Library of Birmingham – a green building for the future

Everyone loves the Library of Birmingham, recently voted as building of the year by readers of Architects’ Journal. Did you realise that it is the most environmentally friendly new building Birmingham has seen?
The most eye-catching environmental features are the living roofs.  They deliberately mimic the local topography, geology and flora, to attract invertebrates and birds that live locally.  The Discovery Terrace on Level 3 and the Secret Garden on Level 7, grow flowers that occur in wild areas around the canals and railways, along with fruit and aromatic herbs such as dill, sage and lavender which people grow in courtyards and window boxes around city centre apartments.  Level 10 features a brown roof, a rubble-strewn post-industrial landscape, to attract one of Birmingham’s most rare and iconic birds, the Black Redstart.  Bird boxes attract local species including the peregrine falcon.  Using three levels reflects the geodiversity of Birmingham – a ‘city of soft hills’, as described by Library architect Francine Houben.  The living roofs insulate in winter, cool in summer and alleviate flood risk by absorbing rainwater.

The Library opened during a mini-heatwave in September 2013.  How many modern buildings over-heat at the mere hint of summer?  Not so the Library of Birmingham.  Once more the Library works with the local environment rather than against it, to achieve a comfortable working temperature.  Cold groundwater from an aquifer under Broad Street is used to provide low-carbon air conditioning to the building.

The building is connected to the Broad Street Combined Heat and Power network (CHP).  This is a mini power station, which, unlike conventional power stations, re-uses the waste heat from electricity generation.  The CHP also supplies efficient, low-carbon electricity and heat to the ICC, the Rep theatre, the Hyatt, and other buildings around Broad Street.

These features helped the Library to achieve a prestigious ‘Excellent’ rating its the BREAAM sustainable buildings assessment.  Other environmentally friendly features include maximising daylight and natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting, and minimising energy used in construction.  Wind turbines and solar panels are good things but the Library shows that there are many ways to minimise the environmental impact of a building.

Of course, not everyone can use an aquifer to cool their building, or construct a living roof on their home.  But everyone can be inspired to do something to save energy and water, especially if you do things in the right order:

-        Don’t use energy and water that you don’t need.  Use your heating controls.  Don’t spend too long in the shower.  Leave the car at home if possible.

-        Use energy more efficiently.  Insulate the walls and roof of your home.  Use energy efficient appliances and heating systems.

-        When you’ve done the first two, then you can consider using renewable energy – solar hot water systems or solar electricity are a good investment.

The Library of Birmingham shows the future for high-quality, low carbon buildings in cities like Birmingham.

By Phil Beardmore who can be reached on @philbeardmore or take a look at his blog here.