Straw and Grit Built the Best Small Library

After one failed attempt to build a new rural library, a Colorado library district regrouped, researched, bought a choice downtown site and settled on an energy-efficient design. All that hard work built the best small library in the nation.

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In November of 2004, the voters of the Montrose (Colorado) Regional Library District told us they were happy with the way we had operated the new Montrose Regional Library and gave us permission to double our property tax rate (known here as a mill levy). 

They voted to raise taxes from $1.5 to $3 per $1000 of assessed property value (1.5 mils to 3.0 mils).

Before receiving this operating money, the district had not been able to consider expanding any services to our branch libraries. But with this good news we began to plan for expansion where we felt it was most critically needed, in Naturita.

Naturita, Colorado, is a two-hour drive from the main library in Montrose. Its local library had been housed in a facility of less than 500 sq. ft., so tiny that any program or service for more than six people had to be held outside. Also, the Naturita library was situated on the edge of town, out of sight and out of mind.

Legislation passed in 2003 made Capital Facility Districts possible for libraries: by this means, a portion of a library district could assess itself a tax to pay for a brick and mortar project. Although the Naturita area is very poor (the average income here is only about a third the Colorado average income), the Montrose Regional Library District decided to use a capital facility district to demonstrate popular support for the expansion to grantors.

In 2006 we hastily put an issue on the ballot asking for a .083 mill increase from the voters in Naturita. The need and the benefits, we thought, were clear. We put up some posters and signs, gave out a description of the approximate size of a facility we thought was needed, and identified a few potential locations. The issue failed by 62%. In hindsight, we recognized that we hadn’t done our homework or made enough effort to convince the voters.

Funding the library required getting the citizens first to support a tax increase, then to endorse the design. Jessica and Jazmin are two of the Naturita Community Library’s many volunteers.

We had our work cut out for us if we wanted to succeed. And we did want to succeed. The first thing we did was purchase property on Main Street using $115,000 in District reserve funds. The site was across from the elementary school, the post office and the grocery store. This put us in the heart of everything and demonstrated that we were serious about a new library. We put up a big sign saying “Site of the new Naturita Library” on the existing building. That building turned out not to be structurally sound so our idea of remodeling and expanding it was scrapped in favor of new construction.

Next we produced a formal needs analysis and turned that into a 41-page building program. As director, I wanted a building that would cost the least amount to operate in terms of staff and utilities so that as much operating money as possible could be spent on books and programs. With this goal in mind, we began to consider a super-insulated building shell, a concept that in turn led me to the idea of straw bale construction. Amy McBride, our development officer, agreed that this approach could be a good way to pitch the idea to other funders. The plan for a straw bale building — a “green” demonstration library — was eventually agreed to by the Board of Trustees.

The District then interviewed and hired an architect to work through a conceptual design. Patrik Davis Associates of Montrose was hired. Patrik and John Eloe, project architect, got to work producing drawings for us to show the voters of Naturita.

Paul Paladino
The site selected for the new library is in the heart of Naturita. Straw-bale construction makes for energy efficiency and helped attract foundation grant-funding.

In 2008 we took nothing for granted. We had the drawings in the window of the existing building on the site and in Town Hall. We went door to door explaining our plans and our justification. We structured our proposal so it sunsetted after five years and over that time raised about one tenth of the total project budget. In keeping with the historical practice of the District, no debt was incurred. The project was entirely pay as you go.

Amy McBride secured an $80,000 grant from the Telluride Foundation on the condition that the local election was successful. In the end it all paid off. The people of Naturita approved our proposal by 80%.

With the Telluride Foundation committed — and given the remoteness and poverty of the Naturita area — Amy was able to pursue and obtain grants with many other funders. In all, over $800,000 was raised through state and private grants.

In the meantime, Patrik Davis worked on the plans to produce bid documents. The final decision to go with a straw bale building necessitated a change in the roof design: from a flat roof we opted for pitched roofs with large overhangs to direct water away from the straw bale and lime plaster exterior.

We then bid the project out to the commercial general contractors in our area. None had built a straw bale structure, and they and their subcontractors were nervous about such a construction technique. As a result, bids came back at $385 a sq. ft., much higher than the $190 we had budgeted. One of the bidders told me that if we changed the construction to 2×4 he could hit our target. That wouldn’t give us the energy efficiency we were looking for though.

The architect and I felt this was out of line for a building with a concrete slab floor and exposed mechanical ceiling. Rather than going back to the drawing board — and since the high end housing bubble had burst about then — we decided to try our luck with some residential builders. After all, the building was only 4,400 sq. ft. The board, Patrik Davis and I also decided that as Library Director, with previous construction experience as an owner’s representative on two buildings, I could act as general contractor, and we would hire a contractor who could also serve as a site supervisor.

By going this route we were able to bring our costs down to $225 per sq. ft. The total project was just over $1.2 million.

Ben Knight/Library Journal
Naturita Community Library was voted 2011’s Best Small Library in the U.S. by Library Journal’s team of judges.

We ended up with a building that is comfortable, attractive, ecologically sound and easy to operate. It is definitely utility efficient. Our first-year utilities averaged around $400 per month.

More importantly, the library has become the center of the community. The people love it and are using the heck out of it. All of our usage statistics are up well over 130%.

The new Naturita Community Library took a lot of hard work and creativity to put together, a collaboration of the Board of Trustees of the District, the architect, Patrik Davis and Associates, all of the subcontractors, the District Staff, everyone.

That is why it was especially gratifying to have been named the Best Small Library in America. I look around and think that the Naturita library is a great example of the can do spirit found in rural areas.  If we did it, anyone can do it.

 

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