Books by the (Square) Foot: Preserving Assets, Maximizing Investments

At the heart of every academic institution is the campus library. It’s where students study for midterms and, against the better judgment of their instructors, pull all-nighters before finals. It’s a go-to locale for collaborative work on group assignments, or grabbing a coffee with a professor to talk about research projects. It’s where faculty bring classes to discuss special exhibitions on the original correspondence between Jack Kerouac and the model for the protagonist of “On the Road.” More and more, the library, and the nature of learning itself, is experiencing the great movement of the 21st Century—the shift from physical to digital.

And out of these myriad functions of the campus library arises a startling new question — where do the books belong?

The Library Service Center of Emory University and Georgia Tech (LSC) embraces this new model in library system design. The LSC poses an innovative solution to the question of how campus libraries can preserve assets and maximize investments — safeguarding their books while maintaining accessibility for the very students, staff, and faculty that value them most.

The EmTech model responds to Emory University (Emory) and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s (Georgia Tech) specific needs as academic institutions, needs that span the diversity of the institutions themselves. These needs underscore the entire project, and KSS Architects, the lead architect, has been able to address them by creating a model that fits together in an incredibly complementary fashion.

The Problem

Georgia Tech is currently in the process of moving printed material — books — off campus. One driving reason for this is that the library takes up prime heart-of-campus real estate, and Georgia Tech is examining how to create the “Library of the 21st Century”. As an institution, the way Georgia Tech uses the library — and even books themselves — is changing.

Because of its nature as a technological institute, Georgia Tech is most interested in the information that the books contain. Students have been checking out books less and less — because their education requires the most up-to-date information in engineering, science, and technology. And the most expeditious format for receiving this information is not print, but electronic.

So, over time, it makes less sense to have books occupy a great deal of space at the heart of campus. By moving the books out, Georgia Tech can preserve the value of the print materials and the knowledge contained within, and deliver them back to campus at any point. It may also be possible to scan and e-deliver portions of books when copyright permits. Meanwhile, students can access the materials electronically anywhere, providing a remarkable opportunity to evolve library services, spaces, and librarian expertise for the digital age.

Emory’s a different kind of institution, a research university with an extensive focus on the liberal arts, defined broadly to include health sciences, business, law, and theology. For Emory, collections of books remain important at the campus center, recognizing the central role that engaging with these materials has in a liberal arts education. Emory is deeply engaged in understanding the historical context of the knowledge that volumes contain. Therefore, the volume itself — the book — has profound meaning, and becomes in and of itself something that needs to be culturally preserved.

What Emory needs is a place that provides the best, most appropriate conditions for the long-term retention of physical collections. Right now it has a book storage center that is not quite up to the job, a thirty-year-old center that doesn’t take advantage of state-of-the-art technologically to preserve these very valuable volumes. On top of that, the current offsite facility is full. Emory continues to collect books in extraordinary amounts — a lineal mile of shelf space every year. Emory’s collections are constantly expanding with editions from across the globe, amassing rare and unique materials that span centuries of the arts, literature and the sciences .Moving forward, Emory will need much more appropriate environments in which to store and preserve volumes while maintaining accessibility.

Emory and Georgia Tech did an analysis and found that only 17% of their collections overlap. Thus, they can take these two very different collections and merge them together to create one meaningful, expansive collection available to both institutions.

So what we have are different needs — for Georgia Tech, space for a great number of volumes that will allow for sending books back to campus when one is needed physically, and for Emory, a place that can flexibly grow to accommodate their increasing collection of fragile, even one-of-a-kind volumes. By combining their collections and focusing on their needs, KSS began to envision a facility that answers these needs with a complementary approach.

Overall, there are four factors in particular that make the collaboration between Emory and Georgia Tech so successful:

1) They have a history of working together. EmTech, the 501(c)(3) organization that was created by both institutions much earlier on, had established a relationship and a guiding agency to lead this project. Simply, the collaborative structure was already in place.

2) The relationship itself is complementary.

3) The institutions are geographically related to one another, leading to a facility that can physically work for both.

