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Blooms with a view

Hodder Associates has designed a 160m long inhabited wall as part of the transformation of a scruffy Merseyside park into the UK's first wildflower centre

William Ewart Gladstone may have been the great liberal reformer but his family's wealth was rooted in the Liverpool slave trade. One of several family seats built around Merseyside, Court Hey Park has been unapologetically reclaimed by Hodder Associates' new National Wildflower Centre.

The Landlife Trust - a small charity based in Liverpool which creates new wildflower habitats for Britain's fast-disappearing native species - had already earmarked the park, on the border of Liverpool and Knowsley but owned by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, for new offices and a visitor centre. Landlife had outgrown its cramped premises in an old police station and wanted to increase its activities and interface with the public.

An astonishing 97 per cent of British meadowland has been lost since the Second World War. The National Wildflower Centre - the first in the country and only the second in the world after the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre in Texas - would be set up as an independent charity fostered by Landlife for botanical research but also to involve the public in creative conservation.

Demonstration gardens, educational areas and a shop would be integral to the project.

It may seem contradictory to site such a romantic sounding venture as a wildflower centre in a scruffy suburban park by the M62 and less than five miles from Liverpool city centre. But wild flowers thrive in the poor soils of environmentally degraded conditions and Landlife wanted to stay close to its urban roots. Landlife has worked closely with Knowsley for many years. Most of its new wildflower habitats and its 40ha of land for seed cultivation are in the borough - to the extent that Knowsley is now dubbed 'the wildflower borough' - so it was a natural step to relocate to Court Hey Park.

Stephen Hodder admits that he was worried that he would be working with 'hairy hippies in hedgerows' when he won the competition for the centre in 1996, but he was quickly disabused of the notion when he met Landlife's forward-thinking director, Grant Luscombe. Luscombe wanted a contemporary building that reflected the aims of the centre: to conserve natural habitats for future generations. He got it with Hodder's 160m long concrete and glass 'working wall', which despite, or perhaps because of, its unabashed modernist principles is a deeply romantic building.

The Gladstone house was demolished after the war and, while the park was freely accessible to the public, its position on the fringe of the borough meant it was rather neglected, its meaning gone without the house. The remaining Victorian stable block and what was left of the old walled kitchen garden had been used by KMBC as a plant nursery but was latterly little more than a junkyard. In 1995, a £1.9 million Millennium Commission grant meant that Landlife could instigate phase 1, to refurbish the stable block and move in while it raised funds for the new centre, which is one of only four projects to be granted national status.

Rather than follow the footprint of the old house, Hodder's response was to relocate the new building closer to what would have been the working centre of Court Hey, incorporating the Victorian walled garden which is where the flowers are grown (Landlife supplies 50 per cent of the UK wildflower seeds market), and so, arguably, the heart of the project. Landlife wanted to encourage people to walk around the site and be able to see the flowers and also to use the building to learn more about conservation. But private work areas were also needed for the staff. Hodder solved this with a deceptively simple plan where visitors can indeed walk round and into the building, and also through, and up, and on top, and even at one point under it.

The 35-acre park is a pear-shaped site enclosed by housing and bounded at the narrow eastern tip - where the entrance is - by the bulwark of the M62. Despite this, the long driveway and the many trees make it a protected, womb-like site.

'We identified a clear separation in the quality of the landscape between the east and west of the park, ' explains Hodder.

'There was a dead zone running through the middle and the idea was to form a link and revivify the park with the new building also acting as a threshold from the areas of activity into the rest of the park beyond.'

Hodder wanted to acknowledge the remnants of the old estate: the walled kitchen garden; a circular parterre with steps leading up to where the house was sited; some stone sleepers from the nearby Liverpool to Manchester railway, where Stephenson's Rocket chugged past on its historic maiden journey; and, of course, its many mature trees. All these disparate elements would be brought into play by the new building, what Hodder calls 'discovering the latent order of the site'.

