Madison’s Central Library a monument to hope and sustainability

When Madison’s Central Library was built in 1965, the world was a radically different place, and the city’s buildings reflected a different zeitgeist.

Still reeling from the red scare of the 1950s, many government entities built public spaces with the pervasive threat of nuclear war in mind.

And sustainability was just a glimmer of an idea on a far-off horizon.

“In the original concept for this building back in the early ’60s, one of the main features that was touted was that it could hold 2,500 people in the basement as a nuclear fallout shelter,” said Mark Benno, administrative services manager for the Madison Public Library. “Really. And the building reflected that in its original form. It had very few windows. It had a bunker-like appearance.”

The vegetation covering the Central Library's green roof acts as insulation and helps collect rainwater, reducing runoff. Photo credit: Courtney Davis

With “duck-and-cover” long since consigned to the dustbin of quaint and quirky Americana, the city wanted to take a new approach to the library when it finally started discussing renovations to the building back in 2009, and part of that discussion involved looking ahead to a more hopeful future.

“We transformed it from that program of fear to one of hope, where we cut out the windows, let in much more daylight, changed the configuration to where the main spaces were staffed to now where they’re public, and made it an inviting center for community engagement,” said Benno. “When you look not just at the library but what government buildings were being instructed to do when they were built in the early ’60s, they were so fear-based. So many government buildings of that era reflected this bomb-shelter mentality, and we totally turned that around.”

If the city, state, and U.S. governments are still concerned about a tragically truncated future, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of that in the new Central Library.

Central Library 2.0, which held its grand reopening in September 2013, recently celebrated a well-earned Business Sustainability Award in the Eco-Efficiency category at the In Business Expo & Conference. The award recognized a spate of forward-thinking sustainability features, many of which put the Central Library on the vanguard of environmentally friendly city projects.

“At City Hall, there have been people who have said, for whatever building project might come up, ‘We want it to be a success like Central,’ and that’s hugely satisfying,” said Benno.

It’s also unsurprising.



For starters, the building achieved Gold LEED certification, which is rare for renovations of existing public libraries and puts the Central Library among an exclusive club of approximately 50 libraries in the U.S.

In addition, of the approximately 4,000 tons of waste resulting from the renovation, 88% was reused or recycled, allowing 3,500 tons to be diverted from landfills.

“Our last public service was 11/11/11 from the old building, and shortly thereafter we began working with Madison Environmental Group, who was also a [Business Sustainability Award] winner, and they just had such an organized program in getting black walnut wall paneling, the old furniture, all of this into homes and places of people who really wanted it,” said Benno. “And some of it ended up being art. So all of that was diverted from the landfill, as well as the thousands of tons of concrete that would have gone there if we had completely demolished.”

Artful reuse

Perhaps the most imaginative reuse of materials involved the repurposing of building waste for art installations.

One of these pieces involved a motley assortment of bookends that became one of the new library’s most-discussed focal points.

“One of the most striking was the bookend [piece] by Niki Johnson that is now on the third floor of the new library at the top of the stairs,” said Benno. “Over the almost 50 years of old Central’s operation, the metal bookends were ordered piecemeal, so they included a vast array of colors, and we weren’t going to include them in the new building. … And Niki turned these into an incredible work of art. It’s one of the most constantly talked-about pieces that we have.”

Artist Niki Johnson's "Stacked," which was made from discarded bookends, is one of the Central Library's most visually engaging art pieces. Photo credit: Eric Baillies

But while the project’s focus on reusing and recycling has kept many materials out of the ground, its energy-efficiency features will keep considerable stores of fossil fuels underground now and in the future.

The building’s cutting-edge heating, lighting, and solar features have made the building far more energy efficient.

“The best equation to show is that for operating the building, the heating, the cooling, the lights, that sort of thing, we went from 95,000 to 120,000 square feet, and yet the energy consumption stayed the same,” said Benno.

This efficiency was also achieved with some features that the general public doesn’t typically think of — including an underfloor heating system that takes advantage of the fact that warm air rises, circumventing the need to constantly pump air down from the ceiling.

In fact, many of the building’s sustainability features can be used to help teach and inspire the public, boosting the library’s educational mission. That’s where the library’s regular tours come in.

“They’ll see the green roof, they’ll see the underfloor, and some of the tours even include the mechanical room,” said Benno. “We have very cutting-edge air-conditioning. Our chillers are magnetic-bearing chillers, which basically means that the spinning rod is levitated by magnets, so there’s no friction. Friction means drag, which means higher energy.”

In fact, said Benno, the library’s focus on sustainability was meant to have a ripple effect — serving as a good example not just for other city projects but for the public as a whole.

“Actually, that was a goal,” said Benno. “We knew that so much of the public would use our facility, and we knew it would be a great opportunity to not only be sustainable but to promote it as a general concept, and then inspire people to do it in their own homes or lives, to reuse things and look for the most eco-efficient products out there. So that absolutely was a goal — to promote that to the community.”

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