A New Life for a Historic Space
In July 2018, the Lunenburg branch of the South Shore Regional Library opened in the former Lunenburg Academy, a registered National Historic Site. Fathom Studio (formerly Ekistics Planning & Design and Form:Media) created a design for the new space, which represents a significant upgrade for the library and an important milestone for the town.
The Lunenburg Academy was the most modern school building of its time. Built in 1895, it operated as the community school for close to 120 years. In 1981, the Lunenburg Academy foundation was formed with a mandate for the care of building, staff and students. With the dissolution of the school in 2012, the Foundation was tasked with the greater
challenge of future use. Working with the Town of Lunenburg, a long-term business plan was initiated for repurposing the Lunenburg Academy as a community cultural centre, with the South Shore Public Library to be located on its first floor.
In April 2016, an RFP was released for the design of a new library, and the contract was awarded to the consortium of Ekistics Planning & Design and Form:Media. The team's connection to the town was strong, and our past work—a wayfinding system - focused on preserving the location's historic fabric through contemporary design.
Year the Lunenburg Academy was built
Years in operation as a school
The challenge was to create attractive and welcoming space that appealed to patrons of all ages and reflected the needs of a modern library while honouring and respecting a historic building. From interior design to experiential graphic design, the design team worked with library staff, town officials and other stakeholders to develop a space that suited its new home but still felt contemporary.
A question that challenges so many towns and organizations is how to add anything to a historic environment—a modern library in the historic the Lunenburg Academy in this case—and respect the past while being relevant to the present?
Initially, the foundation favoured historic preservation but strict preservation came with a high cost, and the requirements of the library tenant lead to more moderate approaches. We helped balance the needs of the library (providing services to the community, attracting members and visitors) with the requirements of the client (preserving and celebrating the building’s history), leading to a space that all stakeholders could be happy with. To address both sets of requirements, our design was guided by an approach that complements the existing elements—neither falsely historical, nor jarringly out-of-place—with elements befitting any modern design. As the town’s school for over a century, we recognized that the living memory needed to be acknowledged.
When we begin any project, we look at the problem through three lenses: ecological, economic and cultural/social. Combined, the three form our perspective on sustainable design.
We strive to push environmental sustainability as an essential part of every design discussion, addressing multiple perspectives, regardless of project or client specific objectives. Environmentally friendly material and product specifications, re-use or re-interpretation of existing materials, and consideration of product or material durability and life expectancy, are some of the tools used to achieve this. For a project to be truly sustainable however, design decisions must go beyond just ecological sustainability.
Economic sustainability is often excluded from this conversation until too late in the process, but it is as
critical a component as the others. If there is no way to finance the work, then the project will never materialize. If institutions don’t consider a maintenance plan, then all of the valuable work to reinforce a sustainable approach is futile. If a valuable sustainable product is sourced for a project that may only have a short lifespan, then we question its use.
Every place has a past, whether a new environment, an adaptive reuse, or an existing place. Cultural sustainability considers how we can improve the interaction between humanity and the built environment. Places shape culture. We help tell the stories of the ecology, geology, people and events that make a place special. We work with graphic design, the landscape and architecture to tell stories of human history. Our design solutions strive to foster the culture and history of the place, while improving the health and well-being of its inhabitants.
When we heard that the foundation intended to remove the floorboards in some of the rooms, we asked that the wood be saved for consideration elsewhere in the project. Eventually, they were repurposed as a wall covering at the circulation desk.
When we decided on carpet both for its comfort and acoustic qualities, we looked to Interface, whose “mission zero” vision aims to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020. We also chose to install tiles. While they are fabricated with more material than roll, they require less trimming during installation, and are easily replaced in case of stains, or damage. Finally, we opted for a line that, according to the company's website, addresses the “growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities.”
To maintain a sense of place, we retained many of the hooks from the old cloak rooms; in cases where they were removed, we left the remnants of their existence in the surrounding patina of time. Wainscotting was left as is, including the toe- and scuff-marks from shoes where chalkboards used to exist. Ephemera like former drinking fountains, buzzers and speakers, and chalk rails were retained. A multitude of old classroom room identification signs were left in place as subtle reminders, and new transom identification typography was added as an overt expression of this place as a former schoolhouse.
Over the past few years we have actively integrated virtual reality into most every design project that centres around the built environment. After an initial discovery phase, our designers typically move to developing concepts in 3D—Sketchup, Rhino, Civil 3D, Revit. Our workflow gives us the ability to quickly move design options into a portable VR platform (Oculus Go). This approach gives clients a better sense of context, scale, materiality and in-situ design integration. In the case of the library project, we moved between Sketch-up and AutoCAD with ease, exploring the space in 3D and rendering views for client review. Our digital workflow allows for quick 3D mock-ups and easier design communication with non-designer, which in turn—we believe—allows us to get to detailed working drawings sooner.
In terms of materials and design choices, the interior needed to be treated with respect. Colour and materials complement historic elements while considering durability requirements of a heavily used space. Space use, furniture, fixtures and material details speak to an active, vibrant community with a rich history.
There is a purposeful use of felt throughout the space. It is employed to dampen the acoustics within these open spaces. But felt is also a reference to blackboards and felt erasers, academic banners, pennants and badges of eras past. Many of our display cases and shelves also include subtle references to chalk rails, which can be found on most walls of the academy.
Signage acts as a bridge between the past and the present. The design of room identification signs resemble small hardcover books with white oak (paper) and bent aluminum faces (book cover). For those unfamiliar with the building’s past, we introduced room numbers in the transoms that include the word “classroom.” All elements contribute to evoking memories of the former schoolhouse.
Surprisingly, one of the elements that resonated most with the public was the carpet. Lunenburg is a former shipbuilding town that once harvested the ocean for industry. The carpet tiles, by Interface, are made of recycled fishing nets, and residents speak to this point with great pride.
The design process started in August 2016, and was open to the public in the summer of 2018. For the Town of Lunenburg, the South Shore Regional Library at the Lunenburg Academy fulfills the mandate of being a community cultural centre, with the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance and the South Shore Regional Library being two anchor tenants. Circulation for the library is up 25% from last year, and the library has witnessed a 200% increase in memberships.
New life can be given to historic spaces. As designers of the built environment, what happened before has the opportunity to play a role in any adaptive reuse or new design, from storytelling to material choices. Memory fades over time but recognizing the role this building played in the
community helps preserve that history for future generations. Finding new uses for old spaces is a part of sustainable design thinking.
Communicating the 'look' of the design helps manage expectations. By using 3D renderings and virtual reality as part of our workflow, we are able to communicate quite accurately how the design will look. For our clients, this has proven immensely valuable in managing expectations and helping people visualize space.
All design decisions should be guided by one core idea. For this project, the design centres on a sense of place; the history of a former schoolhouse repurposed for a new use. It is important for experiential graphic design teams to wholly understand the guiding principles of a project and work together with a common purpose.