The Library of Birmingham


Aside from Manchester, Birmingham is the only other major city, outside London, to undergo a major urban regeneration scheme. Providing state-of-the-art learning facilities is a key aspect of this scheme and the Library of Birmingham clearly highlights Birmingham City Council’s desire to ensure that these facilities are accessible to every single visitor. I recently visited the library and will briefly highlight its incredible design and award-winning sustainable features.


The 10 storey structure, built at an estimated cost of £189 million, forms part of Birmingham’s Big City Plan – a 20 year initiative that’s set to redefine the city’s infrastructure. With Francine Houben of Dutch firm, Mecanoo, acting as the main architect behind the project, engineering firm, Buro Happold, provided key structural engineering services. The 60m (200ft) structure consists of four stacked terraces that narrow with increasing height. The uppermost section of the library, the yellow rotunda, houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room. Upon arriving at the complex, you are greeted by the overarching cantilever at the entrance of the library, which provides shade from the elements. A grand amphitheatre-like crater beside the library (it’s actually connected to it) brings in natural light to the base of the structure. You would expect to see this kind of a display at the Ancient Theatre of Fourvière in Lyon, France.

The Library of Birmingham's cantilevered roof and amphitheatre-like crater
The library’s cantilevered roof and amphitheatre-like crater beside it

The outer facade is adorned with an intricate filigree metal framework paying homage to Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter and industrial past (see below). You can’t help but admire the gleaming steel interlocking rings, in gold and silver, complementing the dark glass panels on the facade of the building.

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It is especially stunning when the sun shines through them and casts shadows onto the library floor. Particularly striking, for me, was the harmony between the angular strong rectangular lines, providing uniformity and order, coupled with the circular metal rings signifying infinite creativity and freedom of expression.


The library’s ‘Excellent’ BREEAM rating is reassuring as the building seeks to minimise its carbon footprint. Among many sustainable features, the following three stood out to me:

  • Low carbon energy technology – the library uses low carbon energy technology to power the building’s heating and cooling systems. By utilising CHP (combined heat and power), a by-product of electrical/mechanical processes, waste heat is recycled effectively reducing carbon emissions and cutting maintenance costs. Ground source heat pumps are also adopted – excellent at recycling heat and powering the building.
  • Efficient water usage technology – the library incorporates effective rainwater harvesting and groundwater to power its cooling systems.
  • Roof terraces – the biophilia trend shows no signs of decline and the two roof gardens – level 3 (Discovery Terrace) and level 7 (Secret Garden) – reinforce this statement. Echoing Birmingham’s gently sloping hills, specific perennials and shrubs have been incorporated into the roof terraces. Aimed at attracting wildlife as well as improving biodiversity, there is a focus on increasing certain insect and bird species in and around the area.
The roof terraces at the Library of Birmingham
The roof terraces incorporated into the structure


The library naturally attracts visitors to its doors not just for its fantastic facilities on offer, but also for its breath-taking design. It has created a long-lasting legacy for the city and with the adjacent Paradise Birmingham complex due for completion in 2025, will no doubt continue to enhance the city’s cultural and leisure offering. Its intricate detail, evident in its facade, is a great blend of traditional and modern design techniques that showcase the city’s appreciation of its past and its positive outlook towards the future. A structure conscious of minimising its carbon footprint is encouraging to see, especially when one considers that buildings are responsible for almost half of all global energy use. A single building cannot do it all, but I would hope to see more sustainable architecture emerge around Birmingham to follow the excellent example that the library has already set.

*Houben is the co-founder of leading Dutch architectural firm, Mecanoo Architecten.

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