February 2016 | Volume XXXIV, Issue 1 »

Bad News Rick

January 25, 2016
Rick McCarthy, Studio GC

Rick McCarthy has worn many hats in the library world—architect, trustee, even Illinois Library Association board member. A project recently undertaken by his Studio GC Library Design Team at the Morton Grove Public Library turned up asbestos, a concrete slab in an unlikely place, and a few other surprises, leading him to think he’d found a new role in library land: a bearer of bad news who somehow snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

When Debra Stombres became director of the Morton Grove Pubic Library in March 2014, she could not have anticipated what was in store. Neither could the StudioGC Library Design Team, when the library board hired us to do a Facilities Plan to help them update their aging library, and a Visioning Plan to help them set service and design goals.


The first would provide a guide to maintaining an aging building and plan for future capital costs. The second was intended to help the library transform itself into a twenty-first century facility, answering questions such as: How can we provide spaces for small group meetings? Can we provide a teen center within our limited square footage? Is a makerspace even a possibility?

The library had changed little in the past decades. Outmoded and energy-intensive brass chandeliers in the great hall illuminated a space that featured materials and a color scheme more reminiscent of a 1960s health-care facility than a contemporary library. Much of the adult shelving, full to capacity with spine-out books, was located underneath a mezzanine space on the main level where one was forced to duck beneath exposed sprinkler piping and suspended lighting fixtures. As the new director, Stombres had her work cut out for her.

A Minor Problem

In addition to the brass chandeliers in the two-story great hall, there were surface-mounted linear fluorescent light fixtures. The straight lines of these fixtures made it evident that the ceiling above them had sagged over time, maybe as much as several inches. Worryingly, library staff reported the sag seemed to have recently increased. We knew that some of the trusses had been repaired a decade earlier, so were surprised at this news. We added a quick investigation of the ceiling structure to our scope of work and asked our structural engineer to come out and take a look.

Meanwhile, the team set to work. We decided to set a futuristic tone from the outset and produced the Visioning Plan as an electronic book in Apple’s iBook format. We were well along with the iBook when the engineer called me and asked me to meet her at the library.

Abandon Ship?

Anita Deitz, our structural engineer, had spent hours in the freezing, unheated attic space above the great hall. Together we crawled through the age-darkened wood trusses where she led me to the source of the sagging ceiling: one of the trusses had failed completely and several adjacent trusses were obviously in distress. We could see that the previous repairs were holding, but more trusses were beginning to fail; this was a serious problem.

“Is the building safe to occupy?” was our immediate concern. It was now early spring and the past winter had not been kind to northern Illinois. We came to the conclusion that the unprecedented amounts of snow had overloaded the roof. The snow was gone and for the moment all was safe, but this had to be addressed before the next winter set in.

I made the first of many calls to let Stombres know that her planning project had taken an unexpected turn. The Visioning Plan was set aside as we applied ourselves to what had become an emergency project.

Bad News Rick

Before long I gave myself the nickname “Bad News Rick.” Over the next several weeks it was one thing after another, each announced in my almost daily phone calls. Stombres probably came to dread picking up my calls almost as much as I dreaded making them. StudioGC discovered that at some point in the past, a substantial concrete slab had been placed over the top of the wood roof trusses. Neither long-time library staff nor the StudioGC team could come up with any reasonable explanations for why this would have been done, but it was overloading the structure and would have to go. Next, the sagging ceiling was known to contain asbestos—it would have to go as well. The 1960s floor tiles on the main floor and mezzanine also contained asbestos and were added to the demolition scope. The ceiling beneath the mezzanine—more asbestos. What once might have been a simple remodeling project had evolved into gutting and rebuilding a large portion of the library.


Working together, the administrative team and the StudioGC Library Team developed a phasing plan that allowed the library to remain in operation during much of the work. Frontier Construction was the selected bidder and brought their resources to bear, contributing to the phasing scheme and project logistics. Frontier’s project manager, Marc Smith, coordinated the construction and soon the project was underway. The library resonated with the sound of jackhammers at work on the concrete slab above while asbestos containment barriers went up below.

StudioGC’s project team coordinated submittals and modified the design as unexpected conditions came up. Luckily, the library trustees had been conservative spenders and there was just enough money in the capital fund, when augmented by judicious borrowing, to cover the $2 million dollar project cost. To stay on budget, careful attention to capital outlay had to be a part of every project design decision.

While the construction project was underway, library staff weeded the collection by over 20 percent to create space for the new features that we proposed to incorporate into the remodeled library. They also moved much of the remaining collection several times to make way for construction activities.

Lemons into Lemonade

All in all, the project took roughly ten months to complete and the Morton Grove Public Library was ready for the grand re-opening in May 2015—an event full of food, music, and good feeling. The remodeled library features a teen room, four small group study rooms, a digital makerspace, a comfortable quiet reading room, and a coffee bar.

The community’s response to their remodeled library has been overwhelmingly positive. The small group spaces are in constant use and the Morton Grove Public Library has been given a new energy. Everybody involved in the project has reason to be proud of his or her contribution; it is a story of teamwork transforming a bad situation into a tremendous success.

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