By Meghan Hall
“It doesn’t look like anything in Half Moon Bay, but it looks like it fits,” said Planning Commissioner Thomas Conroy upon the opening of Half Moon Bay’s new library in August of 2018. This was the highest possible praise for Berkeley, Calif.-based architecture and design firm Noll & Tam, who had worked through a lengthy community planning and design process to deliver the new, 22,000 square foot regional library, which features expanded and modernized resources for the coastal community of roughly 12,000 people.
“The community loves this building,” said Chris Noll, co-founder and principal at Noll & Tam. “We didn’t mimic anything, but we absorbed what was already there. It is a fairly small community, but it is really eclectic. There weren’t any design moves that would have made the project ‘fit in.’”
Community involvement was a central factor in all aspects of the project’s delivery, from the planning process to the library’s scope and size, to final finishes. However, Noll acknowledged that the engagement process was not always easy, and in the beginning, the project faced a well-organized group of locals who opposed the City and San Mateo County’s initiatives to build a new library.
“They were a small group, but they had enough people to raise a ruckus,” said Noll. “But once we realized what the opposition was about, we designed a community input process that was really intense over the course of about three months.”
Many of the complaints, said Noll, regarded the size, massing and cost of the original plans for the library. The original plans — proposed by a previous architecture firm — envisioned a tall glass structure, one that community members felt was out of sorts with the surrounding neighborhood of single family homes. As a result, a strategic decision was made by those involved to reduce the size of the library from more than 30,000 square feet to 22,000 square feet. The construction budget was also reduced to $18.2 million. Noll & Tam also worked with community members at all stages from early conceptualization and visualization to specific design choices and preferences.
“It was a vocal minority that we diffused over time by hearing them out, having conversations and addressing their concerns,” explained Trina Goodwin, associate principal at Noll & Tam. “You can see our response in the building.”
The result, one that both Noll and Goodwin acknowledge was formed by everyone involved, was a two-volume building, coastal-inspired building. On one side, a single-level community room opens up onto a courtyard, while the opposite side of the building is home to the library’s staff and children’s area on the ground floor, and the main reading room, teen space, maker room and quiet study rooms on the second floor.
“The community had to make some compromises when the building was reduced in size,” explained Goodwin. “We made some intentional moves to create more exterior-facing spaces, which is unconventional for a library because they are pretty internal.”
The two wings are connected by a glassy entry corridor, and both sides of the building are tied together through the use of simple, natural materials such as reclaimed wood, patinated copper and rough stone. The exterior of the building is clad in cedar siding and zinc roofing, which were selected due to their durability and their nature to weather naturally over time. The library’s community room features a folding glass wall and connects the interior of the library to the courtyard in an effort to encourage community programming.
“It is an embodiment of where libraries are going now; they are becoming less specifically about reading and more about a community educational resource,” said Noll. “The library is set up to host all sorts of different activities, and it has become this platform upon which the community now can start staging what they aspire to. It’s more outward and aspiring than a traditional library would be.”
The usage of natural and durable materials also stemmed from community, City and County initiatives to make the project as sustainable as possible. The library is also targeting LEED Platinum and Net Zero Energy certifications, which it is on track to receive this year, said Goodwin.
“Sustainability was a big deal for them from the very beginning,” said Noll. “They were targeting LEED Gold, but we realized very early on could shoot higher than that and decided to up the ante.”
In an effort to reach its target environmental qualifications, the library features solar panels, radiant heating a high performance building envelope and natural and intelligent lighting. Originally, said Noll, the project team did not have enough money for solar panels, but the County of San Mateo came up with additional funds to include them.
“The County came up with additional funding because they saw the value of hitting this goal,” said Noll. “That was a really big thing that the County came forward on.”
“They were taking a progressive approach,” added Goodwin of the County and City’s efforts. “They were pushing the vision of what a library could be.”
All of the extra effort — in planning and design — has paid off. According to Noll and Goodwin, the library has been wildly popular with local Half Moon Bay residents, with Noll even referencing a couple who selected to have their wedding photos taken at the library. The library itself is one of six library projects to be honored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Library Association (ALA) with a 2019 AIA/ALA Library Building Award, which recognizes the best in library architecture annually across the United States. The project has also won the AIA San Francisco Sustainable Community Infrastructure Award in 2019.
“Any project that gets an award like that, it is pretty extraordinary,” said Noll. “I feel really proud and honored to have received them. But the only way you get to a product that is worthy of such an award is through a team effort. It can’t just be done by the architect being brilliant. We had smart, dedicated, committed people at the table all of the way through. This is an icon for Half Moon Bay, and they are so proud of it!”