What do you do when your funding for a civic project requires significant public comment — but your deadline is barely long enough for a quick chat in the city hall parking lot? Turn to social media, of course. That's what Bing Thom Architects (BTA) did when they were facing down a draconian deadline on the information-gathering phase of a new library in Surrey, the second largest — and fastest growing — city in British Columbia.
In November 2009, Bing Thom, winner of Architecture Canada's 2011 RAIC gold medal, Canada's highest architectural accolade, was commissioned to build a $36M, 80,000 square foot library in this town southeast of Vancouver. BTA had previously built Surrey's Central City, a project that included office space, a shopping center, and a university. Funds for the library project, provided by Canada's Federal Infrastructure program, mandated that the money be used by required deadlines — or be lost.
Normally, a project of this magnitude would involve loads of public forums, PowerPoint presentations, and long-winded grandstanding by civic leaders. But with precious little time for standard bloviation, BTA instead launched a library website, a Facebook page, a YouTube presence, a Twitter account, and an RSS feed, and invited all comers to comment. They populated the sites with images of the project and invited viewers to post their own images and text of what they would like the library to look like in an online "ideasbook." Librarians helped the digitally challenged to scan and upload the pictures they wanted the committee to see.
The response was immediate, and spanned the ages.
The response was immediate, and spanned the ages. First graders from the James Ardiel Elementary, for example, requested "a place to colour and write," "a clock to see what time it is, and if we are late," and "big couches for Mom to wait for me." Respondents went far beyond the crowd that usually shows up for public forums or "Meet the Architect" talks. The largest percentage of the library's 487 Facebook fans, for example, are under 25. The second largest are women, age 35-44. The blog has had more than 17,000 views since January 2010.
The library's resulting design, whose interior looks astonishing like a very chic cruise ship, reflects both the community's particular needs, and the need for libraries to address the way we work today. There are plenty of private study areas, but also a grand center atrium and a 150-person multipurpose room. There are computer classrooms, a meditation room, and a teen lounge and gaming area.
And, now that the library is nearly completed, the blog is documenting the move from the old library to the new, showcasing what the new furniture will look like, and posting "save the date" announcements for the grand opening celebration in September. What's even better, the projects are elevating the community's standing in the region. “I think you may not be aware of how much your city has become a model for other cities around the world about the transformation of communities, of how architecture can give hope and be a visible symbol of the aspirations of people,” Thom told a group of civic leaders at the project's unveiling. “Surrey used to be the joke of Vancouver. Well, it’s not going to be a joke. People are starting to see that it’s the future.”