The long building runs roughly northeast to south-west across the middle of the park, forming a single-storey 'inhabited' fourth garden wall, just 4m wide. But from a single axis the arrangement of its different functions and elements, inside and out, creates a fluidity that its form belies. The dominant material is natural grey concrete but there are glazed sections and green oak cladding which soften it. The green oak is also used for hydraulic shutters that close over the glazed areas, a necessary security measure. This tactile palette is inverted where the building is occupied, for example, in the only internal corridor which houses the plant rooms and leads to the offices.

Hodder has taken every opportunity to blur the distinction between interior and exterior, sculpting and punctuating the concrete until the building is an element within the landscape. It may not be California or even Illinois, but it pays more than passing homage to Farnsworth and other modernist houses in its relationship to landscape.

Details such as 'floating' steps and decking cut respectfully around trees, and its essentially domestic scale and feel.

At its southern end it cantilevers over the remains of the Victorian brick wall, forming an enclosure for the outdoor growing and seed processing areas. Landlife's offices are sited at this, the more private end of the building. At its north, more permeable and more public, end it noses into a copse of mature trees. Here the zigzag of a stairway up to the roof is expressed over an outdoor children's activity area.

The 'wall' is broken through at entry point, about two fifths from the north end.

So what is revealed to the visitor approaching from the front courtyard is not a doorway in a facade but a vista through to the old parterre, now tagged the forget-menot garden, with its magnificent beech tree, and the parkland beyond. This picks up the existing route through the park and draws people in and through. Under the cut through, which the roof spans, the interior areas are divided to left and right. The allimportant shop is sited to the right, with the offices beyond. To the left is a glazed cafe area, a conference room and the external children's activity area. Both the shop and the conference room can spill outside on to wooden decking at the back.

The back of the building is, if anything, richer and more expressive than the front.

The cafe area incorporates an old ranger's hut, which Hodder decided would widen the cafe and house the kitchen and toilets and from the outside would divide the outdoor sales area from the conference room decking. A children's play area and an Environment Agency garden complete the external plan. Big, coloured pebbles encourage children to climb the old wall, the enduring thickness of which the back elevation expresses rather than trying to hide it, with a high strip of steel framed glazing to link it to the new wall.

As with all Hodder's buildings, it is the roof which unifies. 'No matter what goes on underneath, the roof is a constant, ' he says.

Here, the roof comes into its own as a walkway and orientation device, accessed from open stairways at either end of the building.

It is a vantage point from which visitors can view the centre's activities as a whole and the flat town and landscape beyond, provoking a feeling of nostalgia as if you had climbed a tree in the park. And it's on the roof, of course, that you get the full sense of the building's unrelenting length. Hodder sees the National Wildflower Centre as a distillation of all his earlier buildings. 'There's a continuity of thinking but also a maturing, enjoying its materials but respecting its place to attain a new simplicity.' It is not so simple that it eschews ambiguity, nor so rational that it dispenses with romance.

Structure

The expansion of the National Wildflower Centre on the outskirts of Liverpool has resulted in a striking building solution, in essence comprising a single-storey linear structural form stretching over 125m, while being only 5m wide. The development houses new multimedia exhibition facilities for the centre and seamlessly links new facilities to existing.

The plan location and form of the building has been carefully chosen to dissect the site with minimum impact on the sensitive nature of its vegetation.

The new structure makes extensive use of high-quality exposed in situ reinforced concrete to provide clean, simple architectural lines, in conjunction with the complementary use of high-quality steelwork detailing along the elevations. Green oak was also used extensively in the hydraulic window shutters and areas of surrounding landscape.

The superstructure consists principally of an in situ reinforced concrete three-sided box, which is largely fully glazed to one elevation. Cruciform cross-section steel columns provide vertical support to the roof deck above this elevation.

To the southern end of the building a concrete zigzag stair cantilevers sideways from an adjacent concrete wing wall. To the northern end, cantilevered flank walls provide support to a 'look-no-hands' staircase and landing. Additional support is provided at landing level by a 'flying' parapet which spans between the principal structure and a 4m high freestanding concrete wall.

Due to the length of the structure, significant thermal movements were expected. These were minimised by the introduction of four intermediate expansion joints along the length of the building, disguised as recessed formwork feature joints. Feature cruciform section stanchions are positioned centrally on such joints and the predicted movements necessitated the use of cast in column head sliding bearing plates.

