March 16, 2018

UpClose: Rooted in Nature | Library by Design, Fall 2015


The Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest opened in 2010 as Alabama’s first LEED Gold–certified library. The library takes its forest namesake very seriously: fewer than 25 percent of the trees on the site were disturbed in the building’s construction, and no tree more than 40 feet from the building was cut down. Of those that were removed, more than 80 percent were reincorporated into the library itself. The ceilings are made of pine; the entry hall is poplar; the service desks, fireplace exterior cladding, and doors to the community room are made of oak.

The trees that remain in place around the structure help shield the building from sun and keep cooling costs down (in the winter, with branches bare, sun comes in to help with heating). There’s a rooftop garden to improve insulation, minimize the heat island effect, and allow patrons to commune with the natural surroundings.

The 35,000 square foot facility replaces one roughly 12,000 square feet smaller just up the street that was located in a former medical office, next to a strip mall, and lacking parking and the ability to expand technology access. The new library’s feel is different, built into the side of a hill on nine wooded, rolling acres of the Wald Estate, adjacent to the Boulder Creek Nature Trail. As a result, more than seven and a half acres of commercially zoned property have been preserved from uses that might destroy their current forest cover. The library postdates the trails, but it makes the most of them, offering outdoor programming in partnership with groups such as Keep Vestavia Green, the Alabama Audubon Trail and Wildlife Society, and area scout troops.

Green inside and out

Inside the library, each of the four levels offers an immediate connection to the natural environment. The upper mezzanine holds the rooftop garden as well as two study rooms; the main level houses a rooftop terrace that extends into the forest as well as the main service desk, adult services, the computer classroom, the café, the fireplace area, the bookstore, and the community room. A lower level contains an all-ages glass tree house as well as children’s services, the children’s programming room, teen services, the boardroom, and administrative services. The lowest level incorporates an outdoor amphitheater, classroom, and trail.

“When visitors enter the building they will feel as if they’re among the trees, suspended 30 feet in the air,” Colin Coyne, a LEED-certified property developer and chair of the library Board of Trustees, told Construction Equipment Guide Southeast Edition. “By sacrificing two and a half acres of trees, we have created [a setting in which] 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.”

The forest theme continued through donor recognition: a donor wall created by Method-1 Custom Interiors includes contributors’ names superimposed over a large forest image and a second one features a Buy-a-Leaf program.

Planning for the library began in 2004, but groundbreaking didn’t occur until 2009. Coyne oversaw the visioning for the $12.7 million project, part of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative; Renta Landscape Architecture conducted the site selection and investigation, master planning, and Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility design.

Continued growth

This spring, the library won the Alabama Library Association’s highest honor, Gold Medal Library, according to Director Taneisha Young Tucker. Tucker tells LBD that the impact of the new building has lasted. Programming is up 80 percent year over year, she says. Circulation had risen about 20–25 percent annually since the opening, until most recently it saw a slight drop in favor of a growing use of media and downloadables, mirroring national trends.

The Library in the Forest is “about to embark upon a Maker space,” says Tucker, in what was formerly the café, and has continued to add programming and features that play into the natural theme, including geocaching on the nearby trails, “Spooky Tales on Spooky Trails” in October, and a summer concert series in which patrons in the outdoor amphitheater listen to performers beneath the forest canopy. One new improvement, while less green, speaks to the enduring popularity of the library—after “constant complaints,” the library has just completed a larger parking lot.

This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Dianne Milam says:

    I’m a retired Librarian from Ivalee Elementary in Etowah County. I would love to have a tour your library!

    After less than a year of retirement, I still have a love and a yearning to be in some form of
    library-media experiences!!

    Maybe we could discuss some interests!