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Vestavia Hills Opens Its New ’Library in the Forest’

Wed December 15, 2010 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

As one of only about three dozen libraries in the entire nation to receive a LEED Gold certification, Vestavia Hills’ most anticipated construction project is winning praise for its commitment to going green. The $13 million “Library in the Forest,” scheduled to open soon, is described as a timeless structure where man and nature mutually respect and reinforce one another.

“When visitors enter the building they will feel as if they’re among the trees, suspended 30 feet in the air. It’s breathtaking,” said Colin Coyne, a LEED certified property developer and chairman of the library board of trustees. “The building is proof we can offer a state-of-the art facility and still be mindful of our natural surroundings.”

More than 80 percent of the trees harvested from the site were brought back and used throughout the structure. All the ceilings are made of pine taken from the site, the entry hall is poplar and furnishings are made from oak. Less than 25 percent of the trees were disturbed to construct the building, and no tree more than 40 ft. from the building was cut down. More than seven-and-a-half acres of commercially zoned property will never be vulnerable to redesign.

Keith Belcher, senior project manager of general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie, headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., said incorporating natural materials was a priority. Crews used approximately 800 tons (725 t) of sandstone on the stone gravity retaining walls and exterior veneer, delivered by tandem axle dump trucks from the quarry in Anniston, Ala.

“The clearing limits were restricted around the perimeter of the building and due to the steep terrain, this caused access problems on the south, east and west sides,” explained. “We installed scaffolds on all three sides, a loading platform, and used a crane positioned in the parking lot on the north side to stock exterior skin materials and interior materials for the lower levels.

“This building uses an access flooring system for ease of future changes to infrastructure, but this created additional work to maintain the indoor air quality plan, since a large void existed under the floor for dust and debris to collect. We also cautiously reviewed the materials installed in the project regarding VOC [volatile organic compounds] content. This started in the submittal stage and continued during construction,” Belcher said.

The floors in the building are raised, making wiring and duct work easier to access. Individual vents will give patrons the ability to adjust them to the desired temperature. The floor boards also were designed to allow for easy rewiring of computer terminals.

Hard-Working Iron

Equipment used on the job included Caterpillar’s D8N dozer, 815 compactor, 563 compactor, 963 loader and D4 dozer, as well as a Komatsu PC-300 excavator for the storm sewer, sanitary sewer and water line installation. Other equipment used included a Caterpillar 330 excavator, an Ingersoll Rand SD-70 compactor, a John Deere 310 rubber-tired backhoe, a Caterpillar 963 loader for clearing, grubbing and chipping, a Peterson 4710B grinder, a Timberjack 460 skidder, along with a Tigercat feller buncher and a Prentice 410B log loader.

Reaching for the Sky

The rooftop garden was constructed on a steel frame with a concrete deck. The roof is a hot fluid applied system under the garden roof area. The garden area is surrounded by a concrete paver system that is on pedestals and drains below the garden area and pavers.

Due to the difficulty of repairing leaks after the garden was completed, the roof system was tested with both the ponding and electronic test methods prior to completion. The actual garden consisted of a layered system of insulation, root guard protection, drainage mats and a lightweight bio-mix soil.

“The rooftop garden serves many purposes,” said Coyne. “It’s a great environment for relaxation; it’s a potential revenue source for the library as we lease it out for receptions; it improves the insulation factor on the building, thus reducing energy use and costs; and it reduces the heat island effect which contributes to warming of our atmosphere in urban areas. As for the walking areas, they existed before we ever built the library. We just sought to inject ourselves into the environment in a complementary way, highlighting the trailheads while preserving and enhancing the natural environment. Again, the ability to create an atmosphere where the interplay of nature and humans is mutually reinforcing was very consistent with the larger context of the library.”

More Than Books and Computers

The new structure was designed to offer a personal business laboratory for aspiring entrepreneurs, a center for adult literacy programs, an access point to government information and services, public access to computing and meeting spaces for community-based functions, youth gatherings and club meetings, as well as outdoor programming for environmentally-concerned groups such as Keep Vestavia Green, the Alabama Audubon Trail and Wildlife Society and area scout troops.

