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An Improbable Library Turns Ten

Chrisney Branch of the Lincoln Heritage Public Library
The Chrisney Branch of Lincoln Heritage Public Library celebrates ten years without paying an electric bill.

America's first net-positive-energy public library turns ten this April. Its location may surprise you.

When I was asked to conduct a feasibility study for this project for the Town of Chrisney, Indiana population 481, I started by asking what assets they had. Money? None. Site? None. Building? None. Permission to build a branch from the local library district? No. Long drive home.

All they had was an idea that having a library would help outmigration of young families with children and attract new residents. Parents were driving their children 15 miles away to the nearest library, in Dale, to attend summer library reading programs. Spearheaded by an irresistibly enthusiasticTown Clerk, Kim Litkenhus, this idea attracted a passionate following among the citizens and over a hundred showed up for some of the public meetings. You can do a lot with that kind of social capital - like raise money for a local match for a federal grant. I convinced the local library district to accept the idea of a library branch if the building was delivered with no cost to the district and it didn't have utility bills.

The Town of Chrisney agreed to provide free water, sewer, and site maintenance. North Spencer Community School Corporation donated an acre of ground adjacent to Chrisney Elementary School that was near their outdoor learning lab. My project team (I was with Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf Architects at the time), including Dan Overbey and Nick Worden, designed an energy efficient, all-electric building with geothermal heating and cooling that would produce more energy than it used by generating electricity with solar photovoltaic panels mounted on a separate structure. This strategy allowed the building to be located in the shade of tall trees while the sun-drenched Learning Power Pavilion provided an outdoor classroom for the community and the school with a roof of 8.9kW of bifacial PV modules.

With the ambitious design concept in place, the community raised over $88,000 in a few weeks and over 100 residents volunteered to help staff the branch. They were ultimately successful in their quest for an Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs grant of $447,000 to fund their 2400-square-foot branch. They received an additional $24,000 grant from the Indiana Office of Energy Development for their solar PV array. After the first year of operation proved that the project produced more energy than it used, Chrisney Branch became the first public library in America to be certified a “net zero energy building” by the National Institute of Building Sciences and later as a “net positive energy building” by the International Living Futures Institute.

I assumed that Chrisney Branch Library would be the first of many such net positive energy buildings in Indiana. It was built to federal specifications for well below the average cost per square foot for public library projects in Indiana. No rocket science. Stick built by local contractors. With my new firm, Griffy Creek Studio, LLC, I hope to demonstrate just how cost-effective regenerative buildings can be, and Chrisney Branch Library remains a great example, ten years and about 144 free megawatts later.

The Chrisney Branch of Lincoln Heritage Public Library will celebrate its 10thanniversary on Friday, April 12 from 3 to 6 pm with food, live music, storytelling, face painting, and a bounce house – all powered by the sun.

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