4) They have connection and overlap on other points in the educational process. Together, Georgia Tech and Emory have set up dual programs; for example, students in certain departments, like Biomedical Sciences, can take advantage of courses and resources from both institutions.

Because they share these common points of interest but still operate with distinct underlying pedagogical philosophies, Emory and Georgia Tech can make this work in a complementary fashion, creating a new model for library service centers — the EmTech model.

The EmTech Model: An Exercise in Breaking the Mold

Emory and Georgia Tech established their goal and defined it in broad terms of the number of volumes they needed to store. They then established other goals — one of them in particular was very important to the process of designing the building.

Once you recognize that this is a unified collection that will be housed off-campus, you need to ensure it doesn’t become a forgotten collection. Emory and Georgia Tech need this facility to be an active part of the library system. Students, faculty, and researchers need access and the ability to interact with the collection, but more importantly, Emory and Georgia Tech need the ability for the collection to reach back out to the campuses.

The institutions settled on a site owned by Emory, off central campus but at a geographical middle point. When the Request for Proposals was issued for architectural services, it called for a Harvard-style facility — a consistently repeated model perpetuated by the majority of library architects. Because of its high-tech parameters, the Harvard model tends to be repeated, but not rethought.

How does the Harvard model work? Essentially, what’s most important in the model is the storage and preservation of books and material within the facility. The model calls for a series of very small modules — like glorified trailers (they’re not really trailers, but that’s how they work). The modules contain a limited amount of material, completely surrounded by MFL walls — maximum foreseeable loss walls — rated by Factory Mutual, an insurance company that specializes in loss protection. MFL walls are engineered to prevent loss in case of fire — in a fire, a wall might tear down another wall next to it and allow the fire to jump over and through into another room. MFL walls have strength and stability such that this risk is lessened.

These modules are stacked up one next to another. And the Harvard model calls for building a module, filling up a module, building the next module, filling it up, etc. Thus the facility continues to grow over time. When you’re done planning where all the modules and the volumes associated with them are located, then you plan and build the processing center that’s going to feed these modules. So, in the Harvard model, the modules define everything, including all technical requirements — MFL walls, sprinklers, and size.

Harvard-style library storage, with multiple 7,000 to 9,000 sf storage modules stacked against one another

Now, imagine you’re trying to accomplish a task — we’ll say shooting hoops. Now let’s pretend that you’ve got two setups:

  1. A moving basket and a perfect basket ball.
  2. A wonky weighted basketball and a stationary hoop.

Which would be easier to make baskets with?

We’d pick number 1, a moving basket and a perfect basketball. A weighted basketball would just throw a wrench into the entire process of shooting a basket. Stow this away for later.

Now, KSS Architects knows enough about the library storage project type from our work with both academic and private industries that we understand that what everyone else assumes to be the requirements of Factory Mutual are not at all the requirements of Factory Mutual. Moreover, in really thinking about the needs of Emory and Georgia Tech, we recognized that while the storage is incredibly important, the PROCESS is almost more important. The storage component is rather static and box-like (think basketball hoop) but the processing center for this new EmTech model is dynamic, with a high level of human involvement (think basketball).

It’s like we’re given a wonky basketball AND a moving basket, and investing our design efforts in making the basketball perfect, instead of only trying to make the hoop stand still.

So we focused the EmTech model on integrating the processing center with the campus and with the modules. We built the model around that — how material is received, handled, moved into storage, moved out of storage — with considerations around everything from how people come into the building to how trucks leave the building.

Two other aspects of the Harvard model that people generally leave alone are:

  1. Fitting the facility on the site without too much regard for site parameters
  2. Organizing all modules and the processing center on one floor

We upended this model, establishing processing as the key element around which to organize our design and looking at site restraints as essential. We developed a diagram that carefully considers the processing center — how it fronts a road and is perceived and how loading can access it in a logical way. And we also considered the process of how ingress of material could flow logically through this center into the storage areas, and then how it could work backwards and out of the building for egress.