“As important as the building is,” said Coyne, “we have also tried to redefine the purpose of being for a library. Rather than seeing a library as a repository for books, we chose to view it as a place where knowledge is transferred; specifically, from one generation to the next. In doing so, we’ve created a far more communal experience, with a cafe and lounge areas and study rooms and video. It will be a far more interactive experience than traditionally associated with libraries.

“The use of natural materials extends beyond the aesthetic or the sensory,” added Coyne, “both of which are very important elements and both of which are addressed in remarkable ways. On a more pragmatic level, the use of natural materials allows us to showcase our respect for the natural environment while conserving resources and achieving minimal waste.

“Second, and perhaps most important, our decision to create a space among the trees allows us to really get to the heart of a much bigger issue: people don’t respect what they don’t know. By sacrificing two and a half acres of trees, we have created an environment where thousands of patrons will really get to know the natural environment. In doing so, they cannot help but become more respectful of it. In short, I truly believe that the two and a half acres of trees we’ve largely reused will preserve hundreds of acres,” Coyne concluded.

Folded Into a Hill

The library is built into the side of a hill which maximizes the forest experience while having minimal site disturbance. It exists on four levels — an upper mezzanine with two study rooms and the rooftop garden; the main level housing the main service desk, adult services, computer classroom, the café, fireplace area, the bookstore, community room and a rooftop terrace into the forest; a lower level with children’s services, the children’s programming room, teen services, a glass tree house, the boardroom and administrative services; and the lowest level which features an outdoor amphitheater and classroom and trail.

Coyne said organizers never pursued being first at the expense of doing what they believed was right.

“Sometimes being first isn’t such a good thing if it’s based on misguided premise. In our case, however, because LEED buildings are better for occupants by protecting health and improving productivity, proving that such benefits can be achieved in a highly cost-efficient manner is important and that made it worth being a pioneer.

“We set a standard of creating something of national stature, worthy of national attention. We shouldn’t settle for anything less. That’s perhaps the most important societal lesson: we wanted to show everyone in Alabama that we can be among the nation’s elite if we make that choice. We have the talent and vision and expertise if we choose to demand more. In this case, we’re among the top 0.03 percent in the nation. That’s something in which our entire community can take pride.”

According to Vestavia Hills Public Library Director Taneisha Young Tucker, “As part of a 39 library cooperative, with the nearest and one of the largest libraries being just one mile away, we looked for our niche in the county and community. The land — about nine acres — was purchased by the city with the expectation to build a library that would reflect the pride of Vestavia Hills along with educating library patrons regarding sustainable buildings and going green. Alabama had not, at the time, been a leader in ’green,’ and Vestavia Hills officials felt this was a perfect opportunity to be on the forefront of presenting environmental and green awareness through a new library.”

Tucker pointed out, “The current facility has served us well in that it has provided space for our 88,000 item collection; however it has limitations that prevent further and future growth.”

“Patrons can see the reclaimed wood when they enter the doors, look at the ceiling or even step up to any service desk. The air conditioning and lighting systems have been installed for peak efficiency. Recycled materials have been used throughout the facility and most of all, every patron can enter the library and experience nature by just looking out one of the many windows that provide a breathtaking view of acres of lush forest and rays of natural sunlight,” concluded Tucker.

Traveling a Long Road

The Vestavia Hills Library Foundation was founded in 1997 to develop public and private financial support for the Vestavia Hills Public Library. In 2006, the Mayor and City Council authorized a four million dollar challenge grant for a much-needed new library, challenging local citizens to raise $4 million toward new construction. To date, the foundation is still about $350,000 short of meeting its goal. Though the library has been built, organizers are still fundraising, in hopes of securing the cash needed to pay off the debt.

“As for economic benefits,” explained Vestavia Hills Mayor Alberto Zaragoza Jr., “ I have been working with the Alabama Department of Tourism because it is expected that the library will draw visitors in from all over the region. The property is located at the foot of the Boulder Canyon nature trail, and we could see opportunities to be an example from an environmental standpoint.

As to the need for a new facility, Zaragoza said, “Vestavia Hills students rated the library poorly and were going elsewhere to meet their needs. Our ability to offer programs to the public has been limited by capacity, although patronage at the library has been strong. A new library has been long overdue.” CEG

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