Energy usage has long informed the design of libraries in Howard Lake, a Wright County city of 2,125 residents. But the design approach has changed dramatically in the last four decades as illustrated by the current and future libraries in the city.
A new 7,000-square-foot library under construction in Howard Lake’s Central Park will generate as much or more energy on site as it consumes, according to BKV Group, the building’s designer. The Minneapolis-based design firm says it will be the first net-zero library in the Upper Midwest and one of a handful in the country. When the library opens next year, it will replace an outdated, 44-year-old library built in a hillside — a trendy response at the time to the 1970s energy crisis.
The 1970s design was valid in the sense that it insulated the building well. But with little natural light coming in, it also turned the building into a “bunker,” said Susan Morgan, BKV Group’s library design leader.
“With the technology we have today, we are hyper-insulating our envelope and we can do that above the ground. We’re achieving the same outcome. It’s the same as any good Minnesotan putting on their winter coat. It’s 30 below and you’re toasty inside,” Morgan said.
A project team that includes BKV Group, Contegrity Group Inc., of Little Falls (construction manager) and Minneapolis-based Precipitate (net-zero consultant) recently broke ground on the new library. The city of Howard Lake will operate the library, which will offer collection areas for adults, teens and children, reservable study rooms, a community room, and children’s programming areas.
Funding sources for the $5.7 million project include loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education, and cash from the city, according to city documents.
“Candidly, the mission was to build a new library facility and not necessarily build a net-zero library,” Nick Haggenmiller, Howard Lake’s city administrator, said in an email. “That said, Howard Lake is small and rural and with that comes smaller and tighter budgets. We knew we had to be as creative with financing and as aggressive as possible with seeking outside funds to support the project.”
Haggenmiller said the city received a $730,000 Minnesota Department of Education grant toward construction costs. The grant requires the city to follow state “B3” guidelines that include enhanced requirements for energy savings and renewable energy.
“Our design team realized the difference between adhering to B3 guidelines and fully obtaining the net-zero distinction was possible due to our design and site characteristics,” Haggenmiller said. “As the mayor and city council learned more about the various options forward, the idea of sustainability became one that was logical in terms of the long-term operational costs of the facility as well as the right thing to do in terms of sustainability.”
The new library is well under construction at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Ninth Street. The footings and foundation are in, interior rough-ins are complete, structural steel is up, and the first slab-on-grade is going in Friday morning, said Pete Filippi, project manager for Contegrity Group.
Filippi said government clients account for about 95% of Contegrity Group’s workload. Though Contegrity has done numerous projects that follow the state’s B3 (Buildings, Benchmarks and Beyond) guidelines for sustainability, the Howard Lake library is the company’s first net-zero project.
“For the most part, it’s just a little more awareness of the building envelopes, the products that are selected, along with the insulation values. A lot of high-performance materials are going in with regard to the glass, insulation thicknesses and the building envelope,” Filippi said in an interview.
“It is a 7,000-square-foot library, but it’s a pretty complex and compact building. I think it’s really going to look attractive when it’s all put together and done.”
Net-zero libraries are rare. In fact, there are “just a small handful” of such libraries in the U.S., and those tend to be “sub-15,000-square-foot profiles in large urban areas,” Morgan said. Barriers to construction include perceptions that net zero is unattainable or too expensive, especially in cold-weather climates.
But Morgan said the long-term energy savings outweigh the slightly higher “first costs” of a net-zero library. Smaller projects like the Howard Lake building are more challenging in part because they don’t have as much roof area to generate renewable energy. But in this case, the investment makes sense because the payback period falls within the library’s loan period, she said.
As for climate, more than a third of the current net-zero libraries are in temperate areas, such as California, which are perceived to be a better fit for this type of design, Morgan said.
“One of the reasons we’re proud of this building is that we’re able to demonstrate that with a balance of simple design techniques, and only a modest augmentation of the renewable energy, this is achievable [in a northern climate],” Morgan said. “It doesn’t take a lot of extra hoops and steps. But our clients just generally don’t have that knowledge and architects are continuing to grow in their familiarity with these resources.”
BKV Group says the new building will be “optimally efficient” with design features that range from rooftop-mounted photovoltaics to highly insulated foundations, walls and roofs. The project complies with Minnesota’s B3 Sustainability Building Guidelines, which consider the building’s site, water, energy, indoor environmental quality, materials and construction methods.
Problems with the existing building, in addition to feeling like a bunker, include the absence of a functioning elevator. Morgan said the building also has issues with mold and moisture. By the 1990s, studies showed that the building lacked the capacity to provide the “type and size of library program spaces commensurate with its peers in the Great River Regional Library System, BKV Group notes.
With federal incentives for renewable energy through the Inflation Reduction Act, Morgan expects to see more net zero and “net zero carbon” projects moving forward.
“You achieve net zero carbon by simply ensuring that you have sufficient renewable energy to offset the entire operations and construction of the building for the lifespan of the building, so you’re going a little bit farther and you’re doing a few more calculations,” Morgan said. “We’re seeing both within local jurisdictions, but also state to state.”