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Competition: Little Free Libraries, Buffalo

The Buffalo Architecture Foundation has launched an open international design-build competition for a series of $300 micro-libraries in disadvantaged neighbourhoods (Deadline: 1 September)

Open to architects, designers, sculptors, carpenters and students, the competition seeks proposals for permanent Little Free Library installations across the New York state city of Buffalo.

The Little Free Libraries initiative aims to create literacy-friendly neighbourhoods across the United States by delivering small-scale, self-service book shelters where local residents can ‘take a book, leave a book’. Up to 10 winning teams will receive $300 each to build and install their schemes on public plots in underprivileged areas.

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

According to the brief: ‘Each entry should speak to the goals of the literacy–friendly neighborhood in an urban setting while simultaneously addressing the basic demands of an outdoor enclosure and providing a form that breaks the mould of what has been deemed typical for a Little Free Library. Creative and innovative designs are encouraged.

‘These libraries will facilitate an informal exchange of books in the city’s public spaces, where residents and visitors may use and contribute to these communal resources. The final locations for these libraries have not been established, but all are planned to be in the urban environment.’

Buffalo, on the eastern shores of Lake Erie, is the second largest city in New York state after New York City. The former ‘rust belt’ city witnessed decades of decline during the collapse of manufacturing in later 20th century and features many struggling neighbourhoods particularly in its east side.

The Little Free Libraries programme began in 2009, and aims to deliver low-cost neighbourhood book exchanges promoting access to books for readers of all ages and backgrounds. So far the initiative has delivered 50,000 Little Free Libraries in 50 states and 70 countries.

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

The latest project aims to deliver Little Free Libraries in deprived areas throughout Buffalo. Proposals must host up to 30 books on two shelves in a visually appealing and water-tight environment.

Submissions should include a conceptual design and textual project description.

The 10 winning teams, due to be announced 1 October, will each be responsible for the design, material selection and fabrication of their winning schemes. Construction and installation will take place between January and May next year.

How to apply


The submissions deadline is 1 September


AIA members: $25
Non-AIA members: $35
Students: $20
Multiple entries: $15/each

Contact details

Buffalo Architecture Foundation
617 Main Street
Suite 401
NY 14213

Visit the competition website for more information

Owlie case study: Q&A with Bartosz Bochyński

The architectural assistant at Simon Bowden Architecture discusses lessons learned designing a competition-winning Little Free Library for San Francisco

How will your Little Free Library create an appropriate amenity for its surrounding area?

Owlie was created to popularise the ideas of reading and sharing of books among children and adults. The concept uses the appearance of the owl, which has potential to become a strong and recognisable symbol in the future. It can accommodate around 40 books which are visible through the transparent eyes in front and accessed through the plexiglass doors in the back. There is a lower bookshelf for children, upper bookshelf for adults, and a shelf for a notebook with visitors comments. In the night the eyes are glowing. Two big points attract people to come closer. It is also highlights the books and encourages people to join the Little Free Library community.

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Which architectural, material, structural and other methods did you harness in your design?

Owlie is a wooden owl, standing approximately four feet tall. It is made from ecological and affordable materials which are designed for easy assembly, with a metal roof protecting it from the rain. The water which is falling on Owlie’s head flows into the ears, runs down the wings and falls on the ground. Surfaces that are most vulnerable to the adverse action of water are covered with metal.

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

What advice would you have to competing teams on designing Little Free Libraries for Buffalo, New York?

From my perspective it is very important to consider the needs of people from different generations. A great design should create a visual interest and start an interaction with the user. Simple and storytelling concepts are the best way to achieve it and become understandable to everyone. Good luck to all teams.

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Owlie by Bartosz Bochyński

Q&A with Matt Etu and Courtney Creenan-Chorley

The director and president of the Buffalo Architecture Foundation discuss their ambition for the contest

Why are you holding an international contest for a series of Little Free Libraries in Buffalo?

The Little Free Library Design Competition is aligned with the Buffalo Architecture Foundation’s (BAF) mission to increase awareness and involvement in the built and natural environment. This is a new chapter for BAF, embarking on an installation of architecture as an educational tool in the community, beyond our typical confines, the classroom. What drew me [Matt Etu] to develop the competition are my personal passions for improving literacy and making neighborhoods more beautiful places. I also have experience with Little Free Libraries directly as I host one in front of my own home.

Buffalo is gifted with over a century of contributions from notable architects: Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louise Bethune, HH Richardson and more. More recently, Buffalo’s catalogue of buildings is being shaped by international firms like Deborah Berke Partners, Diamond Schmitt Architects, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, OMA/NYC, and Toshiko Mori, to name a few. Decades of decline are now being replaced by a rebirth and our prolific architecture is at the forefront propelling our area into a national spotlight. A low cost of living and a burgeoning urban lifestyle borne on the adaptive reuse of our vacant architectural gems has created an air of prosperity and hope in downtown Buffalo that hasn’t been seen in four decades.

Educating our youth in an era of rapid technological advancements and an increasingly competitive workforce is paramount. Creating and maintaining a skilled and talented workforce that will stay in western New York is critical to maintaining the region’s momentum. BAF endeavors to combine these ambitions of respect for the past and hope for our future by leveraging our renowned architectural heritage as a way of educating our city’s youth and sparking their interest and creativity in the building trades; literacy is at the core of any sound educational platform.

BAF’s goals for this project, and why we have opened it up to the international community, stem from a desire to not just reflect our city’s current condition but to advance it in a way that is unique and engaging. Our city is multicultural and international, with many refugee populations assisting in the revitalisation of the city, we want to be open to any and all ideas, no matter the source.

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

Buffalo, NY

In addition to beautifying the urban environment, marginalised populations would benefit from this programme, including persons (especially children) living in areas of concentrated poverty and areas of disinvestment who do not have direct access to literature and/or who find travel through the city difficult. By providing these underserved populations with extraordinary pieces of architecture on a micro-scale, we hope to not only protect them from vandalism but to send the message that these neighborhoods have not been forgotten and that their citizens are valued and deserving.

We are looking to create a range of unique structures to form a network of community ‘shelters’ for people, as well as books. Children, especially, rely on libraries as a safe destination outside of home or school. The presence of a neighbourhood library gives our smaller residents a destination and means of connection; a gathering place in an urban environment that can be otherwise unfriendly to children. These Little Free Libraries are meant to serve as an anchor for the community.

BAF’s award winning Architecture + Education program was founded to increase awareness and involvement in the built and natural environment and to use architecture as a multidisciplinary form of active learning. Running biennially, the Architecture + Education Program uses architecture to teach students maths, science, history, art, and technology aligned with state and federal education standards, while raising awareness and appreciation of the built environment. Children are introduced to the profession of architecture, local practising professionals, and the distinctive way of viewing the world and tackling problems through architecture as the tool. The programme’s success lies in the collaboration between Buffalo Public School teachers, University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College students, and volunteer architects working collaboratively. Over the past 10 years, the programme has been involved with 25 schools, 115 architects and classes, and over 3,500 students.

BAF’s Little Free Library Design Competition is a new path to increasing the public’s appreciation of, and involvement with, architecture while simultaneously addressing a critical need in our urban environment. According to the Children’s Literacy Foundation, in America, children from middle income homes have, on average, 13 books per child. Conversely, it is estimated that there is only one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods and up to 61 per cent of these families do not have any books for their kids at home. It could be that the most fundamental problem with literacy campaigns in the United States is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: a lack of access to books for children of poverty. BAF is attempting to confront this problem head on by ensuring that books are available to children at any time of the year.

Little Free Library is a registered trademark of Little Free Library Ltd, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation based in Wisconsin. It inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges. It has registered over 50,000 LFLs around the world since its inception in 2009. From a humble beginning, these book exchanges have grown into architectural statements, and it is from this intersection of architecture, education, and community that BAF takes its inspiration.

According to John Pearson, marketing and communications director for Little Free Library Ltd, contests have been popular Little Free Library activities almost from the beginning. Part of its mission is to ‘spark creativity.’ These contests have varied from fun, artist-oriented events in which basic Little Library styles are judged on beauty and creativity to formal, top-to-bottom design efforts. Little Free Library is intrigued by the broad-ranging results of the design contests. Oftentimes designers imagine an expanded environment for the library and add functional features. These elements are often oriented toward an institutional or public space installation rather than toward the individual volunteer library steward.

What is your vision for these new structures?

We have intentionally kept our vision vague, preferring words like ‘distinctive,’ ‘contemporary,’ and ‘reimagined’ (along with phrases like ‘creative and innovative designs are not just encouraged, they’re a must’ and ‘…forms that breaks the mold of convention’), specifically to unshackle the potential designer and encourage an outlandish result. There are enough constraints put upon the design-builder with regards to space and programmatic features, that the aesthetic is where these book exchanges should shine.

According to Pearson, ‘we do like to see basic standards met for accessibility, safety, protection from the elements, affordability, and durability.’ BAF’s competition brief has a list of both basic expectations (that must be met) and heightened expectations that are desired but not required. Examples of basic expectations include reasonable shelter from the elements, easy visual access to the contents, and a minimum of two-lineal feet of shelving or space for 15-30 books. Heightened expectations might include unique fabrication methods, inspiring a feeling of surprise or delight upon seeing it, or addressing a common ‘dream’ feature according to LFL Stewards worldwide such as green roofs, interior illumination, or seating.

Sustainability, or at least adaptive reuse, is highly prized, since by default, Little Free Libraries depend on the sharing and reuse of books. In this case, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system has pledged to stock the libraries with ‘materials available … which have been withdrawn from the B&ECPL’s collections and/or have been donated.’

Pearson says: ‘Many of the libraries that people make for themselves are constructed out of recycled materials. We believe there’s potential for greater use of recycled plastics and other new materials to be integrated into their construction. Upkeep is a continuing concern for these little boxes, as it is for all outdoor structures; any features and materials that can reduce maintenance is welcome.’

Sites have not yet been selected but we are working with the library director, community liaisons, and local politicians to find suitable locations in the public realm or on the property of cooperating community organisations such as community centres, churches, and parks.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

Because each location will be unique, we have set up our competition in two stages. The first will be a qualification round where not just architects, but artists, sculptors, students and talented craftspeople, are asked to submit their ideas and brief written statements about themselves and their interest in our project. Through a juried selection process, BAF will narrow down the field to the most compelling entries and, with schematic sketches in hand, we intend to work with community partners to choose the best suited sites for the submitted designs and ones they wish to host. Once paired, the host and the entrant will be put in contact with one another and site-specific concerns as well as the comments of the jury can be worked into the final design refinement.

Architects, designers, sculptors, carpenters, students, etc. are encouraged to participate, however all entrants must exhibit a competent level of construction quality to ensure the successful execution and longevity of the library. Teams of skilled persons are encouraged. Entrants are not required to be residents of New York State nor the United States, however, because this is a design-build competition, it is expected that entrants be capable of travel to the project installation sites at their own cost.

It is unlikely, on a project of this scale, that an architect could make a name for themselves, but one of BAF’s mission objectives is to share enriching personal stories and this competition checks that box as well. In addition to receiving between $300 and $500 (to offset the cost of materials), the entire design process will be documented online through social media as well as in a commemorative photo book which will track the story of the design-builder, the inspiration behind their design, the development of the design working with the host organisation as well as sketches and photos of the LFL from concept through construction. Each library, in addition to advancing the cause of literacy in underprivileged neighborhoods, will have a story to tell of inspiration and community outreach. The Little Free Library organisation has offered up to 10 free charter signs as well as inclusion on their LFL World Map, where an abbreviated version of the Library’s story and the name of its designer will be published.

In addition to private donations, the entry fees and sales of the book will help offset the cost of the project.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

This project is the first of its kind for BAF; there is no other design opportunities now, but, if this competition is successful, we might pursue it again or another similarly sized and scaled competition.

Other current programs include Architecture + Education (noted earlier), Building Stories (a multi-media project documenting and sharing profound individual experiences with architecture, construction, landscape and planning throughout Western New York) and its companion, 6Mbs, an informal and fun gathering featuring presentations by esteemed speakers from diverse cultural disciplines who present their building story in six minutes through 18 images). BAF is also the proud sponsor of the Pro Bono Publico Award in recognition of exemplary pro bono services provided to not-for-profit clients by architects or allied practitioners. BAF also co-sponsors a scholarship for eligible students in collegiate architecture programs with the local AIA Buffalo/WNY chapter.

Are there any other micro-library projects you have been impressed by?

Our design competition was heavily influenced by the NYC/LFL Design Competition (sponsored by the Architecture League of New York) as part of the PEN World Voices Festival in Manhattan in 2013. Most recently Little Free Library was a partner with Chronicle Books and AIA San Francisco in a Library-design contest that concluded early in 2017. This resulted in 300 submissions from 40 countries.