The new Enterprise Centre at the university of  East Anglia is an exemplar low carbon building that delivers several impressive sustainability objectives, achieving ’BREEAM Outstanding’ and full  Passive House certification through its use of locally sourced materials and renewable energy sources.

Volume 25, No.05 - May 2017

Natural Surroundings

36 Million Reasons To Use Natural Materials 


Too often, and to many people’s eyes, a high proportion of modern buildings can seem disconnected from the environments they inhabit, their form, scale and materials appearing alien and lacking that special characteristic the Romans referred to as genius loci: the spirit of the place. 


This can especially be the case in areas of outstanding natural landscape and sites of special scientific interest, where indigenous materials have been ignored in favour of more contemporary technologies. There are many laudable reasons that can influence specification of the latter, such as durability, finish, maintenance and security, but lately the tectonic plates of contemporary design have been shifting as more and more architects reconnect with traditional materials and construction methods. Far from being a nostalgic impulse, the aim here is to better understand bio-based materials in order to make innovative use of them to deliver healthy, sustainable buildings from these renewable sources.
Some building types lend themselves more easily to their materials being reconsidered from a contemporary design perspective than others and none more so than the category that embraces visitor facilities: a range of buildings also variously described as ‘discovery’, environmental’ and ‘interpretation’ centres.
There is no real mystery as to why this should be so: as a typology this group has few, if any, historical precedents that might restrict design options and material selection. The first example in the UK emerged as recently as the early 1970s in the bespoke Landmark Visitor Centre at Carrbridge, near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Designed by John L. Paterson, this timber-clad building was very much ahead of its time but, in the intervening period since, many different architectural approaches have emerged in response to the basic enigma of the visitor centre brief: generally speaking these buildings are not themselves the subject of the visit but merely the introduction or gateway to the actual attraction, be it a historic building, a battlefield, a distillery or a nature reserve. Understandably therefore, the solutions can show remarkable variation, and whilst there is often the desire on the designer’s part to produce something distinctive and perhaps even decidedly unusual, the fact is that the purpose of these buildings absolutely demands that they should complement, rather than compete with, the visitor’s intended primary experience. 

Vertical thatching: prefabricated thatch panels provide a unique cassette cladding system

The interiors of first floor meeting rooms are each finished in a different natural material - reed, earth and clay plaster whilst also displaying the glulam beams and columns of the building’s primary structural timber frame.

This is not to suggest that the architecture of these projects should be invisible or even lacking in quality. The best examples can be seen to combine sensitivity to their position on the site, to the landscape that surrounds them and to the selection of materials employed: factors that are as true in countries throughout Europe and North America (where many well designed visitor facilities are to be found) as they are in the UK. Take, for example, ‘Ataria’, the Nature Interpretation Centre for the Salburua Wetlands that sits close to the centre of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque region of Spain. This project by Madrid-based QVE Arquitectos is the visual focus of an ambitious environmental restoration and reclamation plan for the outskirts of the city, with exhibition areas designed to introduce the values, functions and importance of the Salburua lake system that forms parts of the Green Belt surrounding the Basque capital. 
In silhouette, the building could be interpreted as having the form of some long-necked pre-historic creature about to drink from a pool, with its skeleton exposed for all the world to see. Yet, fundamentally, this is a very modern, environmentally-conscious building, the structure of which, set on an auto-compactable concrete plinth, is predominantly - and very visibly - assembled from glue laminated timber (glulam), the large-scale sections of which remains uncovered, inside and out. Conventional construction materials such as asphalt and plastics have been avoided by the architects in their determination to create a truly sustainable building: the orchestration of the huge timber frames produces rhythmic patterns of light and shade within, whilst at the same time delivering valuable cross-ventilation that obviates the need for air conditioning. Water too, is simply allowed to run off the structure (this being a wetland area), thus removing the necessity for - and expense of - a surface water drainage system. 
It is the structure of Ataria, though, that umbilically connects it to its place and provides it with its truly unique quality. Yes, it’s made of wood, but the wood here has been asked to do things that were never possible in traditional timber buildings: a hybrid of glulam connected with steel rods and bolts allows the creature’s long neck to cantilever an astonishing 21-metres, making it possible for visitors to walk out over the water below, ostensibly defying gravity in the search for a better view of the area’s rich variety of wildlife. 
A quite different building form is to be found in south-east Sweden in the west of the Östergötland county and approximately halfway between Gothenburg and Stockholm. The Lake Tåkern Bird Sanctuary is an enormous wetland area renowned for its special flora and rich bird life, with over 270 bird species to be found in abundance here each year. As such, it is considered to be a kind of paradise for both birds and visitors and, in response to the need for better access to this extraordinary place, an architectural competition was held in 2007. The building that resulted from the winning design (by Wingårdh Arkitektkontor AB) opened a full five years later and is possibly one of the most extraordinary examples of nature-sensitive architecture to be found anywhere in Europe today. In conceptual terms, the architects aimed for duality in the building’s design: on the one hand the desire to make it discreet and almost invisible, exerting minimal visual impact on the landscape, whilst on the other, giving the new visitor facility a form and textural quality that are highly specific to its function and location.

