Carrick Library Goes with the Flow While Notching a Passive House First

Libraries have always been about the flow of information – from one generation to another, from different cultures, perspectives, and languages, and from the past to the future. So it is fitting that the new Carrick branch of the Carnegie Library system of Pittsburgh (CLP) will physically embody that notion of flow, and expand it to express the movement of energy, people, and water through the site.

Several years ago the CLP was close to shutting down several neighborhood branches due to a funding crisis. Thankfully, city residents voted to apportion taxes to save the libraries, and the CLP has been actively renovating neighborhood libraries ever since. Carrick library is one of the last to renovate.

Built into a steep hillside with windows only on the front of the building, the existing Carrick branch felt very much like a basement – dark, damp, and dingy. The initial plan was to redevelop the existing building, but the community wanted more, and petitioned the library for greater change. The CLP responded by buying the site next door – a corner lot on a prominent street in Carrick. The new building, designed by NK Architects and Thoughtful Balance, will double the library’s size to just under 8,000 sf.

To inform the design of the new space, our team interviewed everyone from maintenance staff, to librarians, library users, the library administration, and the community. The over-arching sentiment: “more connection to the outside and access to natural light, please!” Not surprising given the cave-like feel of the existing building.


To provide this natural light – as well as a quiet, healthy, and ultra-efficient building – the design team suggested that Carrick become the first Passive House-certified library in North America. Passive House (aka "Passivhaus") design manages the flow of energy to drive building energy use down by as much as 75%. The library’s generous windows and superinsulated walls will capture solar heat in the winter and retain cool in the summer. Heat recovery ventilation will provide a constant flow of filtered fresh air that captures and recycles the heat (or cool in the summer) from exhaust air before it exits the building.

CLP was already familiar with Passive House. In 2014, Thoughtful Balance had renovated the Hazelwood branch to Passive House standards, but not quite Passive House certification. The Carrick branch is on track to earn certification. Ron Graziano, Director of Facilities Development at CLP, liked the outcome of the Hazelwood branch: they doubled their space but use 16% LESS energy than previously, have more lighting, more open space, and improved acoustics. Convincing him to go with Passive House design for the Carrick project was an easy sell.


Laura Nettleton, principal at Thoughtful Balance and designer of the renovated Hazelwood branch, credits NK architect Steve Fischer for the “inspired design concept of using a ramp as the organizing feature” for the Carrick branch. The library didn’t want to take on the expense of an elevator and its service, but the design team worried a 1-story building would still be “a pancake dug into the hillside,” as Laura put it. “Steve’s idea of pulling the building away from both the front and side of the street, and going up one story with a ramp to transition the levels was brilliant,” says Laura.

Carrick Passivhaus Library ramp - Pittsburgh

The ramp design is an organizing feature of the design, putting the flow of people at the center of the concept. The ramp unites and promotes flow between important areas of the library: the children’s area, a space for teens, the main reading room, and a large community room. It also allows for an important reconfiguration of the book stacks. By lining the ramp with shelving, the design opens up significant floor space, providing for a variety of flexible meeting areas, and open flow throughout.


The City of Pittsburgh was put on notice by the Department of Environmental Protection to separate its storm water and sewer systems. Currently the antiquated system combines rainwater with raw sewage, sending sewage overflows into rivers and streets during heavy rains. In response to this local crisis, the library and its landscape captures storm water on its site, holding it to percolate into the soil or evaporate rather than sending it into the current system. A large cascading trough funnels water from the roof to a bioswale that surrounds the site. A fun graphic in the children’s area will illustrate the water cycle, engaging the public in active sustainability they can witness just feet away.

The library of today is more than a repository for books and a quiet place for study. It is a community center, an internet and tech hub, a space for after-school programs, and a place to access information in all its forms. The new Carrick library will beautifully embody the continuous flow of ideas, activities, energy, water, people, space and generations. As an institutional model of Passive House construction, it will also help build a future of climate security and resilience.