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Recycling a Big Box: From Abandoned Walmart to Award-Winning Public Library

 

Big box stores wield such a name for good reason: they are the architectural equivalent of a giant empty box, built to hold a warehouse-full of discount goods and accommodate as many people as possible. They take up large lots of space in central and commercial districts and when a store closes, the sign comes down but there’s still that big box. What is a community to do?

Walmart currently lists 355 former store locations for sale on their realty website. These are the “dark stores” that were probably replaced by larger "Supercenters," leaving communities with a 250,000 square-foot, crumbling husk of capitalism and general aesthetic eyesore. There have been many creative and community-enriching re-purposing projects that take advantage of the deserted box stores, including the especially innovative McAllen Main Library

Architecture and interior design firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR), based in Minneapolis and well known for library designs, took on the interior conversion of the project led by Boultinghouse Simpson Gates Architects of McAllen. The transformation from big box to the largest single-story library in America resulted in an intuitively-organized, colorful and welcoming space. MSR also worked to maximize sustainability and reduce energy and water waste. These efforts resulted in a 45 percent reduction in potable water consumption, a condensate recovery system projected to save 180,000 gallons of water per year and a 38 percent reduction in energy usage compared to the national average for libraries. 

“Like the building, finishes and furnishings were also selected to keep materials and toxins out of the waste system. Low VOW paints and the use of glue-free adhesive carpet tiles virtually eliminate associated VOCs and odor, providing good indoor air quality. Covering 75 percent of the floor area, the carpet tile contains between 60-80 percent recycled content, is durable, easy to maintain, and easy to replace. When its useful life is over, the carpet is recyclable. Furnishings were similarly chosen for their high recycled content and recyclability. Examples include study chairs containing 80 percent recycled aluminum, which are also 100 percent recyclable, as well as others made from 111 recycled plastic bottles per chair.”


The real test of a project like the McAllen library is whether the space designed specifically for the participation of the community effectively engages the public. In the first month after the opening of the new location, new user registrations had increased by 23 times, and existing accounts were updated at a 2,000 percent rate. The project was also a success for MSR, as the firm received various accolades including a 2013 Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture and Best of Category in the 2012 Library Interior Design Awards.

 

 Photos by Lara Swimmer, provided by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle.