The Greenpoint Library & Environmental Education Center (photo by Gregg Richards)

An outdoor reading room and community garden, a solar canopy-topped roof deck, and a rainwater-filtering system: these are only some of the distinctive features of the Greenpoint Library & Environmental Education Center, the newest addition to the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL)’s network of 60 branches in the borough. In addition to providing spaces for study and gathering as well as traditional lending services, the 15,000-square-foot center invites visitors to directly observe and explore the natural world through hands-on, didactic tools and sustainable elements.

Designed by Marble Fairbanks with landscape architecture by SCAPE, the new library is twice the size of the previous branch. The renovation was partly funded through a $5 million grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, a key piece of the state’s 2010 settlement with ExxonMobil for its years of oil pollution in the area.

In the late 1970s, oil spills from the company’s refinery and storage facility in Greenpoint were discovered flowing into Newtown Creek, a tributary of the East River. An estimated 17 million gallons of oil were released underneath Greenpoint, contaminating at least 55 acres of soil in the community. ExxonMobil paid approximately $25 million in penalties under the settlement, $19.5 million of which was earmarked for projects benefiting the environment in Greenpoint.

“The Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund aims to help reverse a legacy of environmental abuse and neglect in the Greenpoint community,” said New York State Attorney General Letitia James in a release.

Karen Fairbanks of Marble Fairbanks Architects described the library as “a demonstration of sustainable and resilient design.” Indeed, the center is aiming to achieve LEED Platinum certification, the highest level offered by the green building rating system Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

On the second floor, a cistern will capture and store up to 1,500 gallons of rainwater, which the library will use for lab experiments and to water the plants in the gardens — thus reducing tap water use. Remaining water will filter through a bioswale — a channel that conveys and stores rainwater runoff — to reduce flooding and avert pollutants from the waterways into the ground.

Inside, an efficient heating and cooling system, known as displacement ventilation, has been installed to deliver fresh air throughout the year. Other environmentally-friendly attributes include energy-efficient lighting, solar shading devices, and the use of sustainable interior finishes with low VOC emissions and non-toxic recycled material.

Solar panel structures installed on a canopy structure are estimated to produce over 19,000 kilowatts of energy from sunlight every year to help power the library. An interactive tracking screen will showcase the building’s energy usage in real time, as well as the energy generated by the panels.

At noon during the solstices and equinoxes, light shines perfectly through four rectangular windows onto the ground floor, providing visitors an opportunity to learn about the sun’s path and the four seasons.

“We’ve found there’s no substitute for learning directly from the landscape,” said Gena Wirth, Design Principal at SCAPE. “The plaza and gardens are designed to be accessible for all Library patrons in years to come — from child-sized spaces for planting and play to richly-detailed civic spaces for shared use, programs, and continued education.”

The center will also highlight the Greenpoint Environmental History Project, which documents and preserves oral histories, documents, and images related to the neighborhood’s rich ecological history. All of the collected material is available online as part of BPL’s digital collection. 

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the library is currently limited to grab-and-go service.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...