Existing site features included a park ranger's single-storey office, together with five mature poplar trees immediately alongside. This building had already revealed significant signs of differential foundation settlement, due to the seasonal fluctuation of groundwater (poplars being a very high-water demand species) but was, however, to be reused as part of the planned development. The poplar trees were to be felled during the initial stages of the contract. To stabilise the loadbearing masonry structure, a concrete ring beam was cast on to the existing walls at eaves level. In addition, structural connections between the new development and the existing building were designed to articulate should further movement occur.

Foundations for the new structure consisted of pads and strips into the underlying boulder clay. Foundation depths varied to take into consideration expected variations in ground moisture content following the felling of the poplars.

A mature horse chestnut tree is located at the extreme north end of the building. Strip and pad foundations were not considered suitable in this locality, as they would have compromised the tree roots. As an alternative, small-diameter steel piles were adopted, which had minimal impact on the rooting systems.

The exceptional quality of concrete finish was achieved using a filmfaced plywood, supplied in non-standard sheet sizes to suit the preferred locality of feature joints. A traditional grey concrete was desired by the architect and no particular mix design parameters were set other than for strength. The standard of surface finish was further enhanced by the use of special techniques and equipment for vibrating the concrete, resulting in a denser, more durable surface with fewer blow-holes.

Pre-tender meetings with the reinforced concrete subcontractor, John Doyle Construction, had a significant impact on the way the constructional details were developed and refined, leading to optimum buildability during the construction period. This was one important and successful aspect of the project, which highlighted the benefit of early contractor involvement on what was otherwise a traditional form of procurement.

Costs Costs based on tender sum.

SUBSTRUCTURE

FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £176.75/m2

RC Slab incorporating full length services duct; ground beams; dpm; clayboard methane protection; localised piling between gridlines 28 and 31.

SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £333.91/m2

RC walls and columns generally; cruciform columns to glazed openings.

ROOF £42.96/m2

Main roof - RC slab with asphalt and rigid board insulation over; paving slabs to form roof terrace walkway; kitchen roof - plywood deck on steel rafters, with single membrane on expanded polystyrene insulation; stone ballast.

ROOF LIGHTS £35.69/m2

Single-glazed laminated glass on steel rafters (67m 2tocafe area).

STAIRCASES £5.61/m2

RC stairs to enable access to roof terrace.

EXTERNAL WALLS £40.78/m2

Unseasoned english oak boarding to north-west elevation, on vertical oak battens, rigid insulation board; stainless steel fixings to RC wall.

WINDOWS £163.93/m2

Structural double-glazed screens, silicon jointing; double glazed steel framed opening lights; oak boarded hydraulic shutters to glazed screens.

EXTERNAL DOORS £14.13/m2

Double-glazed steel-framed doors; solid oak timber panelled doors with steel frames.

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £11.87/m2

Blockwork partition walls.

INTERNAL DOORS £43.37/m2

Oak veneered solid core flush doors with steel angle frames.

INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £14.31/m2

Oak veneered MDF panelling; plasterboard dry linings and plaster finish; clean board lining to kitchen; laminate panelling to WCs; fairfaced concrete elsewhere.

FLOOR FINISHES £50.42/m2

American oak strip flooring to cafe and shop areas; cord carpet to office/circulation areas generally; studded rubber sheet flooring to kitchen and WCs; coir entrance matting;80mm heavy-duty floor screed.

CEILING FINISHES £9.34/m2

Plasterboard/emulsion to kitchen/WC block; fairfaced concrete elsewhere.

FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS FURNITURE £67.36/m2

Provisional sums for reception desk, shop fit out, kitchen equipment, cafe equipment and other miscellaneous fixtures, fittings and equipment.

SERVICES MECHANICAL SERVICES £16.31/m2

SANITARY APPLIANCES £22.19/m2

Sanitary ware to male, female and disabled WC; cleaners sink.

DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £1.70/m2

Copper/UPVC soil and waste system.

