SOLUTIONS: Seminary library enlivens and enlightens

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Huck Fairman, Princeton
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Not only is the new Princeton Theological Seminary Library, which opened in May 2013, among the most handsome and interesting buildings in town but it is among the most environmentally friendly, in a number of ways.
The staff has applied for a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) Gold certification. In addition, it is open to the public and encourages visitors. This visitor found it to be well worth the exploration of its many details: architectural, environmental, religious, and cultural, inside and out.
As with all such projects, this building was conceived and designed over a number of years. The seminary’s 2003 Master Plan recognized that the old Speer Library was no longer adequate, in terms of space and adaptability to building and communications technology. To replace it, the seminary found donors and hired architect Rayford Law of Boston who brought, amid wide design experience, a working knowledge of stone.
The approach to the front door facing Mercer Street ascends a gently rising, curving walk and series of low stairs through a small park with scattered benches. Large, pre-aged copper-lined bay windows enliven, by jutting out from and contrasting, the beige stone walls. And the gas-rendered, film-treated glass not only provides good insulation but prevents UV rays from damaging books and documents.
Before one passes through the arch to the front door, two columns decorate the tower rising above the main roof, and each column is engraved with six symbols enshrining important Christian truths. At the base of the tower, Tabler marble from the Speer Library provides a reminder of the new building’s predecessor.
Out of sight, on the roof, is an array of solar panels which provides the library with much of its electrical power needs. In addition the roof is constructed of white PVC material which reflects sunlight and reduces the need for cooling. Sunken rock gardens and their surrounding windows allow sunlight into basement level rooms, and these gardens also collect rain water which is piped to several cisterns that store it for irrigation, reducing the need for city water.
Perhaps the most striking of the library’s interior spaces is the Iain R. Torrance Atrium centered around a stone tower and allowing daylight to reach deep into the building. The ample, natural light provides an airy atmosphere, and through interior windows, illuminates classrooms and reference rooms that otherwise would need substantial electrical lighting. In the atrium’s ceiling, small, round skylights of different sizes augment matching electric lights and together give a celestial feeling.
Interestingly, the building does not have its own furnace, but receives piped steam from the seminary’s power plant that is used to heat water for the piping system that warms its rooms. In addition, light sensors and motion sensors reduce electrical light usage when conditions warrant. And as with many businesses and homes, the seminary is making the transition from CFL bulbs to LEDs.
One final design detail is that many of the interior walls sit on tracks so that rooms can be reconfigured as needs change.
Thus, while much of the study focus of the seminary’s 500 students is on the history of religions, the new library has adopted many of the latest design and technology ideas that are environmentally responsible, economic to maintain, and stimulating in their acknowledgement of the innovations that are possible, beneficial, and maybe even, to extrapolate from Pope Francis, moral. 
Huck Fairman is a Princeton author who writes SOLUTIONS about environmental topics. 