Norman Forward Moving Forward

A lot has happened on this library business while I wasn’t paying attention. I realize that I’m late to the party. The main point of this article is a critical review of what the City of Norman has done with the 0.5% sales tax revenue. The architect is secondary as their performance and designs are adequate, and may be just what the city wants.
(End of prologue.)

city of norman A crowd of about fifty people gathered in the City of Norman Council Chambers to be shown the progress of the architectural design of the flagship building and infrastructure project funded by Norman Forward, a general election that passed in October 2015 to implement a 0.5% sales tax increase with an estimated duration of 15 years.

An architect representing the firm Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle, Ltd. of Minneapolis (MSR) addressed Norman residents in a public meeting at City Hall tonight. The “East Side” proposed branch library of the Pioneer Library System has an allocation of about $5 million. The “Central” proposed main library has an allocation of about $40 million. Approximate square footages were not disclosed at the meeting or in the presentation. This information is unknown.

SW OKC Pioneer Branch – Photo by Melissa Elder / The Norman Transcript

The only new Pioneer building that I’m aware of occurred in 2011. The 19,000 sq ft “Southwest Oklahoma City” branch was funded by an Oklahoma City sales tax. It was designed by an Oklahoma City A&E company Crafton-Tull. Oklahoma City general contractor Miller-Tippens completed the construction with an bid award of $3.7 million, and at least four change order increases to bring the total to somewhere around $4.0 million (cost of construction only). Doing the math, that’s $210 per sq ft. Adjusting for escalation, this might bring it to $220 by today’s inflation.

“Called “Norman Forward,” the proposal would raise an estimated $200 million for a slew of projects, including new indoor-activity centers, new libraries, new and renovated parks and the likely purchase of the George M. Sutton Wilderness Park and Griffin Community Park, both of which are currently owned by the state and leased by the city.” by William W. Savage III from

East Side Library

The first presentation was the “East Side” library situated at the front of Norman’s newest Fire Station No. 9 site on Alameda at the eastern edge of current suburbanization. The Fire Station was designed by Kirkpatrick Architects and constructed by Atlas General Contractors, both local companies. The proposed building sits close to the roadway. When I first saw the construction plans for the fire station, it was known that there were obvious parking lot and site considerations integrated for a future library. I could never have imagined the library being proposed at the southern tip of the lot. Apparently, “a preferred view to the north revealing the horizon” is the driving force behind this Architect’s decision to justify an enormous amount of earthwork. I can’t remember the last time I went to a library to enjoy a view to the horizon…

East Side Library – Proposed Site Plan, MSR Presentation (notes added)

With access to, and study of, the geotechnical investigation report and existing grading survey, I might be able to estimate the amount of imported structural fill that might be required. An on-site borrow pit would be worth exploring for the amount of fill that will be required for this design. This is usually completed during the pre-design or schematic design phase to determine what type of foundation might work best. Proper testing will be essential to a successful project.

The previous fire station project might have the required existing conditions information, thus saving this new project thousands of dollars and valuable time. This information would have been gathered during the pre-design phase as well as the construction phase if adequate construction materials testing was performed and reported.

The proposed building is amazingly tall for a single story. The massive amount of volume is not the kind of scale I associate with a branch library. It’s openness and facade of glazing turns its back on the close proximity of the roadway to focus on the horizon to the north. The single entrance is covered by what I would guess to be a 2,000 sq ft cantilevered roof projecting toward the already mentioned horizon to the north.

Expensive structure is being proposed into the planar, thrusting roof. ICC Building Codes require buildings in Oklahoma to withstand a 90 mph wind. It’s the kind of design that will look nice on an architect’s website. How will it function for the Norman community? No one in the room seemed to know or even question.

The shape of the proposed building is a parallelogram. I’m not sure why this is. These awkward shapes are a very inefficient use of space. The acute spaces are relatively useless. The whole arrangement of the building leaves no consideration for a future expansion. There is no logical area on the site to accommodate an addition, and the funky angles and expensive materials diminish any chance of a future addition.