WATER INSTALLATIONS £8.28/m2

Hot water from colorfier; mains and boosted cold water service; distributed via service trench to WCs, staff kitchen and main kitchen.

SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £62.37/m2

Gas fired boiler providing LTHW heating to finned pipe heat emitters and calorifier; extract fans to WCs.

ELECTRICAL SERVICES £73.34/m2

General LV power, with floor boxes to office/cafe/circulation areas; lighting, luminaires recessed into soffit of structural slab generally; emergency lighting.

LIFT AND CONVEYOR INSTALLATIONS £14.61/m2

Disabled platform lift providing access from the ground floor to the roof terrace.

PROTECTIVE INSTALLATIONS £20.77/m2

Fire detection/alarm installation; lightning protection; provisional sums for intruder alarm and entry control systems.

BUILDERS'WORK IN CONNECTION £21.91/m2

Forming holes etc as required for M&E works.

PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES PRELIMINARIES £196.75/m2

Contractors site management staff and site set up; insurances.

EXTERNAL WORKS LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £348,858

Oak decking to external sales area; oak decked access ramps and steps, car park and associated lighting and soft landscaping; gravel surfacing to courtyard; miscellaneous gates and fencing; play equipment; external services, drainage and CCTV ducting; corrugated steel clad steel framed lean-to shed for seed processing activities.

Cost summary

Cost per m2 Per cent (£) of total

SUBSTRUCTURE 176.75 12.17

SUPERSTRUCTURE

Frame 333.91 23.00

Roof 42.96 2.96

Roof lights 35.69 2.46

Staircases 5.61 0.39

External walls 40.78 2.81

Windows 163.93 11.29

External doors 14.13 0.97

Internal walls and partitions 11.87 0.82

Internal doors 43.37 2.99

Group element total 692.27 47.69

INTERNAL FINISHES

Wall finishes 14.31 0.99

Floor finishes 50.42 3.47

Ceiling finishes 9.34 0.64

Group element total 74.07 5.10

FITTINGS AND FURNITURE 67.36 4.64

SERVICES

Mechanical services 16.31 1.12

Sanitary appliances 22.19 1.53

Disposal installations 1.70 0.12

Water installations 8.28 0.57

Space heating and air treatment 62.37 4.30

Electrical services 76.34 5.26

Lift and conveyor installation 14.61 1.01

Protective installations 20.77 1.43

Builders work in connection 21.92 1.51

Group element total 244.49 16.85

PRELIMINARIES 196.75 13.55

TOTAL 1,451.69 100.00

Costs supplied by Davis Langdon & Everest

WEBLINKS DAVIS

LANGDON & EVEREST www.davislangdon.com

WHITBY BIRD www.whitbybird.com

CREDITS

CLIENT Landlife

ARCHITECT Hodder Associates: Stephen Hodder, Maurice Shapero (project architect), Martin Gibson, Victoria Hilton

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davis Langdon & Everest

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Whitby Bird & Partners

MECHANICAL & ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Rybka Battle

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Robert Rummey Associates Landscape Projects

MAIN CONTRACTOR Moss Northern

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS seed processing shed J Wareing & Sons; mechanical A & T Engineering; windows Metal Casements; electrical D & B Electrical; sanitaryware Armitage Venesta Washroom Systems; above ground drainage Fullflow; anti slip flooring stair inserts Permadec Systems; doors, timber cladding, decking, internal oak panelling Miller Joinery; steel ramps L & M Engineering Service; structural steelwork Steelbeam; fencing Lewbuild Fence Products (North West ); structural concrete John Doyle Construction; glazing Solaglas; shop display units Point Eight; furniture Ralph Capper Interiors; ironmongery Allgood; kitchen equipment CEM Catering Equipment; lighting Concord Lighting; Erco Lighting; fibredeck external surfacing to courtyard Colas; flooring Junckers; Heckmondwlke FB; Dalsouple Direct; concrete paviors to roof deck Marshalls Clay Products; roofing Troca l Waterproofing; signage The Knack; hyraulic security shutters Taurus Littrow International; servery Compass Shopfitters; disabled platford lift Morris Vermaport; steel ramps, staircases and fences Ash Construction Products

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