Four years ago, a majority of the 540 residents of Chrisney, Indiana decided they wanted their own public library branch their kids could walk to after school. They had no money to build a library, no viable existing buildings or partnerships for a shared storefront library, their public library district refused to support capital or operating costs for a new branch and the town had no money or bonding capacity for the project. The local school district cited legal risks in sharing the Chrisney Elementary Library media center with the public. If the folks in Chrisney wanted library service, they had to drive about 25 miles round trip. Andrew Carnegie would be appalled, but this is becoming common throughout rural America as consolidation of public schools and libraries is the norm to save property tax money.
But this was clearly a town that was not willing to give up on an idea they deemed critical to their civic identity and the quality of their children’s future. I was repeatedly amazed to see a quarter of their population show up for planning meetings. As the architect performing their feasibility study, my brain said “this is impossible, walk away” while my heart said “there’s got to be a way to pull this off.” The way was clear - build a new library with virtually no operating costs.
After months of consideration, the North Spencer County School Corporation agreed to donate an ideal one-acre site with street frontage that also backed up to Chrisney Elementary School’s wooded outdoor learning lab. The town sweetened the deal by offering to provide free sewer and water service and site maintenance for the life of the building. Over 100 local residents signed up to volunteer at the service desk of the new library. This was a deal too good for the Lincoln Heritage Public Library to refuse and they agreed to accept a new net-zero-energy library branch from the Town of Chrisney, should they succeed in finding capital funding for such a facility, without relying on the bonding capacity of the LHPL. And, oh yeah, there’s that net-zero-energy thing.
All that remained was coming up with an affordable design for a solar-powered public library, funding it, bidding it, and building it. No precedent existed.
Undaunted, my team at my former employer, Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Architects, designed a net-zero-energy library and the Town of Chrisney applied for an Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs grant that provided the bulk of the funding for this $478,000 project. The community raised $66,000 for their local match in an incredible six weeks. This illustrates, I think, a little-known fact – community buildings that push the clean technology envelope in the pursuit of education are grant magnets.
An 8.9-kilowatt grid-tied photovoltaic system (just under Indiana’s worst in the nation net metering limit of 10 kilowatts) was designed to produce more than enough power for this all-electric building that employs geothermal heating and cooling and old-fashioned passive solar design. Transparent solar panels roof the Learning Power Pavilion that provides an outdoor classroom for the elementary school’s outdoor learning lab.
Did it live up to the hype? Does this little library really produce as much electricity at it uses?
A year has passed since the library opened and I was anxious to see how it had performed in its first full year with real people, real plug loads and real weather, which included a brutally cold winter. I asked for the first year’s utility bills.
Every electric bill for the full year came up with $0 due and all had a net credit! They actually generated over 1800 kilowatt hours more than they used. No gas bill. No water bill. No sewer bill. The town maintains the site. The library district provides a librarian. The elementary school students stroll across school property to get there. Everybody wins.
Sometimes it pays for small towns to dream big. Sometimes that is the only feasible way. Just ask the parents reading with their kids in Chrisney Branch Library.