The interior of the public area of the building is an ambiguous open space. Furniture, furnishings and equipment (FF&E) will be required to define and organize the different functions of a library: circulation of people, stacks of reading materials, and useful work spaces. The floor plan is presented with diagrammatic colors to further define these spaces.

The main topic of the presentation was the natural landscape as

“Design Inspiration” MSR Presentation

fantasized to exist in Oklahoma. Prairie grasses, blooming flowers, and a rusted colored clay soil correlated into treated wood plank siding and rusted Corten steel panels, and the wall of glass. All of these things are not inexpensive. I’m sure the architect is attempting to use every dime in the allocated budget. Material selection and extensive earthwork are classic “expenses” that won’t leave money on the table.

Bottom line, the only way I’ll be able to tell this building is a library would be with large, attractive signage. Otherwise, I might confuse it with a church, fire personnel training center, or maybe a gourmet dwelling. It was probably just my imagination, but I mention the church because the random fenestration of the street face reminded me of Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, but at what cost?

Central Library

The “Central” library is an idea that has been tossed around for over a decade. It is currently sited tightly to a railroad track to the east and north that is a highly active cargo transportation system. Across the tracks to the east is a historic assortment of houses original to the fabric of Norman. It’s highly settled and somewhat dense with many lots having second dwelling in the back or to the side. The historic buildings stretch both north and south in a eastern direction from the proposed site. Centering this neighborhood is The Moore Lindsay Historical House Museum is operated by the Cleveland County Historical Society, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. At their website, they have a “Neighborhood Walking Tour” link that shows the diversity and richness of architectural styles that live here. These cherished and manicured lots are definitely at least a couple of vertebrae in Norman’s spine considering this proposed central library site was referred to as “Norman’s Core” at the meeting by the mayor-elect. To the west of the site is a modest attempt at a light industrial area and some random housing. To the north… there is no north as the train track cuts the north end of the property into a point. An existing communications tower occupies a plot along the west property line taking a chunk out of the proposed site.

“Central Site Plan” MSR Presentation

Considering the proximity to the railroad tracks, and the nature of its previous heavy industrial and agricultural related uses, this site could reveal environmental contaminants, abandoned concrete foundations or other possible contingency expenses.

The site is not ideal for a building of this size. The proposed site plan places the building at the southern tip of the lot. This is the skinniest portion of the site, and brings the building up against the street to the south and the train tracks to the east. An access roadway extends north along the west property boundary. The rest of the site is dedicated to paved parking lots, eventually connecting to a couple of existing “unfinished” streets.

The Architect did not select this site. Considering the complexity and factors involved, I feel the Architect’s design and use of the site is adequate and they’ve appeared to have done a pretty decent job. The site is certainly feasible, and it’s proximity to Andrews Park and the City of Norman’s headquarters seems appropriate.

“The biggest ticket item in the proposal is a new downtown library at an estimated cost of $39 million. The current downtown library was built in 1966, and according to information provided by the Pioneer Library System – of which Norman is a part – cardholders increased by more than 17 percent in the past six years. There are now twice as many cardholders (86,364) as there were Norman residents (42,000) when the facility was built.” by Greg Horton from

A lot of attention was focused on the landscaping, shrubs, trees, no-mow zones. “Canyons” was the word used to describe what is typically referred to as retention or detention ponds, a civil engineering design to control and slow run-off from the site. Filling these low-lying areas with “natural vegetation” would certainly look pretty. Protecting the vegetation from silt buildup, roadway contaminants, and the harsh weather changes in Oklahoma could become a maintenance issue.

The building is essentially an arrangement of two intersecting forms. One is one-story and the other is three-stories. Again, the shape of these two forms are parallelograms. The ambiguous open spaces appears to be more than adequate. Circulation, stacks, tables and furniture feel weird, uncomfortable, modern, clumsy and like wasted space. I understand this is a “schematic design,” but the organization of public area is unsettling.

A future roadway extension of James Garner Ave. and a future commuter train track will parallel the existing train track and existing Legacy Trail pedestrian path. This is advertised to be the future “arrival point” of all visitors from the north via I-35 (from Oklahoma City and Will Rogers World Airport). This end of the building includes a book drop, loading dock and service entrance. I assume this is also where the dumpster will be located. This might be the first thing a visitor will see as “the face of downtown” once all the future transportation routes are complete.

The east elevation was not part of the presentation. I will assume the east side is a blank wall except for the “Railroad Terrace,” turning its back on the train tracks. This is too bad because due to the train tracks this east side will likely be a monolithic wall and will have an unobstructed and perhaps visible from quite a distance towering above trees as the tallest building around.

The overall clumsy, ambiguous design and style is “responding” to cutesy local crap. Prairie grass, the color of rust, and clouds are driving the aesthetic. Not good public space planning. Not form following function. A grand stair of unfathomable scale occupies a centerpiece in the open space. The weird angles of the building are captured and repeated in the grand stair. More thought and reasoning could more attention be paid to the angles. The grand stair aligns with a skylight. This vertical openness might require special fire protection apparatus that is best described as a curtain of water, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water per minute in the event of a fire. There are three rated stairwells arranged well for vertical egress requirements. It’s the open stair that I would need to do a code search to determine what to do with it.

The third floor is where the assembly spaces are located. Meeting rooms, which could bring the most volume of visitors, will have to be reached by three flights of stairs or two elevators. In case of emergency, the time it will take to safely egress what could be in excess of 500 visitors from the third floor to the public way has my attention. Meeting spaces with assembly occupancies could be located on the first floor where elderly, disabled and the general public can more easily come and go.

The ratio of solid to void, meaning windows to not windows, was said to be about 50/50. Sure, it’s nice to have natural light when you’re reading or for task lighting. However, the contents of the building will be exposed to a high amount of UV light. The exposed spines of books on shelves will fade. This concerns me.

The non-traditional aesthetic of this building has no established context in Norman. Some words used to describe this were: warmth, future, variety is better, materials used to define open spaces.

An outdoor area labeled “Plateau Plaza” on the site plan was promoted

"Plateau Plaza" MSR Presentation
“Plateau Plaza” MSR Presentation

as a multi-use space for concerts, performances, banquets. This space could accommodate 150 to 200 people. When a citizen asked, “if a music group needs to set up to perform here, where do they unload?” The answer was, “it’s not important.” What happens when a banquet event is scheduled and the 15 ten-person round tables (as shown on the presentation) need to be delivered and set up? What if these tables need food? Maybe it’s a wedding reception. What happens when a catering truck needs to have proximity access to the tables? What if there’s a band? Where will these service vehicles be able to access this location? The answer was, “it’s not important.”

A citizen asked the Architect if there was an “area of refuge” in case of a severe weather event. There is a “hardened” room provided, but it is not FEMA compliant. It was explained that “FEMA is a waste of space and budget.” In my experience, this is not true. But, alas, I’m not the architect on this library. I have provided FEMA rated storm shelters for a recent project that accommodates 1,200 people. The entire construction cost of the “Event Center” is $3.8 million… for the entire building, including the storm shelters and a 1,200 seat basketball arena. FEMA requires structural design for 250 mph wind speeds. This project that I completed was designed for 318 mph, which is the top wind speed of an F-5 tornado.

A “safe room” designed in compliance with FEMA P-361 and ICC-500 gives the building Owner the confidence to advertise, apply signage that reads “Storm Shelter,” and invite guests to take refuge in case of a weather event. Without this FEMA label, all the liability falls on the Owner. With a FEMA label, the federal government takes most of the liability. How is piece of mind determined to be a “waste of budget?”

The overall style of this proposed building is corporate, audacious and clumsy. It doesn’t say “library” but rather “pompous office building.” Is this what Norman wants?


An architect should provide what’s best for the building, what’s best for the building’s users, and what’s best for the Owner. A hierarchy of priorities is required. The Owner needs to clearly define what is needed, what it wants, what is important, and make the decisions that will shape and design the building. An architect is only a guide, an expert.

Too many times, an architect’s ego and general greed gets in the way. The building ends up being what’s best for the architect’s portfolio. Unfortunately, this is very common in the industry. Maximize profits and use the building to attract the next sucker. It’s business, it’s not personal. I disagree. Spending taxpayers money on construction projects and buildings is what I’ve been doing for the last 16 years.

