The Fine Arts Library is currently housed in Littauer Hall and is the only Harvard library so far to be LEED-certified. The wood trim is from sustainable forests, the lighting is energy-efficient, and recycled material is in the wallboard, carpets, and even the furniture. Some tables and all study carrels had to be refinished or fitted with power sources, like the tables in the main reading room (above).

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Looking ordinary, being exceptional

6 min read

A Harvard library makes itself a model of sustainability

The Fine Arts Library in Littauer Hall seems pleasant, neat, and — in the best sense — ordinary. Upstairs, three book-lined rooms gleam in the daylight. Downstairs, two levels of utilitarian stacks, painted muted colors, have lights that snap on when you enter.

But in fact this corner of the Depression-era granite building is not ordinary at all. It is a model of sustainability for libraries. The wood trim is from sustainable forests, the lighting is energy-efficient, and recycled material is in the wallboard, carpets, and even the furniture.

“The reuse of furniture is hugely important. It’s enormous,” said Paul Bellenoit, discussing the savings in costs and materials. He is director of operations and security for Harvard College Library (HCL). Some tables and all study carrels had to be refinished, fitted with power sources, or trimmed to fit new spaces.

All of the furniture moved with the Fine Arts Library, which was housed in the Fogg Museum on Quincy Street until the museum closed for renovation and expansion. For the next five to eight years, the library will be housed in Littauer, a grand-columned, granite building built in 1931.

Indoor air quality was part of the Fine Arts Library project too. Workers applied paint, adhesives, and sealants that emit very low levels of VOCs, the volatile organic compounds associated with some manufactured products.

“You don’t have that new-building sort of smell,” said Andrea Ruedy Trimble, manager of green building services for Harvard’s Office for Sustainability. Bellenoit added that low levels of such vapors — less than 1 percent of standard materials — also protect vulnerable printed materials.

Energy savings were a big part of the design. Conservation measures and efficient fixtures have reduced lighting power density, a way of rating energy use by watts per square foot, by 15 percent, said Trimble.

There are both practical and aesthetic considerations to another environmental positive for the renovated space that used to house the Littauer Library: daylight. Trimble said that 90 percent of library seating has access to exterior views. Green building guidelines have been in place for all Harvard projects since 2007. But the Fine Arts Library work went a step further by earning project LEED Gold status, the only Harvard library so far to be LEED-certified.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a set of exacting codes from the U.S. Green Building Council. Projects are ranked like precious metals, with platinum the highest and gold and silver the next in order. LEED scorecards rate site placement, water efficiency, energy use, materials, indoor air quality, and innovation. The Fine Arts Library garnered 40 points, just shy of the 42 required for the platinum rating.

The project carries an important message for Harvard, whose classic building stock tends to be on the old side. Said Trimble, “It shows that you can create an efficient space within an existing historic building.”

But the Fine Arts Library is not the only good-news sustainability story, said Beth Brainard, HCL director of communications. In fact, the Harvard College Library has been getting green building makeovers and implementing energy conservation measures for a decade, she said, well before LEED standards were established.

Widener Library, with its 51 miles of shelving and hundreds of light fixtures, underwent changes starting in 1999. Since then, old-fashioned button lights for each stack have been replaced by motion-activated sensors. Corridor lighting (735 fixtures in total) is being retrofitted with motion sensors, a project that is halfway to completion. That change alone will save $30,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs, and will generate $11,000 in utility rebates.

HCL operations manages five free-standing libraries: Widener, Lamont, Pusey, Houghton, and Tozzer. Heating and cooling systems in the five are on stop-start optimization systems now, said Bellenoit, “rather than having it full volume all the time.” (The Harvard College Library system includes eight more libraries and a technical services facility. All are tenants in Faculty of Arts and Sciences buildings.)

Motion sensors are being installed for lights in every library office (340 so far). And all toilets and sinks are now low-flow models to conserve water. Widener’s 25 water coolers are gone, a savings of $8,000 a year in energy and bottled water costs.

The dramatic chandeliers in Widener once required 24 bulbs at 60 watts each. Replacement bulbs, which impart the same sort of lighting, are only 14 watts each. They also have to be replaced only once every four years instead of three times a year. The savings total $3,000 a year in energy alone.

Then there is “delamping” in the HCL libraries, turning off or removing unneeded light fixtures, including redundant lights on 300 Widener study carrels. Reading room spotlights 40 feet in the air have been shut off, saving Harvard $10,000 a year just for bulb changes.

“There’s the headline,” said Bellenoit of the delamping strategy. “Lose nothing, gain a lot.”

Space heaters in the libraries (as many as 30) were rated at a power-draining 1,500 watts per hour of use. Now there are nine space heaters in the building, each rated at a modest 170 watts.

Along with the rest of the buildings associated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the HCL libraries now have temperature set points for heating and cooling. The highest allowable heat setting is 71 degrees, and the cooling units won’t kick in until a room reaches 75 degrees.

The next LEED project for the library system? A new heating and cooling system for Pusey Library is on the drawing board and is at least two years away.

In the grand scheme of things, the Fine Arts Library is not a special case so much as it is a sign of continued commitment to sustainability at HCL.

A decade or more of experience in making libraries sustainable has put HCL in “a good place” now that energy efficiency and the environment are among Harvard’s highest priorities, said Brainard. “We’ve been able to respond on a variety of fronts.”