The library report is wrong. Can we get a refund?

John Ramos

A few weeks ago, I broke the story that the MSR consultants who were hired to develop plans for the future of the Duluth Public Library had met secretly with the Ness Administration to devise a strategy that would steer people toward the mayor’s preferred alternative—tearing down the library and building a new one. Despite having their meddling in a supposedly “objective” process exposed, the Ness Administration continues to stand behind MSR’s report. At the city council meeting of June 15, 2015, Chief Administrative Officer Dave Montgomery said, “I think the consultant did good work, and I think we got good information from it.”
Because the local media appear to have no interest in questioning such statements, or even in acknowledging that a problem exists (so far, The Reader is the only paper that has reported on it), I would like to set the record straight with regard to certain false claims that MSR and the city administration continue to perpetuate about the Duluth Public Library.

The library DOES NOT lose $75,000 per year to energy flying out the walls and windows.

On November 12, 2014, MSR consultant Stephen Bellairs told the library Citizens Steering Committee, “There is a dramatic amount of money that is spent on energy in the building. That’s electricity to run the mechanical plant, it’s steam, it is the electricity to run the chillers, it is lighting, it is plug loads ….Typically, a library building in this region ought to cost around $1.30 a [square] foot. And this building really is costing the equivalent of $2.30 a foot. So it is a dollar a foot, or $75,000, of taxpayer money that’s disappearing out of the building. So where is this disappearing? Why is it doing this?”
He answered his own question. “What we looked at is the original drawings for the building. This was designed in an era when insulation was in its infancy, and these are double-skinned metal panels … with sealant between them, and the sealant is cracked in a lot of places…And so a lot of your treated air on the inside is disappearing, and you’re treating northern Minnesota without really trying to.”
A Duluth News Tribune story published on November 16 repeated the claim. “Estimates indicate that the library’s annual heating bill is about $75,000 higher than it ought to be because of excessive heat loss from the building.”
At a library open house held on December 4, City Planner Keith Hamre repeated the claim. “Basically, during the winter, we’re heating Superior Street and we’re heating Michigan Street,” he told citizens gathered in the library’s Green Room. “And in the summer, when the air conditioning is running, we’re trying to freeze Superior Street and freeze Michigan Street.”
In MSR’s final report, presented to the city council on January 26, 2015, the allegation is repeated several times. On page 12, they write, “Unless the exterior envelope is…addressed, the energy savings recouped from a more efficient HVAC system will, quite literally, go right out the window.”
And on page 13: “Air infiltration of the building envelope…costs the library $75,000 annually in wasted energy costs….That’s enough to heat and cool 27.96 Duluth homes.”
And on page 21: “Anticipated energy costs [for a library of this size should be] around $94,000 per year. The current building cost $166,400 to run from June 2013 through May 2014, and only 31% of these costs are attributed to lighting. This fact is a clear indication that the building leaks in terms of air infiltration and/or in terms of loss of treated air, making the building more expensive to heat or cool at a rate of around $72,400 per year.”
And yes, even I repeated the claim, in numerous stories about the library. At this point, the idea that $75,000 of energy flies out of the library every year is as firmly fixed in the public mind as an idea can be.
In fact, while it is true that the library incurs $75,000 of extra energy costs per year, only a fraction of that is due to a leaky building. A much more serious culprit is the library’s antiquated “pump-and-dump” air conditioning system, which uses city water to cool the library’s air during the summer. When all of the available cooling potential of the water has been extracted, the water is dumped down the storm drain.
In 2014, according to the library’s utility bills, the cooling system consumed 16.9 million gallons of water, at a cost of $47,898. In 2012, the library used 27.9 million gallons, which cost $75,510.
To calculate the total energy use for the library, the energy of the cooling water is combined with steam and electrical energy. Michael LeBeau, the Director of Building Science and Technology for CR-BPS, a local firm that specializes in “sustainable design, energy efficiency and conservation” for new and existing buildings, originally calculated the library’s energy numbers for the city.
“The original purpose of that cooling energy estimate was to fill in a hole in a facility asset management software entry [for the city] since no real data exists,” LeBeau wrote in an email that was forwarded to me. “It is a very unusual cooling system, and so our searches found no available literature to help guide our efforts. The [MSR report] came later and simply borrowed our data that, as stated above, was generated for an entirely different purpose.”
Nowhere in the MSR report is the library’s cooling system mentioned. Essentially, what they did was take the cost of the water and attribute it to lost energy flying out of the building envelope—a leap of logic that shortchanges the public and insults the building. If one subtracts the cost of water from the total $166,400 energy cost, the library is about average in terms of energy consumption—not the monster of waste it has been portrayed as.
Pump-and-dump cooling systems are relics of a time when water cost virtually nothing. Today they are no longer used. Any modern cooling system that is installed in the library today would immediately yield savings simply by not using millions of gallons of treated city water to cool the building.

