SFSU - J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library

J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library

On the J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library project, Balfour Beatty proved that if you build it right, the students will come. Check out how we combined classic building principles with modern techniques like BIM and laser scanning to deliver an award-winning facility for San Francisco State University. 

On the J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library project, Balfour Beatty proved that if you build it right, the students will come. Check out how we combined classic building principles with modern techniques like BIM and laser scanning to deliver an award-winning facility for San Francisco State University. 

San Francisco, CA
San Francisco State University
Year Completed
Market Type
Higher Education
DB Contractor Led

A Tale of Two Libraries

Albert Einstein once said, “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” At San Francisco State University (SFSU), professors no longer speculate whether students rely solely upon the wisdom of Wikipedia. Thanks to a Balfour Beatty-led design-build team, the J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library – a joint-use facility – has become a well-known campus destination. It is a place where students can discover who they are and what they will become and a haven where daydreaming is as welcome as group discussions. We invite you to learn the story of this incredible project – how our collective team delivered a building that is changing lives for the better, how we combined classic building principles such as cost and schedule that would have been relevant in the era of Chaucer with modern techniques like Building Information Modeling (BIM) and laser scanning developed in the days of Clancy to deliver this award-winning facility. Your library card is waiting.

Chapter I: Great Expectations 

Nearly 30 years after its last expansion, the J. Paul Leonard Library could only support 68% of the SFSU student population due to growing enrollment. The building suffered serious exterior envelope inadequacies and was in dire need of updates to its electrical and telecommunications systems. In addition to addressing these core issues, this two-phase, design-build project enabled the library to reinvent itself by maximizing space in ways that meet modern students’ need for collaborative, flexible and high-tech learning environments.

Many of the project’s complexities stemmed from the fact that the existing 278,000-square-foot library consisted of two seismically separated but attached structures built in the 1950s and 1968. As part of this transformative project that spanned nearly four years, the design-build team was entrusted with significant seismic reinforcement. Of note, both structures sustained considerable damage during the 7.1 Loma Preita earthquake that devastated Northern California in 1989.

The installation of a ground level automated library retrieval system (LRS) was another key contributor to the project’s overall difficulty. The LRS’ storage racks required the precise installation of an extraordinary 6,700 drilled-in anchors. Providing rapid access to many of the four million items in the library’s impressive collection, the LRS helped free space normally consumed by book stacks for use as individual/group study and computing areas.

Most interestingly, this project took advantage of a unique opportunity to create a joint-use facility with California State Library’s Sutro Library, which was formerly located in temporary facilities on the SFSU campus. The project team incorporated the Sutro Library, which contains one of the largest collections of rare historical and genealogical books and related items in the western United States, into the fifth and sixth floors of the Leonard Library. Notable items in the Sutro collection include original Shakespeare folios and Yemenite Hebrew manuscripts dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By co-locating the two libraries into one facility, the academic and general public benefit more fully from both collections.

The Balfour Beatty-led team met the aforementioned challenges and exceeded the owner’s goals in a myriad of ways, first and foremost by completing the project on budget five months ahead of schedule – despite a three-month project shut-down due to lack of State funding. By the numbers, the team was also able to add 34% more total space; 50% more seating; 50% more study areas; 50% more collection capacity; and 100% more computers. Through the expansion and renovation of the J. Paul Leonard Library, deficiencies similarly experienced by both libraries were resolved, including space, building conditions, collections storage and user needs. 

Chapter II: All the King’s Men

As the prime contracting entity, Balfour Beatty led the formation of a fully integrated, cross-functional team. To facilitate a fast-track start to construction, Balfour Beatty brought each member of the team, including architect of record, HMC Architects, into the planning process as early as possible. During preconstruction, Balfour Beatty leveraged the entire team’s experience and knowledge to provide the owner with custom project solutions. For example, one of the owner’s primary objectives was to ensure that construction activities never interfered with or prevented access to its collection. The design-build team devised a plan that allowed designated students and faculty to safely access the building during each project phase. After undergoing Balfour Beatty-led Zero Harm training, the appointed group first utilized a gate system to enter the library. Each entrant was required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hard hats and safety glasses. As work progressed, the project team utilized a fully-lit, enclosed tunnel system for ingress and egress into the book storage area. The tunnel was equipped with air horns to signal the stop or start to construction activity as students and faculty entered and exited the site. At the end of the project, the team logged 434,665 man hours with zero recordable incidents.

“Balfour Beatty proved to be an inventive partner, allowing the collection to remain intact in the existing building with access by library personnel, while construction began on the addition,” praised Simon Lam, associate vice president, capital planning, design and construction for SFSU. “Throughout the project, the design-build team…exercised creativity and speed in resolving issues.”

One of the major reasons for the project’s success was the team’s innovative strategy to lift the library’s three-story book storage vault out of the earth and place it at ground level. This not only allowed the vault to play a massive role in the seismic reinforcement of the existing building but also freed approximately 10-15% of the budget by obviating the cost required to build a three-story subterranean building. From start to finish, it was readily apparent to all team members – especially the owner – that this enhanced level of engagement, communication and planning created tremendous downstream value.

Chapter III: The Age of Intelligent Machines

From the onset of the project, the entire team, including all major trades, embraced BIM to ensure proper systems coordination. BIM models were based on as-built surveys and legacy information the owner provided, which included drawings dating back to the 1950s. Halfway through the 3D coordination process and after abatement and demolition had commenced, the project team discovered some rather significant discrepancies between the as-builts and actual site conditions. One key inconsistency occurred with regard to the slab-to-slab elevation on the ground floor of the existing building. In areas previously inaccessible, deviations of up to 4” were detected that allowed for as little as 24” of planned ceiling space; this amounted to a net ceiling space loss of 15% when compared to the original model.

Given this challenge, the project team determined it was necessary to capture exact dimensions of the building’s most sensitive areas, including the majority of the ground floor, by using a 3D laser scanner. The point cloud data that the scanner captured allowed for a 3D mesh to be integrated into our standard BIM coordination efforts. This gave instantaneous feedback about the validity of a layout vs. field conditions, saving countless hours of verifications and preventing the potential for human error. It is important to note that a 3D laser scan or even a highly detailed survey were not possible in the early design phase. These highly sensitive areas were either impeded by the ceilings of the existing facility or hidden behind hazardous materials, thus forcing the team to wait until these areas were both unobstructed and safe to obtain a thorough understanding of field conditions.

Chapter IV: The Metamorphosis 

SFSU students and faculty can’t help but take notice of their new library. With a striking, sculptural glass façade, the J. Paul Leonard Library and Sutro Library entices passers-by to enter into this information portal. But even though the building’s beauty helped cement its status as a signature campus landmark, an architectural masterpiece a library does not make. Libraries are more than well-worn stacks of books or even the history, culture and knowledge contained within their spines. More than the sum of the periodicals or public records they house, libraries, at their core, exist for people. They serve as communities, both scholarly and social. And even though this project counts five prestigious industry awards* among its many accolades, the source of our pride stems from beholding the building’s bustling study areas, notes scrawled across moveable whiteboards and scholars, with heads bent, buried in thought. If you build it (right), as it turns out, the students will come.

*The project earned four regional and national awards, including Project of the Year, from the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA) as well as one award from the Associated General Contractors (AGC) Southwest Division.