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Woodsy Book Nook

The library’s in the forest and the forest is in the library.


Project Name: Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest
Location: Vestavia Hills / Birmingham
Construction Manager: Brasfield & Gorrie
Architect: HKW
Engineer: Consultants to HKW
Major Subcontractors: H.N. Donahoo (site work), Myrick Gurosky & Assoc. (general works), Excel (masonry), Caton Acoustical & Drywall (drywall and ceilings), Hardy Corp. (mechanical), Trinity (electrical)
Project Construction Value: $9 million
Overall Project Value: $12.7 million including land purchase, furnishings and project-related fees

It is called The Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest, an appropriate name for a facility that is nestled among more than seven acres of trees. But while the library does indeed sit in the forest, there is also quite a bit of that forest in the library.

When the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills decided to build an expansive new $12.7 million library last year, city officials wanted the building to meet the criteria for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. It is the first LEED library in Alabama and one of only approximately 40 such libraries in the United States.

One of the ways contractor Brasfield & Gorrie achieved LEED Gold status for the library was to take most of the trees that had to be cleared from the land just off U.S. Highway 31 and incorporate the lumber into the construction of the facility.

More than 80 percent of the trees that were removed were milled down, then brought back and used for furniture, shelving and building material. All the ceilings in the library are made from pine trees taken from the site, furnishings are created from oak trees and the entry hall is constructed out of poplar.

“We received an innovation point for the trees we cut down being used in the building. LEED recognized that as being a step above the standard,” says Steve Manown, Alabama industrial division manager for Brasfield & Gorrie and project manager for the Vestavia Hills library construction.

But it wouldn’t be The Library in the Forest if there had not been a forest left behind. The library sits on a 10-acre site, and only a quarter of the land was involved in the construction. None of the trees that are more than 40 feet from the building were cut down. The library is now used as a trailhead for several paths that meander through the woods, including the popular Boulder Canyon Nature Trail.

The building sits on the edge of a steep ravine, which is another way that the surrounding forest has been used in the design and feel of the library. The rear of the facility consists primarily of large windows that offer panoramic views of the trees. But since the land slopes down away from the building, people standing in the library are looking out at the tops of the trees, creating the feeling of being suspended in midair. There is also a rooftop garden and an observation deck that extends from the top of the building.

“The way the building sort of leans out over the forest has been a big hit with people,” Manown says.

Of course, hillside construction presented its own set of challenges, primarily in providing proper support for the building. Manown says the first thing his team did was drill holes throughout the ravine to determine where solid rock was located.

“We didn’t care about the soil consistency. We just wanted to know where the rock was because we knew we had to build on rock,” Manown says.

Then approximately 800 tons of sandstone were brought in from a quarry in Anniston for the creation of a rock retaining wall. But because of the steep terrain, access was limited on three sides of the construction site. So scaffolds were installed on all those sides, and a crane was positioned on the lone flat side and used to deliver and position materials.

“There were some challenges that we had to navigate through, but we were able to overcome them and get the building to work on that site,” Manown says.

In addition to reusing the trees that were removed from the site, Manown says more than 90 percent of the material discarded during construction was sorted and recycled, another step that helps to achieve LEED certification.

The building also has a number of traditional green touches, such as motion lighting, waterless urinals, an abundance of natural light and the ability to collect rainwater for irrigation. Since opening in December, library officials estimate that the new building has been 40 percent more efficient in both water and energy usage than the previous library.

From a structural standpoint, the floors in the new building are raised, making ductwork and wiring more accessible. The floorboards pop up, allowing for easy rewiring of computer terminals and other electrical equipment.

“The functionality of the building has been a huge success,” Manown says. “It was a real pleasure to work on this project. I live in Vestavia and have little kids, so it was a lot of fun to create something that will also add value to my personal life.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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