The library IS NOT poorly constructed.

From the beginning, the MSR consultaFrom the beginning, the MSR consultants frequently referred to the library’s supposedly shoddy construction. At the November 12 meeting of the Citizens Steering Committee, consultant Traci Lesneski (an interior designer) told committee members, “Because the condition of the library is such that it is starting to come apart—not starting to; I think ‘starting to’ is being generous—this great performance record [of providing community services] is at risk.”
At a December 16 meeting, Stephen Bellairs said, “The library is a 1970s design. There’s a trend across the country of that era of building often being in need of replacement rather than being refurbished…. I know I’ve looked at 60 or 70 in the last three years, and at least a third of them are exactly that era of building, and in need of replacement. It’s irredeemable, the way it stands right now.”
In the introduction to their report, the consultants repeat the allegation. “During [the 1970s, buildings] were not designed to last more than 20 to 30 years ….The main library building itself is in decay.”
Naturally, if one hears something like this repeated over and over by “experts,” one might start to believe it. On January 27, 2015, City Councilor Joel Sipress repeated the claims of shoddiness to the library’s board of directors. “In that particular era, particularly for public projects…a lot of really bad buildings were built….There was a lot of bad design and a lot of bad construction, and I think that’s what happened here.”
While it may be true, in general, that many government buildings constructed during the 1970s were not built to last, it is not true in the case of the Duluth Public Library.
In a conversation that I had with city Facilities Manager Erik Birkeland, he mentioned the library’s soundness several times. “I’ll put it to you this way,” he said. “The library, structurally? Nothing shoddy about it. It’s OVER-constructed….The building’s not gonna fall over….It’s got good bones.”
The library’s biggest problem, said Birkeland, was a problem that all buildings faced eventually: Its mechanical and electrical systems were nearing the end of their useful lives. The problem had been exacerbated over the years by a lack of maintenance—again, not the fault of the building. Aging systems “just require more repair. There’s more breakdowns, there’s more loss of efficiency….It just gets harder and harder, as you hit end of life cycle, to keep the building working the way that it needs to work.”
According to Birkeland, one problem that could be attributed to 1970s construction standards was a lack of sufficient insulation in the roof and walls. “It was done at a time when they didn’t insulate. You can go look at some of our fire stations built at the same general time and the same construction, they put up block-walled buildings with no insulation. It just wasn’t thought of.”
If the library’s systems were replaced and the envelope insulated, said Birkeland, the building would be as good as new. “From my perspective, it [would be] a new building. We’ve reset the lifecycle on every system in the building. So then we’ve got another thirty, thirty-five years before we have to have this conversation again.”
Birkeland did not mention that at least some of this work has already been done. In 1994, according to engineering documents in the city architect’s office, the library was re-roofed, at which time an additional 2.5 inches of polystyrene insulation was added to the roof. And in 1998, according to a report generated by the city’s asset management program, a layer of commercial single-ply ballasted membrane was installed on the roof of the library to reduce air infiltration and extend the roof’s life. The report lists the lifespan of the membrane as 25 years, which means that it should be good at least until 2023.
In fairness to Mr. Birkeland, he has only held his current position with the city for two years, and may not be fully versed in all things library.
The consultants do talk about the aging mechanical and electrical systems and lack of maintenance in their report—but to say that the library was “not designed to last,” with the only evidence being that it was built in a particular era, smacks of deliberate deception.

