Vestavia Hills: Library in the Forest

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When Vestavia Hills announced it was building a Library in the Forest residents cheered. The old library is small and not very inviting. The new one will be big and airy and planted among the trees. Construction is underway, but it isn’t without challenges as WBHM’s Tanya Ott reports.

If you don’t visit a library regularly, you might be stuck with an old-school idea of what they’re like. There are certainly stereotypes (earned!) about libraries.

“I still wear a bun some days,” admits library director Tanesha Tucker.

But Tucker’s under 40 and she knows there’s a whole lot more going on these days. Like story time for kids, concerts for adults, art exhibits. Imagination is the limit.

Actually, the limit is the building

The current library building is old. The rooms are choppy and small and certainly not handicapped accessible. There’s no room to add more books and no room for some of the hottest library touring acts.

“Anywhere from jugglers to magicians to a dinosaur man,” says children’s program director Amanda Tucker. “I’d love to have the dinosaur man, but can’t because he has this huge dinosaur that he brings in that won’t fit in our library.”

Changes coming…

This fall, Vestavia Hills unveils the state’s first LEED certified library. Colin Coyne is on the library board of trustees. He’s also a LEED certified property developer.

“If you go out into the treehouse you’re 30 feet up in the air, in amongst the trees,” explains Coyne. “Therw will be a huge expansion of glass, much more open, airy space. Versus traditional libraries where everything is very much, you know, SSHHHH (he puts his fingers to his lips), be very quiet.”

The new library will have places where people can gather to talk.

* a coffee shop

* a fireplace

* lots of seating

But Coyne says it’s the stuff you won’t see that really makes this facility remarkable. The building will be 40% more water and energy efficient. And then there’s the air.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is often times the air quality inside a building is actually worse than the air quality outside a building,” Coyne says. “Even in a place like Birmingham that is notorious for air quality.”

But LEED takes care of that by requiring paints and sealants and carpets that don’t generate volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). The floors in the new building are raised, making ductwork and wiring more accessible. There’ll be individual vents in the floor that library visitors can move around to make it warmer or cooler. The floor boards will pop up for easy rewiring of computer terminals.

There will also be huge windows and lots of natural daylight. Several studies show that students who learn in classrooms with bright, natural light do better in school.

Critics (and there are some)

When construction first began and crews started clearing the lot critics dubbed The Library in the Forest … “The Library that Ate the Forest”. But Colin Coyne says it’s a bum rap.

“We took offline a property that was 10 acres, that was zoned commercial and a private developer could have come in and wiped that entire area out,” he notes.

Instead, construction crews only used a quarter of the site, leaving the remaining 7.5 acres untouched. Planners say no trees beyond 40 feet from the building were touched. And those that were cut down were repurposed. 80% of the trees that were cut down were turned into wood for use inside the new library.

There are also questions about the nearly $13 million pricetag, especially with this tough economy. Even Vestavia Hills City council members have worried there won’t be enough money to cover all the projects.

Bug Greer is chair of the library foundation, the main fundraising arm of the project. She says they still have an additional $300,000 to raise and some donors haven’t made good on their pledges.

“I’ve had a few people call me and say, we can’t do this right now. We hope to do it later. And I’ve had one of two say, hmmm, can’t do it at all,” Greer admits. “But by and large people are still telling me, we hope to make this good soon. So hang in there with us and we’ll take care of it as soon as we can.”