Designing and Building Opportunities for Community Growth

Group 4 Architecture
Written by Jen Hocken

Group 4 Architecture is a growing national architectural practice based in San Francisco that has been translating community vision into compelling public architecture for over 40 years. The firm is tailoring community projects such as libraries and community/recreation centers throughout California, Washington, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, Oregon, and Kansas, focusing on ensuring the best use of public funds towards cherished civic spaces.
In 2012, a $187 million bond program was invested into a construction and remodeling campaign for the entire Dayton Metro Library (DML) system in Ohio. The community placed a great amount of trust in the countywide library organization to use the funds to redesign 17 projects across Montgomery County. The flagship project of this campaign was the renovation and expansion of the 224,000 square foot Main Library in the heart of downtown Dayton. Group 4 partnered with local architecture firm LWC to collaborate on the substantial project.

The facility was originally built in 1961 and from the outset posed many architectural challenges. Two of its four stories were underground and it had windows in odd places. It took up almost an entire city block on one side and had no door on the side facing East Third Street, a major downtown artery. The backside of the building is adjacent to Cooper Park, yet there were no windows that allowed the public to view it from inside. Fundamentally, the building did not properly represent the types of services the library offered, and it was essentially the opposite of what the innovative and dynamic Dayton Metro Library owners wanted for the community.

Luckily, the building had good bones, and Group 4 was able to completely strip it down to its concrete structure. The firm converted the two underground floors that had been used for deep storage of old books into two levels of parking with a new parking ramp. The building was expanded to three stories above ground that faced E Third St. A new dramatic lobby space was added to connect the street to the park behind the building. The library was transformed into an urban, park-embracing, beautiful space.

Many buildings and hotels have simple atria near the elevators; however, the atrium in the Dayton Main Library, whose design is inspired by a river valley, is the heart of the building. “This atrium connects to both the street and the park on the backside; it widens as it goes up the three public floors and has very wide bridges that are social gathering spaces with beautiful lounge furniture and collaboration spaces,” shares David Schnee, one of the principals at Group 4. The bridges are staggered up the atrium to create a dynamic architectural space that is crowned by an enormous skylight. Under the skylight is a dazzling piece of commissioned artwork that features thousands of acrylic and crystal prisms called Fractal Rain that looks as though a rainstorm is coming through the skylight. The light patches that flash through the artwork create a fascinating effect and make the atrium a lovely space to be in.

The library has a series of meeting rooms and gathering spaces that all boast different characteristics, some of which are very unique. There is a ground floor forum room with a 40 foot retractable glass wall that opens up into the exquisite lobby. It has amphitheater seating over a third of the room and it is ringed by a balcony with bright windows. It fits well with the general theme in the library of connecting the outdoors to the indoor space and carrying the sunlight throughout.

The forum room is ideal for a variety of events; it has hosted both TED Talk style events and weddings in the versatile space. “DML wanted it to be a space so beautiful that it wasn’t just a place to come and read but would be a place for all sorts of community gatherings and celebrations,” says David.

The second floor has a more conventional, divisible community room and the third floor features a double height space black box theatre. It is situated on the corner of the building facing a prominent intersection on E Third St. and performers can draw a heavy curtain during performances or leave it open to create an indoor/outdoor connection for the audience. There are 22 different study and collaboration rooms in the library ranging from two to sixty people in size. The corporate boardroom-style spaces are usable by an array of social and community-based organizations. There is also a full media production studio in the library that has a green screen area to allow anyone in the community to create their own video projects.

The library has its own Great Reading Room with high ceilings, a modern gas fireplace, and walls of glass looking out onto Cooper Park. It has a long linear room under a large sloped roof called the Park Reading Room with flexible seating along the edge and another comforting fireplace. “The library has thousands of seats of different varieties. There is a different seat for everybody because people like to sit and move differently,” says David. The third floor boasts a terrace outside of the boardroom that displays the skyline of the city and this served as the location of the band during the grand opening of the library last year. It has a large roof overhang and the sound carries out into the street perfectly.