Spending taxpayers money is very personal. In this case, I am the “owner” of this library. I pay sales tax, I pay ad valorem tax, I pay property tax, I pay fees for services from the City. I “own” the school properties and the city properties in Norman. I live here. In the case of a new library, the “owner” is the whole community. We should cherish it, maintain it, use it, and see to it that our money is spent wisely. The City should determine the budget for these buildings, not the Architect. The Architect should function within the parameters set forth by the Owner. Otherwise, the tail wags the dog.

Architect’s will spend whatever you give them. If you tell the Architect that the budget is $9 million then the architect is going to design in a way to spend $9 million on the construction of the building. If you tell them it’s $14 million… with a few changes, a very similar building can be built for $14 million.

Price changing is as easy as: upgrade a material here and there. For example, in the cheaper building, an “off the shelf” common light fixture that is readily available and in-stock with most electrical suppliers in Oklahoma could be specified that costs $350 each, and in the more expensive building, replace these light fixtures with an exotic item that is only produced by glass-blowing artisans in Lithuania with 14K gold inlays and cost $12,000 each. Put 48 of these throughout the building… the money goes quickly. The architect doesn’t even have to change a single drawing, just changing the notation or specification that describes the fixture is all it takes. Specify quarried marble floors from Italy at $84 per sq ft, or use Daltile porcelain at $16 per sq ft. It’s just that easy. The mortar and labor doesn’t change, but the cost of material does. The wire, conduit, light switch and electrical installer’s labor doesn’t change, but the light fixture does.

The Owner makes the decisions. The Architect only suggests solutions. The Owner sets the budget. The Architect spends the budget.

In my opinion, the fee for “A&E” services should be no more than 6% of the total construction cost. FF&E, testing, land acquisition, permitting, commissioning (whatever that means)… these items are not part of the total construction cost. According to the presentation, the Central fee is: $3,561,010 / $28,894,357 = 12.3%, and the East fee is: $607,123 / $3,835,442 = 15.8%. These are more than double what should be acceptable. If the Architect is providing LEED, landscaping and interior design, the fee usually will go above 6% accordingly. Somewhere around 5% to 8% makes sense for a commercial, new construction project. If you look at the Austin Central Library project (see Case Study below), the council approved hiring fee for A&E services: $7,200,000 / $120,000,000 = 6.0%.

The “A&E” fee is usually on a sliding scale based on building cost and complexity. I assume that the architects are providing landscaping design and interior design, which typically fall into an “additional services” category. If a base fee is 6% to 7%, then adding these additional services… 9% to 10% fee could be reasonable. Alternately, the Owner could do these items themselves and remove them from the architect’s contract. This way, for example, they could let their own “in house” landscaping department select and plant the species in the locations and in the way they choose to maintain it for the next 50 years. With these items being designed by the professional and “in the bid,” the costs will include overhead and profit for each supplier, subcontractor and general contractor involved. For this reason is why some owners decide to do it themselves. $200,000 worth of tables and chairs can become $150,000, but someone at the City would have to make this happen.

Furthermore, a “Program Manager” is a total waste of money for a project the size and complexity of Norman Forward. The only things a “Program Manager” does is what the “Architect of Record” was hired and paid to do. I call this double dipping. However, Program Managers are convenient to a school board or city council because they can see an update presentation of all projects from one presenter at their official monthly meetings, rather than have a separate presentation from each Architect for each project. Efficiency and time are saved at these meetings, but unfortunately this also puts a distance between Owner and Architect of Record. The Program Manager route makes sense for a larger endeavor. Alternatively, an entity could temporarily hire an architect as an employee to spearhead a building program at $60,000 to $80,000 per year in lieu of hiring a “consulting firm” for  $1 million or more. I would nominate myself for such a position because I know the value I could bring to the community.

I’m not happy with the Architect that was selected for this project. I’m not happy with the Program Manager that was selected for this project. I don’t care what kind of portfolio they have, how many libraries they’ve built, how many programs they’ve managed or the “investment of time” and “relationship” already allotted to the City.

