Contents - Previous - Next

The open plan and flexibility

H. Faulkner-Brown

Faulkner-Brown, Hendy, Watkinson, Stonor - Architects Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

Flexibility is one of the qualities in the requirements of a library building which has high priority in the hierarchy of its disiderata. Library planning requirements and qualities have changed during this century, slowly at first but more rapidly recently with the changing needs of libraries and library users. Although internal arrangements and library services vary from place to place, and from one type of library to another, recent libraries of all sizes have many common factors, which have been crystalised into the following ten desirable qualities - Faulkner-Brown's ten commandments. A library should be:

1 flexible with a layout, structure and services which are easy to adapt;
2 compact for ease of movement of readers, staff and books;
3 accessible from the exterior into the building and from the entrance to all parts of the building, with an easy comprehensible plan needing minimum supplementary directions;
4 extendible to permit future growth with minimum disruption;
5 varied in its provision of book accommodation and of reader services to give wide freedom of choice;
6 organised to impose appropriate confrontation between books and readers;
7 comfortable to promote efficiency of use;
8 constant in environment for the preservation of library materials;
9 secure to control user behaviour and loss of books;
10 economic to be built and maintained with minimum resources both in finance and staff.

These are the broad outlines of ten important qualities. Irrespective of size, these qualities can be applied in varying degrees. It is worth examining them in more detail.


Flexibility of course does not mean that the structure is flexible and will bend or move under stress (that is reserved for the librarian). A flexible library building is one which permits flexibility in the layout of its planning arrangements, with structure, heating, ventilation and lighting arranged to facilitate adaptability. By arranging columns at regular spacing, or reducing the number of columns with long span beams, and by designing the floors to carry a superimposed live load of 150 lbs/ft or 7.2 Kn/m for bookshelf loading, it is easy to move departments, issue desks, bookshelves, reader places or other library functions to any part of the building. Better flexibility is achieved when floors are level, without steps, and when the heating, ventilation and lighting allow rearrangement without the need for any alterations and yet maintain an adequate environment. The planning arrangements can also be seen to be much more flexible if the number of walls in the building are reduced to a minimum, with the permanent walls concentrated in certain areas to form 'cores', containing the permanent features - stairs, lifts, toilets and ducts. Other walls, where security and privacy are absolutely essential, are not structural, and are designed to be demounted and erected elsewhere. The building and its components are designed to facilitate this. All other areas can be left open and by applying the well tried (but not universally accepted) experience of offices designed on 'burolandschaft' principles, visual and aural privacy are achieved very simply, with the bonus of much improved communications and supervision. The necessary visual privacy is achieved by varied furniture arrangements with bookshelves providing indigenous screening, and movable indoor planting additionally providing colour, a variety of forms and life to the interior.

Surprisingly, aural privacy is achieved by acoustic material on both the floors and ceiling, plus the introduction of an even level of ambient noise in the ventilation system. These factors ensure that noise levels of normal conversations are absorbed in a satisfactory manner, and are not distinguishable at distances of beyond 4 metres from source.

In an open-planned building designed flexible to cater to adaptations, relocation of departments and activities are achieved without having to resort to expensive contractual alterations, and the librarian is not inhibited from making changes or instituting experiments - they are achieved merely by moving furniture and bookshelves. If however the furniture is fixed or is built-in or built of brick, steel or reinforced concrete then it does present a more difficult problem. The furniture is immovable for all time, which assumes that needs will not change.

Furthermore it can be demonstrated that the open-plan flexible library can be economical in staff resources, since overseeing and informal control are faciliated by the openness rather than by dividing up the building into rooms or halls, thereby requiring less staff.

It has been demonstrated in many libraries that when shortage of recurring finance has resulted in severe inadequacies in staff numbers, whole departments of some libraries are unable to open because of lack of funds to employ staff (music departments are sometimes victims). In the case of open plan libraries, real economies in staff numbers can be made, without substantial reduction in library service. If the layout is planned so that staff are beneficially located to supervise and service more than one department, then the distressing conclusion to perhaps close, or in the case of a new library, not to open a particular department can be avoided. This will be assisted in an open plan library if, depending on size, the departments can be arranged contiguous with each other on the same level floor.

It can be seen therefore that the open plan has many advantages, that enclosed rooms disappear, or are drastically reduced in number, and that departments are in loosely defined areas, informally arranged in relationship to each other.


A compact building will assist the librarian in many ways. Theoretically travel distances will be reduced to a minimum if the building is a cube and on entry users are brought to the centre of gravity. Books, staff and readers will need to move shorter distances in a cubic building than in a linear building or one extended by moving away from a deep plan. There is also a bonus in economy of consumption of fuel and energy. This diagram compares deep and linear buildings of large floor area to demonstrate the difference in travel distance.



The quality of lease of access' to the building and to the books is one to which much attention needs to be paid. An easy and inviting route to the entrance should also be unamibiguously defined. Once inside, the user should be aware of the location of the principal elements of the building - enquiries, the circulation desk, catalogues, tools for information retrieval, stairs, etc and the routes should be strongly stated without an over- proliferation of signs and direction.


Until recently all librarians and some architects have maintained that library buildings, especially academic libraries, are not finite. They should be capable of extension and land should be reserved for future expansion.

A most significant development in British academic libraries is the recent report of a working party on Capital Provision for University Libraries - the Atkinson Report. Among other things it recommends the adoption of the principle of a 'self renewing library of limited growth', and establishes new norms. This means that academic library buildings are to be finite with no provision for extension.

