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With Cutting-Edge Design and Technology, Architects Reimagine the Frisco Public Library as a True Destination

Inside Gensler's AIA Award-Winning Vision

BY // 11.19.20

Full of light and loft, the future new Frisco Public Library stands out not only for its AIA award-winning design, but as a luminous example how libraries serve communities, even during uncertain times.

Architects at Gensler’s Dallas office are reimagining a cavernous concrete building — originally built to manufacture rocket ships — as the library’s new home. Built in 1997 by Beal Aerospace, the original structure’s 40-foot-high ceilings and reinforced concrete slab floors were designed to accommodate heavy-lift orbital launch vehicles. The building’s journey from rockets to books seems predestined: Reinforced floors, it turns out, are ideal for supporting the weight of massive collections of books.

And as adaptive reuse projects go, the $42 million building is an architect’s dream — or biggest challenge — and maybe a bit of both.

Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved the city of Frisco’s five bond measures worth $345 million, including funds to relocate the public library from its current location inside Frisco City Hall. The new library, which is slated to begin construction in mid-2021, is already winning accolades. In June, Gensler’s design took top honors from the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects at its 2020 Unbuilt Design Awards. Architects Brian Nicodemus and Justin Bashaw, who are based in Gensler’s Dallas office, worked closely with Frisco Public Library director Shelley Holley on the redesign.

“Shelley wanted something uniquely Frisco as far as the building language and expression,” Bashaw says.

Inspiration came from the area’s early Blackland Prairie roots. Named for its rich, dark soil, the Blackland Prairie is a narrow grassland ecoregion that runs 300 miles from the Red River in North Texas, through Frisco and the Metroplex, ending in San Antonio. After thousands of years of buffalo grazing and wild fires, the Blackland Prairie’s fertile soil was prime for farming. Civilization ultimately led to the prairie’s demise, and less than one percent of it remains.

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“The Blackland Prairie is the reason we are all here,” says Bashaw. “There’s not much of it left, but it’s worth celebrating.”  

Screen Shot 2020-11-13 at 10.12.04 AM
Breezway or dogtrot area at the library.

For the library’s design, the architects played off the concept of a dogtrot — a style of log cabin common to the Blackland Prairie during the 1800s. “Imagine a rectangular shoe box with a breezeway punched through the middle, like where a dog might trot through,” Bashaw explains.

The design allows for two entryways, including a ceremonial one to the north toward Frisco Square. (The new library is part of a larger master plan that will include a park and trails leading to the square.) A breezeway connects the existing concrete structure with a new community event space made from UV-treated wood veneer, which subtly recalls the look of a log cabin. The event space is surrounded by a plaza designed to accommodate activities like robotics racing, science night, and stem-based learning.

Studio Outside is also taking cues from the area’s original ecosystem for the library’s landscape design, and have selected plants native to the Blackland Prairie. When it’s finished, an interpretive nature trail leading to a park will provide library staff and teachers with another tool to educate on the prairie’s important history.

Of course, there are challenges in any design project and the Frisco Public Library was no exception. The original building’s wide open spaces and strong structural slab are perfect for housing a multitude of heavy books, but they didn’t allow for the kind of big windows the architects wanted, explains Bashaw.

“We needed to punch openings into the concrete panels to provide light — but the exterior walls are also its support structure,” he says. “So we got creative and introduced skylights in some areas, and in others, we replaced the walls with steel,” so that large windows and doors could be added. When it comes to books, too much of a good thing can also be a problem (paper is highly sensitive to the punishing effects of the Texas sun), so to protect books and other materials, the architects designed an elaborate louver system on the building’s west side to deflect heat and light at the harshest time of day.

Nicodemus and Bashaw have designed other libraries in the Metroplex, but the Frisco library is unique not only for its size — in terms of contiguous square footage it’s one of the largest in the state — but because it is designed as a single library to serve an entire city.

“That’s fairly unique,” says Nicodemus, who compares Frisco’s plan with that of Dallas, which has many small municipal libraries spread out all over the city with shared resources. “Frisco took a different approach with a single library for a very large city, and that was exciting; The question was how do you put everything into one library so that it all works together seamlessly?”

That’s where Frisco Public Library director Shelley Holley comes in.

THE LIBRARY AS CENTER OF SOCIAL LIFE

“Everyone has an idea of what a library is — mostly they think it’s a place to warehouse books where the librarians ‘shush’ people to be quiet — but we are so far from that,” Holley says. “We have plenty of books, but progressive modern libraries are full of noisy activity.”

When it opens, the Frisco Public Library’s state-of-the-art Innovation Lab will feature AI components sophisticated enough for both entrepreneurs and students who want to try out new technology. It will also be a place to experiment with laser and 3D printing, or learn to create anime or even make a movie.

But no mistake about it, “Books and ebooks are still king,” she says, and of the 2.5 million items circulating each year through Frisco Public Library, most are books. The library, which has a broad general collection of books, will need to add another 55,000 items to meet the needs of the city’s growing population, Holley notes.

As the sole library in a town of 215,000 people, Holley envisions the new building will become a major destination for the community. “In the library world, we talk about libraries being the third place — there is your home, there is your work, and then there is that third place where the community can gather and have civic discussions, have friendships, have social and learning experiences.” The new library will also be located near existing museums and theaters and feed off their vibrant energy.

In addition to Gensler, Holley called on the expertise of 720 Design Inc, a boutique design and architecture firm in Dallas that specializes in developing modern libraries. Together, they came up with a highly flexible design for the Frisco Public Library including 20 individual spaces for small group gatherings such as the casual “Un-Conference Room,” and spaces to handle such diverse activities as crafting and robotics.

Future Frisco Public Library’s west side includes an activites pavilion. Design By Gensler.
Future Frisco Public Library’s west side includes an activites pavilion. Design By Gensler.

Bookshelves are totally mobile with casters and independent lighting sources, so they can be rearranged or rolled away for large programs. Power and data connections will be available from anywhere in the library, and technology for broadcasting live from the building will be built in, because what Holley has learned from the pandemic is that people still want its services, especially during lockdown.

“We have a weekly meeting with management team where we comb through data and look at what’s popping, what people are using and asking for, she says. “We track our usage data, and respond quickly. So when Covid hit in the spring, we introduced curbside service immediately. It went off like a rocket and has been very successful.”

The new library building will continue curbside service with sophisticated, efficient drive-through and drop off systems. Many of its existing programs have already gone virtual, including story times for kids, along with its award-winning ESL and GED programs. “I was just looking at stats, and one of our science programs has had 19,000 views in the last week,” Holley says. “People still want these things, and we’ve had to figure out how to give them to them in this new Covid environment.”

Even when there’s not a pandemic raging, librarians and architects are keenly aware that hundreds of people streaming through the doors every day bring plenty of germs with them. Automatic sliding doors are musts for new libraries — the fewer touch points the better. And the types of materials furniture and other surfaces are made out of matters — it’s hard to sanitize wood tables, for instance — so the team is researching what the safest and most durable options will be.  And since social distancing may become the new norm in public spaces, they’re looking at ways to make sure furniture can be quickly adapted as needed, including putting all furniture on casters, along with studying what the safest furniture groupings are, says Bashaw.

With cutting-edge design and a state-of-the-art new facility, the Frisco Public Library promises to be an inspiration for other libraries nationwide to follow.

“We are revisiting the paradigm of what a library can be — so all bets are off,” Bashaw says.

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