All together, these considerations led to an organization completely unique from the Harvard model. The EmTech model defines modules that work at 90º to the processing center that thus can feed more efficiently due to immediate access. These modules are no longer the 7,000 to 9,000 square foot modules the Harvard module dictates; in fact, our first module is 30,000 square feet.

New model, with 36' clear ceilings and 90º access to processing at the Library Service Center of Emory and Georgia Tech

Another interesting aspect of the design is that by organizing the two giant modules to be adjacent at the short edge, the EmTech model requires an MFL wall only at that one short edge, which is a lot less input (and more economical) than if we had arranged them as smaller modules with MFL walls on both sides (and long edges, at that). MFL walls aren’t cheap, so this is an incredibly cost-effective aspect of the new model.

The racks themselves in the Harvard model are aligned so that if there was a collapse, the racks could tip and knock over into the adjacent unit. The EmTech model places the MFL wall near, not the racks, but the mechanical systems, which helps protect the modules even better.

We’ve worked the model through Factory Mutual — we know it works. And the efficiency that we gain by doing this is incredible — there’s currently one module, at 30,000 square feet. The other model would have dictated three or more modules in the same space and a handful of MFL walls, and it would have been less efficient for flow and processing.

Short-Sited: A Lesson in Adaptive Design

Rather than the building forcing the site, as in the Harvard model, we built to the site’s unique parameters. The site is on a large slope, but rather than build the modules on the slope, we dug them down about one story. This enabled us to take the processing center and build it on two stories, and take the modules and push them down, allowing for greater height. So at the end of the day, what initially had capacity for 3.5 million volumes, now has capacity for 5.4 million volumes, because of the higher ceilings — 36 foot clear — and it’s a lot more efficient in its layout in terms of structure, MFL walls, etc. A lot lot lot more efficient.

When KSS Architects was charged with designing this building, because of budget, we thought we would be building the processing center and only one small module. But because of the new model and our approach to the site, we wound up doing it all for essentially the same cost, and moreover, because we pushed it down, the visual impact to the surrounding area is entirely different.

Basically, we rethought the model — even aesthetically. When you look at the building, it’s a welcoming part of campus. The modules in the back have been pushed down and there’s a beautiful volume that is presented forward. It’s glass. Light is let into the processing center. The upper floors are a place where you can do research, where employees and researchers arrive and feel welcome.

A rendering of the Library Service Center of Emory University and Georgia Tech

This is not a building where the Ark of the Covenant gets lost. The EmTech model changes the game of the library storage center. It focuses on processing. It recognizes that the previous thought limitations concerning storage modules aren’t in fact limitations at all. And it organizes the building to the site. All these considerations contribute to a better model for this kind of facility. This is a facility that serves a campus, rather than just taking collections and moving them off campus. It’s an entirely different thought.

A Place for Books & People: Flexible Preservation

Another parameter we rethought was mechanical systems. It had been an accepted norm that thou shalt store material at a given temperature and relative humidity. And we found that’s not accurate.

There’s a preservation index that understands its potential impact on a collection — it combines temperature and humidity settings. The Library of Congress, for example, is stored at 68ºF, 45% relative humidity. That only gives you a moderate amount of preservation for the material. The Library of Congress did that, of course, because they want people to be able to go into the stacks. We performed an economic analysis around all these set points, and at the end of the day decided to make our set points at 50ºF, 35% relative humidity. Not a fun environment to hang out in for an extended amount of time (you literally have to wear a jacket inside), but that’s okay, because the Library Service Center employees take the book out and deliver it to you on campus or at the on-site reading room with human-friendly set points.

Preservation Index. Library Service Center of Emory & Georgia Tech set points highlighted in orange; Library of Congress set points highlighted in blue.

We designed the system with those as the best target points, but we also decided that the LSC can set up controls so the set points can fluctuate over time. If there’s a period of heavy energy use where they want to change the set point, they can do that, but they understand what that means in terms of the preservation index. So if you knock off a point for a period of time, that’s okay, and then you move it back. We intensively considered energy management so we could design a system optimized around energy as well as preservation.

