Home  >  Case Studies  >  BILLIE JEAN KING Main Library – Award-winning Eco-friendly Building Reveals Diversity of Sustainable American Hardwood


Project Introduction: Located in the heart of downtown Long Beach, California, the Billie Jean King Main Library connects the city’s past and present. Adjacent to the historic Lincoln Park, the Library provides valuable services for the local community. This project was master planned by SOM and completed in 2019. The superstructure of the Library is composed of glue laminated timber girders and joists with plywood decking, highlighting the warmth and character of the building. American ash is used for interior decoration and furniture. Inside and bathed in natural light, visitors are invited to experience the warmth and feel the calm atmosphere surrounded by wood.

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Winters in California have a daytime average temperature of above 20 degrees; but at night, winters are impossible to enjoy without heating. The temperature difference between morning and evening is enough to make people experience both summer and winter in one day. It may be difficult to imagine using wood as the material of choice for large buildings. But for designers, meaningful challenges can inspire innovation. The architects of SOM used wood as the main material to build a large welcoming community center in Long Beach – the Billie Jean King Main Library – which integrates study rooms, maker space, and a community center with meeting rooms and programs available to the public.

According to SOM’s design team, the consideration of materials has more practical significance rather than simply for sentimental reasons. Minimizing weight was critical, as the new Library is located over an existing concrete parking garage. Minimizing weight would avoid the need to extensively retrofit the existing garage columns and foundations, making the construction process more efficient and economical. As a result, the design team decided to mix three different types of materials: heavy timber, steel and concrete. Each material is strategically employed into a hybrid system to optimize its respective structural properties and minimize the overall building weight.

Wood is also more in line with visitors’ expectations for aesthetics and requirements for environmental protection. The Billie Jean King Main Library is adjacent to Lincoln Park, a local landmark. The Library was imagined as a pavilion within the new park, welcoming people inside from all parts of the city. When the team first began the project, they were also aiming for LEED Platinum certification (the highest level of green building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council). Using wood is a key aspect of designing a building that respects and honors the environment.

This award-winning environmental project is a sustainable building that integrates aesthetics, technology and environmental protection through its use of wood. The diversity of wood stimulates the creativity and imagination of designers. The majestic Douglas fir is used for the superstructure of the building, while American ash is used for the bottom layer, such as girders and joists. The American ash is also used in the interiors to highlight a sunny, open and warm indoor environment.

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Openness is one of the structural features of the Billie Jean King Main Library, which reflects the design team’s concept of “integration of structure and architecture”. The project conceptualized the idea of “listening to thunder in silence” in its architectural design. The open indoor structure is in harmony with the vast outdoor space. The various functional spaces are both independent and fully integrated. In the ancient books area, readers travel back to the 15th century; in the comic book section, comic fans wander into the superhero world; and in the maker area, they study 3D printing and robotics. Together the book lovers are bathed in the same sunlight on a warm afternoon, occasionally looking at each other and sharing a smile, and then happily returning to their own imaginative worlds.

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“Using wood as a building material allows us to design these components that can be manufactured on site and installed quickly. This approach is highly sustainable with respect to conserving material and mitigating waste generated in the field during construction,” shared the SOM designers who wisely leveraged the ease of assembling wood.

In addition to smart planning and the use of wood, the design team also laid photovoltaic cells on the roof to maximize the use of natural light. Considering the blazing hot Californian sun, the building is also equipped with a window wall system to prevent direct sunlight. While ensuring energy saving and the well-being of visitors, the window system also has the added bonus of looking out into the outdoor landscape and truly fulfilling the original vision of integration with the park.

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After its completion, the Billie Jean King Main Library received LEED Platinum certification. The Library also won the Gold Award for the Best Social Infrastructure Project in 2016 and the Excellent Structural Engineering Excellence Award from the Southern California Structural Engineers Association in 2020. The 93,500-square-foot library is part of the Long Beach Civic Center Master Plan, along with a new City Hall and Port of Long Beach Headquarters. SOM designed the master plan to revitalize 22 acres of downtown Long Beach by creating a vibrant, mixed-use district and reactivating Lincoln Park.

About American Ash

American ash trees grow commonly throughout the eastern United States in mixed hardwood forests, from the north in New York State to the southern States along the Gulf of Mexico, and everywhere in between. Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) data shows U.S. ash growing stock is 671 million m3, 5.1% of total U.S. hardwood growing stock.

American ash is ideal for bending and turning. It is strong and tough with distinctive grain, character and color. Ash wood is generally straight-grained with a coarse uniform texture. Ash wood has very good overall strength properties relative to its weight, and very hard, stable when dry and easy to finish and stain, it is ideal for furniture and flooring.

This sustainably managed wood from natural forests of North America, with its excellent environmental credentials, is popular with designers, architects, specialist users and consumers around the world.

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Note: All images are provided by FotoWorks, photographed by Benny Chan