Whilst the outer facades are heavily insulated with thatch, the inner courtyard elevations feature timber cladding and large windows to facilitate maximum daylight penetration

Raised on stilts to ensure minimum impact on its site, the building mediates the space between the forest and the lake, its angular composition entirely covered with straw. A small portion of the lake’s reeds are cut every year in the early Spring and the 2011 harvest from the Väversunda Farm was used to cover the ‘Naturum’ visitor centre: some 36 million reeds in all. Unquestionably a traditional cladding technique, the thatch has been used here to define a building that has been ‘folded’ to create an outdoor room metaphorically open to the birds and the sky above. The steeply pitching folds generate forms that seem to be at one with their natural surroundings but which, from a technical point of view, give the material an estimated lifespan of more than 50 years. The ridge is traditionally the most vulnerable part of a thatched roof, but here it is covered with glass, bathing the exhibitions below in natural light. So yes, a time-honoured material used to cover a building that would be hard to describe as being anything other than of the 21st century. 
Concern to find contemporary uses for natural materials in natural environments may still be something of a niche interest area in architecture, however, but some of its most creative practitioners have recently been exploring this territory to great effect. One such is Dorte Mandrup, one of Denmark’s finest architects and a woman who has, in project after project, shown real imagination in rethinking established uses of materials. In updating and extending the original Wadden Sea Centre near the small town of Ribe in south west Jutland, she and her team have recently demonstrated how, even on the raw coastal mudflats that form the Wadden Sea Region (the world’s largest contiguous tidal system and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sees 15 million birds stop to feed on their migratory journey along the East Atlantic Flyway), traditional materials can prove resilient to the weather if they properties are fully understood and they are detailed correctly. To achieve this here, the profile of the building has been kept long and low - so much so that it appears to have emerged from the ground, whilst firmly rooted in its environment and regional culture. 
Traditionally, the area’s farmhouses have been four-winged affairs and, in adding to the existing three-wing building, the architects have positioned the new extension to provide a fourth side to shelter the exposed courtyard. The two previous examples given here can be seen in their forms to be without architectural precedent but here the intention has been to create a sculptural re-interpretation of the region's indigenous building culture, i.e. to root it in its place and time, pointing to the future whilst also referencing its past: genius loci indeed. 
The roof planes and walls of the updated visitor centre are formed from long lengths of Robinia, a hardwood species that is both robust and resistant to fungi and termites (and here blackened to avoid  the kind of colour variation that can be caused by differential weathering) whilst those of the new, seaward-facing exhibition building reach almost to the ground and are comprised entirely of thickly bedded thatch. The material here is unusual and appropriate to its natural situation: harvested from nearby fields, the thatch takes on salt from the sea air whilst drying, a process not dissimilar to traditional methods of preserving fish. Hung from lightweight timber panels supported by a steel frame, the straw was laid, sewed and patted into the final roof forms and walls by a team of eleven thatchers to deliver the timeless, hand-finished effect synonymous with this weather-dependent craft. 
Architecture, as universally taught nowadays, rarely includes instruction on the properties, uses and techniques involved in traditional construction. In this context, these three very different, but very modern, buildings demonstrate exemplary contemporary use of natural materials in natural environments. They are, in effect, applied research projects from which others can learn and perhaps seek to surpass.