Earlier this week, the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (GLHC) by ARM Architecture took out the coveted Woods Bagot Award for its environmentally-sensitive design.

Little wonder why. The eight-level, geodesic-tile-and-glass structure occupies the same footprint as the two-storey library it replaced. But while the building is low-impact from a sustainability perspective, it is high-impact when it comes to functionality and sheer visual force.

“We wanted to celebrate the tradition of great libraries, create an ambitious, future-oriented building, and design an organic structure that lets the natural world penetrate the interior,” says ARM.

“The building inhabits both the past and the future. Its forms [pay] homage to the ideals of self-improvement, knowledge and curiosity [as] expressed in the domes of great reading rooms such as the State Library of Victoria. But the eroded sphere also conjures a future that is innovative and high-tech.”

ARM’s high-tech library design sits approximate to Johnstone Park, the 1926 Geelong Peace Memorial, and the Geelong Art Gallery. While the crystalline glass shards of the western- and southern-facing façades – partially enveloped by the geodesic tile array of the external dome – are inarguably futuristic, the design remains sensitive to its heritage-rich setting. Not only do the various façades recall such primal images as “stalactites at the entrance of a cave” and “the Renaissance tradition of the grotto”, according to ARM, but the glass façade panels also literally reflect their park context while allowing views out.

“The design adds many boughs to the Geelong library,” says ARM. “Every floor looks onto the trees.”

The vision-glass and shadow boxes contribute to the library’s achievement of the highest possible thermal rating. In fact, the building as a whole is high-performing. Best-practice principles of environmentally-sensitive design have been incorporated inside and out, including a displacement air system and in-slab floor heating.

Custom-made “clover columms” – so called because of their geometric resemblance to the lucky leaf – distribute conditioned air upwards through the building from the ground. Together with pipes that have been woven into the concrete screed, which radiate heat through the floor, these features result in minimised energy costs.

One quarter of the lower-ground-floor level is devoted to the collection of water and the treatment of grey water. Energy within the building comes from a large solar array installed on the roof of the Peace Memorial building next door, and several façade elements – including mosaic-like tiles and structural glazing – help to control the solar load on the building’s western façade.

All of this has resulted in a 5-star Green Star rating for the GLHC; one of the first such ratings achieved by a public building in Australia.

The interior of the GLHC is an inspired combination of form and function, with each level semi-isolated for a particular purpose while able to incorporate multiple functions.

The ground floor, for instance, is dedicated to community. A bilingual directions board – in both English and the local Indigenous language, Wadawurrung – greets visitors when they first enter. In the midst of a community gathering space and a section for popular books and magazines sits an 80-seat café.

Floor one is for children, with a landscaped balcony sitting at treetop-level, while floor two is home to the adult collections. The third floor is the core of the library; this climate-controlled area is home to Victoria’s largest regional collection of public and private records. The entire floor is compliant with the storage specifications set by the State Archives Place of Deposit. The fourth floor is dedicated to GLHC staff, and a fifth floor contains a function room capable of accommodating up to 250 people. From here, an expansive deck overlooks Corio Bay.

As in any good library, the design has been conceived to showcase books. The six-metre Great Wall of Stories is testament to ARM’s success on this front. Here, on the ground level, books stretch from the floor to the ceiling, and can be browsed from an elevated catwalk that is reminiscent of the one of Sydney’s old Mitchell Library.

Ultimately, the proof of this building’s innovation and excellence – as recognised with the Woods Bagot Award earlier this week – lies in engagement of visitors to the space. According to the City of Greater Geelong’s director of investment and attraction, Brett Luxford, the GLHC is the embodiment of a more clever and creative community.

“And judging by our library’s impressive attendance figures, our community is very supportive of its wonderful facility.”