When Seattle-based Johnston Architects, in partnership with Prentiss Balance Wickline Architects, set out to design a new library for the small town of Winthrop, they turned to the area’s agrarian vernacular for inspiration. The result is an open, airy, light-frame wood building that is much more than a nod to the region’s architectural heritage. A modern interpretation of the region’s historic agricultural buildings, the library’s nearly all-wood design expresses the resilience of this small but mighty community.
“He was only three years old when we left the big city,” Peterson-Aspholm says. “It was his first day of pre-school in Winthrop and when we left him, he was crying profusely. But when I picked him up, he peered into what was then the local community library.” He said: “If there’s a library, I think it’s going to be ok!”
Her son is just one of many community members to take comfort in the town’s tiny library. Even before the new facility went in, Winthrop’s library had some of the highest per capita usage rates in Washington State’s Okanogan County. But despite its popularity, the existing library lacked amenities for community programs, adequate space to manage the library’s collection of materials, and areas to work or study.
When fundraising efforts made it possible to build a new library, hundreds of community ideas were collected through a “Hopes & Dreams” charrette process designed to identify the most important program elements to future patrons. “By the end [of the charrette process], we had over 100 people attending—that’s a quarter of the entire population,” says Ray Johnston, founding partner of design lead Johnston Architects. “Folks came out of the woodwork, not only expressing their desires and their interests, but also their financial support. It was really affirming.”
Alongside the typical features of a modern library, there was a region-wide commitment to provide a gathering space that was welcoming and equitable. “Research shows that libraries can make a positive impact on equity, climate, and social justice,” says Shannon Huffman Polson, a community member who was instrumental in spearheading the library’s planning and $6.5 million fundraising efforts—and an author herself. “Not only can they offer a safe, healthy space with clean air, an inclusive library signals to the community that we take care of one another.”
To preserve its character, Winthrop has a Westernization code in place for buildings near the historic frontier town’s center—which could have been a significant obstacle to the design of a contemporary facility. But the team landed on a winning design concept: the form of a light-filled timber hay barn, popular in the area around the turn of the century, re-imagined as a modern library. “We were inspired by the open-air agrarian timber buildings in the region,” Johnston says. “Their wide, sheltering roofs and airy side walls proved a perfect model for the building.”
Hay barns were traditionally designed to be light-filled and porous to stave off rot, Peterson-Aspholm adds. “On a really brightly sunny day, it’s quite magical,” she says. “The structural elements are elegant and exposed, composed of trusses and braces that give a delicate, yet strong, impression. The hay barn form is historic, authentic, and practical, all qualities well-suited to a library—and that met the Westernization requirements.”
The design team’s refreshing take on agrarian vernacular also delivers on utility, practicality, and cost. “We turned to a light-frame wood and steel structure as both an expression of the region’s historic architecture and for its affordability, sustainability, and ease to construct with local crafts persons,” Peterson-Aspholm says.
Attention to detail came in the form of local wood construction experts who had a unique passion for the project. “A local family, the Wallaces, once operated a local construction company in Winthrop, and they assembled a team of past employees,” Peterson-Aspholm says. “They ‘got the band back together,’ if you will—even luring one older gentleman out of retirement to serve as superintendent for the project. They helped to ensure the wood trusses and associated structural work all came together with precision and quality.”
Beyond the wood-and-steel structural system, the building features wood inside and out, including Douglas fir window and door trim; larch siding, interior wood walls, and ceiling acoustic slats/baffles; and maple cabinets and casework. Vertical solar screens mounted outside the east- and west-facing windows are made from a modified softwood product instead of hardwood. Inside a sliding CNC-routed timber door acts as a major focal point, showcasing local flora and fauna while offering the practical benefit of dividing the space for special events or various programming options.
The new 7,300-square-foot facility can hold a collection of over 20,000 materials and includes study tables, casual counter seating for studying or work, lounge seating, and window seats. A cozy fireplace draws patrons from the front door to the far end of the reading room, where large windows frame views of the rustic Methow Valley landscape. Looking west, the interior opens to an outdoor green space, with plans to add an outdoor amphitheater.
Natural and wildlife-inspired design elements can be found throughout, creating an immersive experience for patrons of all ages, including a sculptural “learning tree” entitled “Solace,” created by local artists Tori Karpenko and Hanna Viano using a 17-foot-tall salvaged western red cedar. “It’s a symbol of resilience and fortitude, bearing the marks of weather and storms, shaped by the elements,” Karpenko says.
Completing numerous daylighting and energy studies internally, the design team shifted window openings, doorways, overhangs, and slatted wood screens to control heat gain and glare. A reflective metal roof is designed to further mitigate climate impacts and is set to accommodate energy-saving solar panels in the future. The building takes advantage of wood’s natural thermal benefits and exceeds the state’s energy efficient code requirements.
“Books and reading are very important to this community,” Huffman Polson says. “But to strengthen the library’s inclusion efforts, we also have included computers with Internet access to help narrow the digital divide. We have a makerspace with a 3D printer and other hands-on technology options and a community gathering area with a large meeting room that is accessible after-hours.”
She adds: “Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge—the books and the programming they offer open new worlds and possibilities for its patrons. With this new library we’re expanding opportunities, equity, climate, and community resilience. And Winthrop is stronger for it.”