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Canada’s largest academic library undergoes expansion

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by Patricia Williams

Construction is underway at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) downtown campus on an estimated $27-million addition to the iconic Robarts Library.
A five-storey, glass-enclosed addition will be constructed along the west side of the University of Toronto’s signature Robarts Library. The addition will add 1,200 work and study spaces to the library which opened in 1973. Construction is expected to be completed for the start of the 2019-20 academic year and the general contractor is Harbridge + Cross Ltd.
A five-storey, glass-enclosed addition will be constructed along the west side of the University of Toronto’s signature Robarts Library. The addition will add 1,200 work and study spaces to the library which opened in 1973. Construction is expected to be completed for the start of the 2019-20 academic year and the general contractor is Harbridge + Cross Ltd. - Photo: DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS

Designed by Toronto's Diamond Schmitt Architects, the freestanding Robarts Common is the first expansion of the library since it opened in 1973.

The facility, Canada's largest academic library, is considered a prime example of the concrete Brutalist style of architecture present in the 1960s. The expansion is considered one of the university's most important current capital projects.

"It's a phenomenal piece of construction," Diamond Schmitt principal Gary McCluskie says of the original 14-storey, peacock-shaped facility.

"It is really well built. But working with triangular shapes is difficult when you are trying to come up with a design solution. That said, we felt there was an amazing geometry that could be reinterpreted in a contemporary sensibility."

The solution: A five-storey, glass-enclosed addition along the library's west side. Robarts Common will have its own entrance and plaza connecting to the street "and be much more transparent and much less intimidating" than the original building, McCluskie adds.

The building's famously triangular form is referenced architecturally in how the glazing is framed.

"We are really opening up the west facade," says McCluskie, whose firm previously completed a multi-year renovation of the library that opened up corridors and stacks to bring daylight deeper into the core.

That project also improved study space, data infrastructure and wayfinding and transformed two exterior porticos into spacious entry halls.

"There is a certain amount of glass in the existing building," McCluskie says, pointing to the glass-enclosed porticos completed as part of the renovations. "When it came to the addition, glass seemed like a natural choice, both because it would work in contrast with the heaviness of the concrete and because there is nothing better for (facilitating) daylight and views."

General contractor is Harbridge + Cross Ltd.

The addition will connect with the existing building via a four-storey bridge. It will be constructed over an existing loading dock, which McCluskie says posed an "unusual" design challenge for structural engineers Blackwell.

For the most part, the loading dock is expected to remain open during construction.

Other project team members are mechanical-electrical engineering consultants Smith + Andersen and landscape architects Landplan.

Sustainable design features include a rainfall recycling system, a green roof and an electronic rolling blind system to control the amount of light and solar gain coming through the wraparound glass facade.

While formal LEED certification will not be sought, McCluskie says the addition has been designed in accordance with LEED Silver standards.

The expansion, scheduled to be completed for the start of the 2019-2020 academic year, will add 1,200 work and study spaces to the library.

"We're adding a range of options for studying, both individual as well as a more socially oriented collaborative setting," McCluskie says.

In addition to traditional study carrels and reading tables, the expansion will house amphitheatre-style seating on levels two through five and 32 group study rooms. There will be Wi-Fi access throughout the building.

The original concept for the Robarts Library included three pods surrounding the facility's core. Only two were realized, housing the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the Faculty of Information iSchool.

The new student space completes the plan, which occupies an entire block.

The addition will increase study space by 25 per cent and "make a huge difference," says U of T chief librarian Larry Alford.

"It's about creating space for students to do new and different kinds of things, a space for social learning. Some students want places where you can hear a pin drop and others need space to work with each other.

"This addition will add to the mix of those kinds of spaces."

Nicknamed Fort Book, the Robarts Library attracts as many as 18,000 visitors a day.

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