibility, clean lines, and angled ascenders and descenders that counter the rectilinear patterning found in the building.

Close collaboration with Miller Hull allowed a wayfinding program that integrates seamlessly with the space, says Fry. “Because the programming was so clear, our dialogue focused on the form and color that would compliment the architecture. Each piece of the sign system, from code-required to placemaking, plays with this idea.”

Changeability (“without compromising quality,” notes Fry) was achieved by using vinyl and printed transparencies that can be updated in-house (as collections move over time). Conference and meeting room signs, as well as computer station identifiers, incorporate clear acrylic “windows” that hold transparency or paper inserts that library staff can update as needed.

Other signs include floor identifiers in the form of dimensional letters integrated into architectural steel panels, 40+ overhead collection identifiers, and conference and other room identifiers. ADA code signs are dimensional bars with raised letters and Braille, and 50+ computer station ID signs are custom-mounted flags.

Ford says the signage works well. “It’s consistent throughout the building in color, style, and font, and it’s fairly easy for the public to identify where they need to go. We didn’t want the signage to be too detailed because we know that people want general orientation, but also like to ask human beings for the details. We intentionally tried not to overdo the signage for that reason.”

From information to knowledge
Miller Hull commissioned AldrichPears Associates, a Vancouver, B.C.-based exhibition design firm, to design an interpretive exhibit symbolizing the collection of information and ideas in the building.

“They asked us to look at the patron experience, and what the library should and could be to its users,” notes Brent Dutton, exhibition designer. AldrichPears gathered library staff and community members for a visioning workshop to explore the different ways people use the library. The findings were packaged in an interpretive plan that outlined three conceptual options for the piece.

The result is the 50-foot-tall Knowledge Wall, which depicts an abstract “tree of knowledge” and three primary branches the represent what patrons do at the library: Locate, Browse, and Meet. Pacific Studio (Seattle) created a framework of vertical railings (climbing three stories of the atrium) and horizontal rods that hold hundreds of 18x18-in., digitally printed Alucobond panels. Words synonymous with the three key branches—in waterjet-cut aluminum letters mounted perpendicular to the wall—climb up the tree. At the base of the display, three display screens link the interpretive message to the library’s collections.

Marc Burns, business development manager for Pacific Studio, says devising a changeable system for the wall panels was an interesting challenge for his team. “We knew the client wanted to be able to change the panels in the future, so we devised a cleat-and-clip system with u-channels for holding the panels in place. If the images need updating, they’re easy to lift off and replace.” Images are digitally printed directly on the Alucobond material, which meets fire codes.

Ford says the interpretive wall is not only inspiring, but reinforces the wayfinding program as well. A 3D model of the building is incorporated on the “Locate” display screen and keyed to the simple directional system. Its other components represent the library’s role as place for learning, exploring, and gathering.

Most of all, the library is and will always be a place that represents its community and looks to the future, she adds. “We can’t know exactly what we’ll need in the future. We know the way people consume books and access knowledge will change, but their need to learn and be a part of their community won’t. That’s what we’re here for.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 11, 2014


Client:  Fort Vancouver Regional Library District

Location:  Vancouver, Wash.

Project Area:  83,000 sq. ft.

Open Date:  July 2011

Design:  Mayer/Reed (wayfinding), The Miller Hull Partnership (architecture), AldrichPears Associates (interpretive installation)

Design Team:
Mayer/Reed: Michael Reed (partner in charge), Kathy Fry (project manager/project designer)

The Miller Hull Partnership: Craig Curtis (design partner); Sian Roberts (partner in charge), Ruth Baleiko (lead project designer), Adin Dunning (project manager)

AldrichPears Associates: Isaac Marshall (principal in charge), Sheila Hill (project manager), Brent Dutton (designer)

Fabrication:  Plumb Signs (wayfinding signage fabrication), Pacific Studio (Knowledge Wall fabrication and installation)

Consultants:  Interface Engineering (mechanical/electrical), Candela (lighting), Kramer Gehlen Associates (structural), HDJ Design Co. (civil), The Miller Hull Partnership (interiors), Adams Consulting (hardware), Green Building Services (LEED and sustainability), RDH Building Sciences (envelope), Altermatt Associates (acoustics)

Photos:  C. Bruce Forster, Nic Lehoux

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