“The City Code, Section 8-204.B.6, exempts professional services such as architectural and engineering design services from competitive bidding requirements.  Council has indicated an interest in accelerating the timeline to begin design and construction of both library branches. Given these factors, along with the long-standing relationship between MSR and both the City of Norman and Pioneer Library System through their previous design work and analysis as part of the Norman Library Master Plan, staff is recommending award of a design contract for the new Central Library to MSR.” MSR was hired by Norman City Council agenda items #20 and #21 at the November 24, 2015 meeting.

When Norman Forward passed the vote, I assumed and expected an RFQ/RFP to be issued for each project. A submission and interview process would have been the best solution. It is common for a project of this scale for the Owner to form a community design committee, special panel of experts, or some other group of unbiased individuals to make this decision. Perhaps an international design competition would have been appropriate.

A project of this size could “make” a local architecture firm, not to mention keeping the “$4.2 million fee” in town where it will be spent on things like sales tax and provide living wages to countless Norman citizens. Perhaps the City Council was impatient and needed to rush this project so they could utilize a 2008 bond that passed which is contingent on vacating the existing Central Library building. It’s pretty embarrassing to pass a bond that can’t be used. Oops! When is it a good time to get in a rush to start spending $147 million… more money than the City of Norman has ever spent, all at once?

“A 2008 vote authorized the city to sell $11.25 million in general obligation bonds to renovate a portion of the central library at 225 N Webster Ave. into a senior citizens center and the remainder into municipal office space. However, the renovation was contingent on voters also approving a separate proposition to build a new central library, and that proposition failed.” by Jane Glenn Cannon from

With Mr. Kaighn closing up shop for his long deserved retirement, Norman could really use a new “flagship” architect and a “flagship” project such as this could launch a career. Mr. Kaighn’s work will impact the people of Norman for generations to come. A few of the buildings designed by Kaighn Associates Architects include: City of Norman’s City Hall, Catlett Music Center, Sooner Bowling Center, Truman Elementary School, Nancy O’Brian Center for the Performing Arts and Central Church of Christ (Moore).

The City missed this opportunity. Instead, the money is mostly going to Minnesota and the City gets a whimsical design that reminds me of what I might have proposed to my professor as a second-year architecture student studying at OU after pulling a couple of “all-nighters” right before the deadline… Intersecting forms, dynamic shapes and thrust, influenced by Le Corbusier, using prairie grass as a design element, and responding to the “paths” to the park, of the vehicles and the everlasting train tracks. What about the noise when a train goes by? Will children play on the train tracks? Will the building shake, rattle and hum?

Additional Norman Forward shenanigans


The Friends for a 21st Century Senior Citizens Center group is hoping city leaders will consider other design options…

Seniors lobbying for a stand-alone senior center said they were pleased with the recommendations of the Norman Forward Financial Oversight Board for potential senior center sites.

Andrews Park Master Plan for Norman Forward - by The McKinney Partnership Architects
Andrews Park Master Plan for Norman Forward – by The McKinney Partnership Architects

The board decided by consensus Monday to make a recommendation consistent with a recent analysis to eliminate site options adjacent to the proposed library and to further consider three other sites: a remodel of the current library, a stand-alone center in the northeast corner of Andrews Park and a site on property near the new library that the city does not own (L4 option).

“I’m encouraged to go toward the Andrews Park site, and I think that the $4.4 million of bond money can be ignored,” senior activist Will Decker said. “Those bonds don’t have to be sold, and then there won’t be an increase of property tax.” by Joy Hampton from

Fayetteville Case Study

Blair Library –

Fayetteville, Arkansas is a city comparable in size to Norman. Fayetteville funded a new library in 2000 by a 1% sales tax increase that lasted 18 months. Along with a private donation and participation by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 88,754 sq ft Blair Library was completed in 2004 at a final cost of $23.3 million. Doing the math, $268 per sq ft, adjusted for inflation, it would be in the $300 range.

This project was designed by the very same MSR and built by Crossland Construction Company.

Blair Library –

MSR is concurrently working a proposed $50 million expansion at around $300 per sq ft.