It is a commonly held view that every library building should be capable of extension, that the construction of the building will facilitate extension, and that at each stage of development the building should appear to be a complete entity. Naturally the choice of exterior materials and construction will be heavily influenced by this latter factor. The exterior wall of a library building can consist of a series of simple repetitive units which can be removed from the facade and re-used in an extended building. If the library is not extended it can stand in its present state as a finite, and apparently complete building. If the needs of the library change, the building can be changed reasonably easily. Some of the ten commandments can be bent, some diluted, but this one should not be abandoned.


The variety of book and of user accommodation in a library adds interest to the interior but also provides for the many needs and preferences of the users. This will vary considerably depending on size, function and location.


A principal quality or function of a library building is to organise the display of its library materials so that they are accessible and easily available. Simplicity in layout, arranged in an easily understood and inviting way is vital in both small and large libraries.


Before beginning the design of a library, the librarian and the architect together should visit a large number of libraries of all types. It is important to observe how libraries are actually used. Photographs and notes should diligently record this, and will probably include many cherished photographs of sleeping users. Almost without exception they will have occurred in large libraries with antiquated or inadequate ventilation without air-conditioning. A fresh, constant temperature and humidity not only promote efficiency of use, it encourages use. In some climates discomfort is caused if windows in a large library are opened - heat, cold, dirt and noise are offered 'open-access' from the external environment.

In other climates, to achieve the desirable comfort conditions it is important and economic to use the free facility nature offers from the external environment and induce it into the building with controls to regulate it according to need. Generally speaking this applies to large library buildings, especially those with a deep plan, and to those where study conditions can be offered with a secure aural environment. In smaller library buildings and in those without a critical acoustic need or a book preservation problem, the normal local custom of building can produce acceptable comfort conditions.

Nevertheless, in all libraries a good standard of lighting is necessary - there is a lot to be said for an evenly maintained level of about 400 lux at the working plane throughout the public areas. This will be adequate for most needs, including the illumination of the book title on the lowest shelf.


Reserach into the preservation of library materials indicates that a constant environment is necessary, and when this requirement is linked to the former - comfort of the users, an unvarying level of illumination, heating, cooling, ventilation and acoustics will give the type of environment needed in a library. The wall should be considered to be an environmental filter or regulator. It should reduce heat loss in winter and solar gain in summer. It should keep out intrusive external noises yet provide windows for prospect.


Security of the collections has always been of prime importance in libraries. The reduction of public access and egress to a single point well controlled by electronic or other means, the openness of planning to assist automatic overseeing of most areas goes some way to reduce the loss of books and to control the behaviour of users in many instances.


The energy crisis has hit all of us. Libraries can be expensive buildings to build and they can be expensive to run; in fact running costs have become a major financial consideration to librarians. In large libraries the deep compact plan requires long hours of artificial illumination and air-conditioning to create an even and constant environment. Every acceptable method must be examined to minimise cost without impairing service.

In the first instance, when designing a building, economy in running costs can be effected by reducing the surface of the exterior skin of the building (walls and roof) as much as possible, so that the ratio of wall area to floor area is low. A building form with a cube shape is the ideal, but may not suit the library planning needs. However it is important that the building shape is as close to a cube as possible.

Secondly, windows allow heat to pass out of the building in winter and to pass into the building in summer from solar penetration. Window openings should be as small as possible and as a guide the recommended total area of window should not exceed 25% of the total wall area. Shaping the exterior of the building. to provide shading for the windows can keep out solar penetration at the hottest part of the year, thereby reducing the cooling load in summer. There is no need to stress the importance of wall and roof thermal insulation.

Contrary to widely held belief, the great consumer of energy in a deep plan building in temperate climates is not the heating requirement in cold weather. Well insulated walls of minimum area are the only substantial source of heat loss. The centre part of the deep plan is not losing heat, since it is surrounded by a cocoon of warm air in the perimeter bay. In addition to the lighting the major consumers of energy are the fans to circulate air through the building and the refrigeration equipment to reduce the temperature in warm weather. The period when maximum energy is required is in hot weather with a full library, when the air-conditioning plant has to deal with high outside temperature, and with permanent artificial lighting to a high even standard.

If real economies in running cost are sought, then I suggest that a much closer look needs to be taken at the way in which our libraries are used. Some investigations on use carried out in three British University Libraries - Edinburgh, Newcastle and Nottingham - show the total weekly exit numbers recorded at the check-out points and give some indication of the intensity of use. The pre-examination revision period is highlighted in November and particularly in May. The most noteworthy factor is the understandable similarity of low use from June to October. This is the period when the air-conditioning has to work hardest to cope with high outside air temperature and solar gains on and through the building fabric.

The first question to ask librarians to consider is - when briefing the architect it is possible roughly to quantify the anticipated average occupation of the building during the hottest part of the year. If the occupancy is low the size of the refrigeration plant in most libraries can be modest.

The second question is - in a deep plan building do all the lights throughout the building have to be left on during the summer, or can there be some logical means of switching arranged so that maximum economy can be effected?

The third is that if librarians can arrange most of the reading space near the perimeter might it be possible to depend on daylight, and therefore, in open plan flexible buildings, could seating be rearranged accordingly?


In conclusion, it can be seen that many of the advantages of an open plan library building, designed to give a high degree of flexibility, is a requirement of modern library planning and needs no justification. This strong requirement should be balanced with the other requirements and qualities of a library building.

It is hoped that economies in initial capital and recurring annual running costs resulting from open plan library buildings will be an additional beneficial factor.

Contents - Previous - Next