Waterproofing beyond the expected

Waterproofing the Priceless

For priceless things like 400-year-old Shakespeare folios, water exposure can be disastrous. That’s why Sika products were used to waterproof the largest public library in the UK.

Francine Houben of Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo designed the new Library of Birmingham, which was completed in September 2013 at a cost of approximately GBP 190 million. It houses over one million books in both an adult and children’s library, has more than 200 public access computers, a music room, theatres, cafe, and an exhibition gallery.

Instantly, the 32,000 m² library was a huge attraction, welcoming over 2.7 million visitors during its first twelve months. The formal opening was conducted by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, and who now lives in Birmingham. Before unveiling a plaque, she said "Let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one teacher can change the world."

Library of Birmingham
Image: Garden Terrace, Library of Birmingham. Credit: Christian Richters
City skyline during sun-set
Image: Library of Birmingham, UK. Credit: Christian Richters

World-Class Waterproofing

English weather is famously wet and windy. This means that every day, buildings there are exposed to intense fluctuations in moisture levels and temperatures, contributing to their deterioration.

Sika provides state-of-the art, long-lasting admixtures to concrete to prevent water penetration. Indeed, waterproofing is where it all started for Sika in 1910. 

For the Library of Birmingham, the Sika® Watertight Concrete System was specified for both the basement and terraces. The system complies with BS 8103:2009 Grade 3 for habitable areas where no water penetration is acceptable, an essential consideration for the basement. On the terraces, Sika® Watertight Concrete was chosen as a secondary defense should the waterproof decking above become damaged. 

Library of Birmingham
Image: The library covers an area of 32,000m². Credit: Christian Richters
City skyline during sun-set
Image: With its rotundas and its façade, the library is an ode to the circle. Credit: Christian Richters

Creating a People's Palace

Libraries house our culture and knowledge; they are beacons of hope in a difficult world. The Library of Birmingham director Brian Gambles shared his vision with Houben back in August 2008, hoping that it would become the social heart of the city. “The modern library is no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people,” he said.

Houben dug deep to find the essence of Birmingham, a multicultural British city of about one million people. She was struck by the city’s rich architectural history: Gothic, Victorian, industrial relics, and 20th century Brutalist buildings, all effortlessly mixed. 

The trick for Houben was to combine all these elements into one design. “We wanted to make a building that brought coherence to the urban network of Birmingham. Our dream was to create a People’s Palace: inviting, welcoming, inspiring for all ages and backgrounds.”

Precious on the Inside and Out

Houben created a space that maximizes public accessibility and simplifies the flow of 10,000 visitors per day. The library is spread over 10 levels and visitors move from one floor to the next through overlapping rotundas that provide natural light and ventilation.

The exterior is striking, with a filigree pattern of concentric metal rings over glass, silver and gold that echo the city’s metalworking heritage. “The repeating circles generate shadows and reflections, creating an unforgettable world inside the building,” Houben said. “With its rotundas and its façade, the building is an ode to the circle: an archetypical form that embodies universality, infinity, and timelessness.”

The library houses nationally and internationally significant collections. For example, in the original Shakespeare Memorial Room, which was preserved from 1882, lies Britain's most important Shakespeare collection. It contains 43,000 books, including rare items such as a copy of the First Folio 1623, which alone is worth approximately GBP 7 million.

Ultimately, the record of our civilization rests in books. Although digitalization is changing the ways in which we read, old books remind us of the ways that human nature hasn’t changed over time. The fatal flaws of Shakespeare’s protagonists – including ego, greed, pride, and lust – were as relevant then as they are now. Keeping these priceless manuscripts dry and intact for posterity is crucial, so we can hopefully learn from our ancestors’ experience. 

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