When the new Billings Public Library was recently named by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association as one of seven recipients of this year’s AIA/ALA Library Building Awards, those involved with the project weren’t particularly surprised.
The project, which was built next door to the old library in downtown Billings, Montana, has won a variety of recognitions, from an LEED Platinum designation to selection as commercial project of the year for 2015 by the Montana Nursery and Landscape Association.
Jim Foley, principal of the Billings-based The Foley Group LLC and the landscape architect for the project, says the landscape elements played an important part of the prize-winning design.
“One was that it was an urban site that was reused,” Foley says. “Stormwater from the site was infiltrated and used for the subsurface irrigation. The use of native trees is important, and there are a few other things, as well.”
Steve Lehenbauer, owner of River Ridge Landscape Co. in Laurel, Montana, was responsible for installing the job, which was directed by Ryan Nelson, who served as project manager for River Ridge. Both men agree the job was complicated.
“For one thing, there was an asbestos problem in the old library that held up its demolition for construction of the parking lot,” says Lehenbauer. “We bid it one year and four years later it was completed. A lot of it was stop-and-go.”
However, it’s the landscaping of the building itself that provided the greatest challenge for the company and has generated the most satisfaction for its installers. Foley explains that the theme of the landscaping is the replication of various areas of Montana. For both a pocket park around the building’s entrance and an interior courtyard, that means wildflowers.
“The most beautiful thing is the wildflower sod we installed,” says Lehenbauer. “It’s in bloom around mid-summer and it’s awesome.”
The hardscape portion of the courtyard was another story, though. To gain LEED points, the enclosed patio off the library’s community interior space was done in recycled concrete that was set in a sand bed. Nelson explains that the pieces had to be broken with a sledgehammer, then reassembled to give a flagstone appearance. They ranged in thickness from 4 to 6 inches.
“If you have a manufactured paver, it’s all the same thickness,” Nelson says. “Trying to get it level was a real challenge, and they were really heavy.”
Adding to the challenge: until the old library was torn down, there was no place to park vehicles or do any staging for the job.
Once the old building was gone, the parking lot created its own challenges. Foley explains that every parking space heads into a landscaped area.
“There’s a landscape island between each of the rows of parking, and we made an effort not to push parking right up next to the building,” Foley says. “There’s a lot of landscape in that area.”
To make sure the landscaping has a good base, Lehenbauer says the project called for specialty soils.
“The area with the trees called for what they call a structural fill,” he explains. “We had to come up with a plan, figure out what our proportions would be and then have it blended by a gravel company.”
Both Lehenbauer and Foley note the irrigation for the landscaped areas includes underground storage for stormwater from the roof, although a well onsite also provides irrigation water. The entire project is watered through an underground Netafim system installed by River Ridge.
“There are some small exceptions on a couple places where the sidewalks drain to the street,” says Foley. “But, water from the parking lot and the roof area all goes down into the site.”
Foley says from his perspective, the biggest challenge might have been getting the biggest visual bang possible from a minimal amount of landscaped area. However, he believes the plan not only succeeded but should encourage others to look at including some sustainable aspects in their projects.
“I think this is a project that’s going to be very sustainable for the long term,” he says. “Not only is it very, very low maintenance, but it’s going to look good 30, 40 and 50 years from now.”
Lehenbauer calls the job “quite an accomplishment,” and a job he’s grateful to have been a part of.
“I’d be shocked if we do anything like it again, because it’s so unique,” he concludes. “But, if something similar came up, we’d be better prepared to handle it. There were a lot of things here we’d never done before.”
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