Planning for the Future

Right now, we’ve built the processing center and one 30,000 sf uber module, as we jokingly call it. Again, the site is sloped; the site also has soil conditions that were problematic. The site’s soft, and there’s a stream running through a corner, so we had to undergo a process called surcharge.

If we hadn’t dug down, we would’ve had to build up with dirt. And the weight, even of the dirt, would have pushed the soil down and caused it all to sink even faster. It would have been a major issue. So what we did, when we were still designing the building, was bring in a contractor to surcharge half the site — taking more weight (dirt) and putting it on top of existing dirt. It forces the ground to compress. You have to leave it there, and the longer you leave it there, the less it will continue to settle. Then you move it off when you get ready to build.

When we moved it off, we put it on the part of the site where the second uber module will go, surcharging the other half of the site. And this is where we are now. So essentially we’ve designed the site and prepped it to receive future modules — when we’re ready to build there, we can clear off the surcharge and build the next module. We’ve also set up the MFL walls, we’ve set up the egress, and Emory and Georgia Tech are prepared to build at any time.

A Magic Trick in Space Creation

Georgia Tech and Emory are not alone in their needs. Real estate is quickly becoming an enormous consideration for institutions. The center of university campuses has always been the library. And books have traditionally occupied most of the real estate in the library. If we can move the books out, then we’ve created a real estate asset in the center of campus that may work better in terms of the way it services students today. KSS has designed information commons before, but this issue has the potential to be so much more than that. You can introduce other modes of learning, provide areas where students can study and receive tutoring. All this now happens at the heart of the campus. Students are still accessing material, however they’re accessing it electronically.

But let’s recognize that especially in academic institutions, the past matters. These college and university libraries are historical cultural institutions. We can’t just discard the books wholesale. So what we try to do with the EmTech model is create a facility that is actually better at preserving them and making them more accessible than the original library ever was — and the books remain an incredible asset.

A rendering of the Library Service Center of Emory University and Georgia Tech

The EmTech model we designed for the Library Service Center of Emory and Georgia Tech allows them to really preserve these volumes, but does so economically, on less square footage, and through a collaborative partnership. It makes sense in this day and age, as universities understand how they compete with one another, that they’re naturally finding complementary programs. This will happen again. If you go to any region, it’s going to be served by institutions that have created identities — unique identities that allow them to complement other institutions in their immediate regions. They’re not duplicates. And if they’re not duplicates, the EmTech model makes sense.

Something Emory, a private university, and Georgia Tech, a public institute, did here was create a 501(c)(3) organization, called EmTech, that manages the Library Service Center on behalf of both institutions, allowing them to have flexibility and gives them an institutional framework for collaboration. They had a vision of services they wanted to provide. And it was this vision that defined the process as the element that required a design response, challenging the normative standards that had been established for this building typology.

Guidance Through the Process

The nature of academic institutions is that there’s a great number of people who come together to work on a project like this. What KSS brought to the table was expertise — particularly live, working knowledge of the building type.

We know how to work with institutional clients; we could design as they continued to work out the processes and the services for the new space. We knew enough to lead discussions, learn what was important, and know that we didn’t need them to produce fine-tuned details, because processes change.

We knew that we had to provide a certain amount of flexibility because the nature of the services at the beginning of the institution is going to be different when it’s running a few years from now, which is going to be different when it’s running 10 years from now. We had a seat at the table — we weren’t just the architects sitting in the back row. Emory and Georgia Tech counted on our expertise to help guide them — not just guide them through facility design features, but guide them through the process.

And it’s that process, whereby designer and clients bring their unique expertise to the table, that can truly transform not only a building, but how we think about a building—from floor to ceiling, page by page.


KSS Architects’s innovative design for the Library Service Center of Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology was the topic of a panel presentation at the Society for College & University Planning’s Southern Regional Conference in October 2015. Panelists included representatives from Emory University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, KSS Architects, and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company.

About KSS Architects

We are a full-service architecture, planning, and interior design firm in Princeton, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since our founding in Princeton in 1983, KSS Architects has matured, growing in size, abilities, and ambitions. Originated with just three architects, KSS today has a staff of over 60 talented and dedicated team members.

Learn more at www.kssarchitects.com