Paying $31 million to renovate the library or $35 million to build a new one ARE NOT The city’s only two choices.

These two numbers from the MSR report have been cited repeatedly, primarily by people who want to build a new library. After all, if it only costs $4 million more to build new, why wouldn’t we?
The MSR report lists four possible options. The $31 million figure is for a super-duper Cadillac of a renovation (which includes, among its many other swell features, a new café). Other options include less-expensive renovations for $25.6 million and $15 million.
There is another number that the report mentions in passing, though the consultants do not include it as one of their options. According to Ameresco, the subcontractor that analyzed the library’s systems for MSR, the cost to replace the HVAC and electrical systems, insulate the walls and soffits, renew the windows, replace the ceiling panels, upgrade the elevator, update the fire alarm system, fix the exterior metal panels, replace the public address system, and make a long list of smaller repairs would be a grand total of $10.7 million—not cheap, but a far cry from the price tag of the Cadillac renovation.
Also: the figure of $35 million to build a new library is a lowball estimate. The mayor’s preferred location for a new library, which he mentioned in his State of the City Address, calls for “a four-story library system [with] two levels of parking” near First Avenue East and Superior Street. The consultants do not include a parking ramp in their estimate.
In fact, they specifically exclude it. On page 123 of their report, which talks about the new $35 million option, they state, “The cost of a two-level parking structure below the library is excluded from this amount.” Why would they even mention a two-level parking structure unless such a thing were being considered—and why would such a thing be considered, unless the mayor’s preferred downtown option was already in the forefront of their minds?
The true price tag of building a new library downtown would be millions of dollars more than has been stated. By keeping their estimate for new construction artificially low, and jacking up the price of renovation as high as possible, the consultants are undoubtedly following the wishes of the Ness Administration.
Cadillacs are nice, but sometimes a Volvo will do just as well. There are certainly other options than those provided in the report. If we established a multi-year timeline for renovating the existing library, and did it in stages, and began setting aside money for that purpose today, the impact on the city’s bottom line could be greatly reduced.
 
Past news stories about the library ARE NOT trustworthy.

Since the library planning process began, more than a year ago, local TV stations and the Duluth News Tribune have done nothing but parrot information handed to them by the consultants and city administration. They have not checked any facts or verified a single assertion. On March 8, 2015, the News Tribune gave the administration a wonderful gift: a full-page editorial entitled “Library: Let’s do it right this time.”
“Trust experts, move forward with planning,” urged the subhead, before launching into hosannas of praise for everybody and everything involved.

For four months, the [consultants and Citizens Steering Committee] tirelessly pored over documents, studied data and considered conditions….The group of very smart, very interested and very dedicated people studying the issue more than did its homework. Its research was exhaustive and transparent….The group was as shocked as anyone by its ultimate recommendation that Duluth needs a new downtown library building…
Building new gives Duluth an opportunity to build better and smarter and with a nod to library uses of the future that can’t even be imagined today. We can do it right this time.… On Monday, the Duluth City Council can continue what already has been an impressive and reassuring process. It can inch the community closer to a difficult yet important decision but a decision that promises to be well-informed and, consequently, more likely embraced…. If City Hall continues to engage the community as it has, issues will be well-considered, and the best, fiscally smartest and most creative vision will emerge—into which all of Duluth can buy.


Reading this, one wonders: Where is the skepticism? Where is the wariness of official agendas? What kind of newspaper “trusts experts” instead of checking facts? Is mindless cheerleading all that is left of journalism in Duluth?
 
If the career professionals at the Duluth News Tribune are unable to think of a single journalistic question to ask about the Duluth Public Library, perhaps they should confine themselves to covering rhubarb festivals and polar bear jumps instead.
 
The flawed process has given us a flawed report. With misinformation, scaremongering, and selective omission of facts, MSR’s report pushes us toward a predetermined conclusion. Continuing to treat their numbers as accurate would be folly.
 
Keep in mind that we PAID for this report—$62,596, to be exact. If that doesn’t annoy you, I doubt that anything will.

The Reader owes a debt of gratitude to Art Johnston, who took it upon himself to file data requests with the city that unearthed much of the information in this article.