Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library Renovation

Architect Firm: Utile, Inc.

Owner: City of Boston Public Facilities Department and the Boston Public Library

Location: Roxbury, Mass.

Project site: Previously developed land

Building program type(s):  Public Assembly – Library

The sustainable features of the library were carefully calibrated to improve the comfort and performance of the building while preserving the essential qualities of the original Brutalist design.

The central design concept of the renovation is to create a welcoming space for the Roxbury community by introducing natural light and warm materials while preserving the essential characteristics of the Brutalist-style concrete building. The high-ceilinged public spaces, the concrete structural frame exposed inside and outside, and the large expanses of glass block contributed to the pre-renovation branch being the highest energy user in the Boston Public Library system.  

Replacing the translucent glass block with a timber curtain wall transforms the library from an introverted bunker into a vibrant extroverted community hub integrated with its neighborhood. The size and spacing of the mullions were carefully studied via computer modeling to maximize natural light and visual comfort. The depth of the east-facing mullions provides passive glare control during library operating hours, while the south glazing takes advantage of mature deciduous trees outside. This curtain wall contributes to a significant reduction in the library’s energy use through greatly improved u-values, solar heat gain coefficient, and reduced reliance on artificial light. The white oak glulams that structurally support the curtain wall also provide a warm glow as the sun reflects off the natural finish of the wood. This glow is further reflected in the wood ceiling baffles, paneling, and bookshelf surroundings throughout the library.  

These warm materials provide a counterpoint to the exposed concrete structure of the original design, which is preserved in the renovation. Rather than cover the exposed concrete frame and destroy one of the essential qualities of the Brutalist design, new insulation was added at opaque wall and roof areas to improve the overall thermal envelope and in strategic areas mitigate the thermal bridging of the existing structural frame. Non-original layers of paint were carefully removed to expose the original concrete finish and preserve the wood grain formwork texture.

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of design completion: 2019

Year of substantial project completion: 2020

Gross conditioned floor area: 27,350 sq ft

Number of stories: 2

Project climate zone: ASHRAE 5A

Annual hours of operation: 2,080

Site area: 29,000 sq ft

Project site context/setting: Urban

Cost of construction, excluding furnishing: $12,876,000

Number of residents, occupants, visitors: 22,600

Project team

Consultant - Code: Building, Fire & Access, Inc.

Consultant - Hazardous Building Materials: Smith & Wessel Associates, Inc.

Engineer - Civil: Samiotes Consultants, Inc.  

Engineer - Civil: BSC Group

Engineer - Geotechnical: McPhail Associates  

Engineer - MEP/FP: WSP  

Engineer - Structural: RSE

Exterior Envelope Consultant: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc. (SGH)

Integrated Lighting Engineer - Acoustics: Acentech

Lighting Design: Sladen Feinstein

LLC Cost Estimator: VJ Associates


Margaret Cavenagh, AIA, Chair, Studio Gang, Chicago

Angela Brooks, FAIA, Brooks + Scarpa, Los Angeles

Nakita Reed, AIA, NOMA, Quinn Evans, Baltimore

Z Smith, FAIA, Eskew Dumez Ripple, New Orleans

Image credits

Teen collection with wood curtain wall incorporating a built-in bench study area. The south face of the curtainwall is shaded by mature trees and interior roller shades.

Anton Grassl Photography

The entrance is relocated facing Nubian Square, overlooking a redesigned public plaza and the neighborhood transit hub. The new African American collection is prominently located adjacent to the front door.

Anton Grassl Photography

The renovation preserves the grand scale of the reading room and the exposed concrete structure. Wood curtain wall, ceiling baffles, and bookshelf surrounds provide a warm material contrast to the concrete.

Anton Grassl Photography

Wood curtain wall mullions are lit from the interior to provide a warm glow on the streetscape.

Anton Grassl Photography

Exterior entrance of the library at dusk.

Anton Grassl Photography