In July 2018, as part of an Architecture and Urbanism Writing Workshop in Accra, I explored the Balme Library at the University of Ghana with Emmanuel Owusu Banahene (an MPhil student at KNUST), Victoria Okoye (an Architecture PhD student from University of Sheffield), and Benedict Acheampong (an undergraduate student studying Architecture at KNUST). This was my first time visiting this library, and it opened me to a new learning experience.
In this article, I consider adaptation as changes to space or building to fit the current needs and usage of its users, using the University of Ghana’s Balme Library as an example. The Balme Library is an example of a structure whose local adaptations of structure respond to societal, economic and environmental changes. Adaptation of buildings to users and uses is emerging as one of the primary requirements in sustaining the performance and lives of buildings.
Historical background of the Balme Library
The Balme Library is the main library of the University of Ghana and centrally located in the university campus. It is a neo-classical masterpiece building with high adaptability and named after the first Principal of University of Ghana, David Mowbray Balme. From the library, I could see the academic area, student’s residences, and the main avenue among others. The location of the library makes it accessible from all directions. Geographically, it is located on latitude 5°39’ 7.054 “N and longitude 0°11′ 13.444″E with an overall elevation of 107 meters. The precursor to the library was a large room in Achimota, which was used until the library was established in 1948 (Bani, 2003). The then facility was a large room with no space for expansion, and the current library structure was built in 1959 (ibid). The new structure then had a capacity for 250,000 books and seating space for 300 persons. The central location of the library with its facilities and the scope of the coverage of the collection make it an essential and vital part of academic life on campus. It exists as a central organ of the university, around which other structures are built (Thompson and Carr 1987).
During our initial transect walk around the library, I noticed the symmetrical nature of the building, like most libraries I have experienced in the past. I also noticed the introduction of new elements to the building since its initial construction: sliding windows, air conditioning, and security systems, among others. I see these elements as a step in the right direction to maintaining the building. Some of the elements are foreign yet relevant to maintain the proper functioning of the building. For example, it would be unsustainable to introduce air conditioning into spaces using timber louvre windows.
Emmanuel Owusu, an MPhil student at KNUST, described the library as a heritage building, noting its significance and the desire for it to be maintained with little or no adaption. I, coming from a land management background, preferred the strategy of sustainable adaption conserve the iconic building. Several historical buildings in Ghana are deteriorating faster than facilities managers could ever imagine. Like Sea View Hotel and Old Parliament House, which were both demolished in 2017, the University of Ghana has the option of demolishing any existing structure or redeveloping it. Provisions for building adaptation are usually made at the design stage of buildings, or society pursues building adaptation as a way to solve the deficiencies in the performance of some buildings and their sustainability. The Balme Library to me is a good example of an adaptable structure, and it has undergone several adaptations over time. In the case of the Balme Library, the university chose the option of maintaining the iconic structure while expanding and modernizing it.
Implementation of sustainable adaptation within the Balme Library
Emmanuel, coming from an architectural background, argued that the introduction of new elements to the library distorted the narrative behind the design. I had opposing views, and our discussion drew my interest to find out the reasoning behind the modifications to the building. In my research, I came across the concept of ‘sustainable adaptions.’ According to the Webster dictionary, adaptation refers merely to the ability to fit. In construction, building adaptation can be referred to “as an intervention to adjust any work done on a building above the intenti