Group 4 ensured that the library’s power distribution is flexible and adaptable, able to change with new and emerging technology over time. Targeting LEED Gold certification, the building is extremely energy conscious and focused on sustainability. The library brings in plenty of bright daylight and has a sophisticated LED lighting scheme throughout all the different spaces.

The back of house functions of the library were moved into a new operations center located only a block and a half away from the main library. This was a wonderful, old brewery building with a lot of character, and Group 4 modernized the building to become the operations systems center for the technical support services for all 17 branches of the library system. The construction of an Operations Center not only improved management of DML’s materials, but opened up space in the Main Library for more public functions.

Group 4 was the design lead for the first 11 of the library renovation projects and provided design support on the remaining projects. All 17 of the Dayton Metro Libraries have certain architectural accents that are unique to their respective buildings, yet they also have similar characteristics. For example, Trespa is a kind of phenolic resin panel with vibrant colors that was used on many of the buildings.

There are two unique areas of the Dayton Main Library that have been branded as Opportunity Spaces and are a part of the Library’s new special service offerings. One is near the main entrance and the other is located on the opposite corner at a different entrance. The first is set up as a gallery space where either the library itself or community partners can set up changing displays for a month or more at a time. These displays are often similar to art gallery displays or exhibitions, featuring interactive technology and spaces to gather and sit. The second Opportunity Space is set up as a studio/laboratory with a stained concrete floor, exposed structure, flexible power, and a garage door large enough to bring in a vehicle. There are many possibilities in this space; there is a mobile kitchen, for example, that can be brought in for cooking classes or demonstrations. “The library system is using these Opportunity Spaces to provide resources and places to let the community engage on topics of individual need,” says David. “Rather than being in the book business, they are in the community business now.”

The library renovation campaign was a great investment and catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Dayton. The city is looking to reinvent itself by establishing a library district that features more community-friendly spaces. The library partners with different businesses and community organizations to create opportunities for success. It often works with creative programs such as the art program for a local developmental disabilities support organization that takes place in the studio/laboratory space.

At Dayton’s new Northwest Library, another project designed by Group 4 in partnership with Ruetshcle Architects was a funk music exhibit that was set up for a local nonprofit organization that did not have the resources to make their own Funk Hall of Fame Museum. The library invited the organization to set up in one of the Opportunity Spaces for a number of months, and fans of funk music from all over the world came to see the displays and give performances and presentations. The library provided its music recording studio with editing software to allow people to record and edit their music.

In a different vein, the Veterans Administration is a venerable institution that has been present in Dayton for over 150 years. The local VA campus had set up a program with a great display of the history of the VA and the generations of residents who have participated in the armed services. After it spent months at the VA, the display was set up in the library so that thousands of visitors could be exposed to it. “There are all sorts of different groups that are coming in and signing up to take advantage of this storefront space, and take advantage of the foot traffic now coming through the library,” says David.

To be sure, part of what makes Group 4 Architecture such a valuable asset for communities is how the firm takes the community into consideration when designing a project. The firm has an expression it calls, “e² + c²” that represents its dedication to environmental and economic design, and the community and the culture of a region. It pledges to design and build LEED certified buildings that have a sustainable, positive impact on the environment and the economy. The practice guards against facility designs that are too expensive to operate due to utilities or staffing costs. “We want to make them very efficient to operate so they can be open and available to the public they serve for the maximum time,” says David.

The community’s values are fundamental to any Group 4 project. The firm engages the community in unconventional ways and reaches out to people in disadvantaged communities that have fewer opportunities, through community networks, churches or service providers. The firm also develops spaces that embrace the culture of their users, often by working with local artists. “One thing to love about public architecture is that we are so often charged with creating the most important civic landmark buildings in the community where they are located. Whether it is a library, a community center, a recreation center, or City Hall, these are the places for people to gather,” says David. Group 4 strives to create buildings that uniquely reflect and celebrate the community and culture of the building’s location.



Food for Thought

Read Our Current Issue


A Living Underwater Laboratory

May 2024

Achieving Equity Through Sustainability

April 2024

Hands-On Learning for Future Success

March 2024

More Past Editions

Cover Story

Featured Articles