The layout and aesthetic of the Fayetteville library is a classic street front embrace with a prominent face of traditional materials utilized and a safe arrangement of elements.

From this news story May 18, 2016, it appears the City has had a hard time affording to operate such a large facility for the last twelve years. The Fayetteville City Council has decided to throw more money at it and make it even bigger. Size does matter.

“The library’s board has raised fees, frozen salaries and trimmed about $300,000 in maintenance, material and programs in the past two years in order to stretch its budget, putting off hundreds of thousands of dollars more in projected budget increases as well. The proposed permanent millage increase would help the library make up that lost ground, board members have said.” by Dan Holtmeyer from

In a location like Oklahoma or Arkansas, this is a more appealing aesthetic that fits and makes sense with the location. Is this a more “safe” approach? Perhaps. “Safe” could be boring or comfortable, depending on who you are.

Halifax Case Study

Halifax Central Library – photo by Jacob Boon

A much more dynamic design, but orderly and consistent. Revealing the clouds by using stainless steel panels was part of the MSR Presentation for Norman.

In this Halifax example, it’s a direct reflection of the sky using a single monolithic glazing material, but with a clumsy intersecting form. With great care and attention, the proposed Norman library could become something iconic… think of the St. Louis Arch or the Sydney Opera House. Could Norman own the next global phenomenon? Doubtful, but at least the library could find its place with many Norman organizations’ promotional materials, as well as the cover of the local phone book.

“The library, comprising four slightly tilted volumes, reflects the historical axis between the Halifax Citadel and the city harbor. It references the city’s maritime heritage and aims to regenerate the downtown area. Thanks to its diverse programs, the building functions as a cultural hub.” by Lidija Grozdanic from

Halifax Central Library opened in 2014 at a cost of c$57.6 million. The architects, a joint venture between local firm Fowler Bauld and Mitchell and Schmidt Hammer Lassen of Denmark, were chosen in 2010 through an international design competition for a design contract worth c$4.3 million. Construction began later that year on a prominent downtown site that had been a parking lot for half a century. (wikipedia link) The building is reported to be 120,000 sq ft resulting in a cost of c$480 per sq ft. A&E fee: $4,300,000 / $57,600,000 = 7.5% fee.

Austin Case Study

Austin Central Library exterior under construction – May 2016 – photo by Michael Knox

The Austin Central Library is under construction. It’s on, what I would imagine to be, a difficult site situated facing Austin’s iconic Ladybird Lake and nestled alongside Shoal Creek with it’s back against an electric substation.

The Austin City Council agenda item #25 from 12/11/2008 to select and award $7.2 million contract for architectural services (a 6% fee) can be seen here. This document details how 331 A&E firms were invited to participate and 135 RFQ’s were received, the selection process, women and minority preference, and evaluation, short listing and interviewing of the applicants. A well executed public funded project. On the other hand, the City of Norman invited exactly one firm to participate and agreed to 12% and 14% contract fees.

“A decade ago, Austin voters approved a $90 million bond to build a new central library that would better fit the growing city’s needs. Another $30 million later, the “library for the future” is nearly complete. The 200,000-square-foot facility – with a rooftop garden, 300-seat outdoor amphitheater, art gallery, restaurant, cooking demonstration area and a dozen meeting rooms, all wired with the latest technology and incredibly environmentally friendly – is set to open at the Seaholm Power Plant in November.” by Eva Ruth Moravec from

The building has a six-story atrium and incorporates a lot of site work. Libraries do a lot of great things for a lot of people, rich, poor, literate, illiterate. In Austin, it is going to be very cool. Cooking demo spaces, reading porches, bike repair shop, community spaces, coffee shop, not to mention the usual books, videos, music, computers … and all right off a very popular hike and bike trail.

KXAN wanted to compare the price tag on Austin’s new central library to other new libraries throughout the country. They were libraries city officials also looked at as examples before starting construction here.

The main public library in Jacksonville built in 2005 cost less than Austin’s at $100 million. But San Diego’s new library had a price tag of $185 million and Seattle’s public library cost $165 million.” by Lindsay Bramson from



About scottm 31 Articles
Scott Mellgren is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, architect and musician. His interests are as varied as this website.