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Architype was established in the mid-1980s, with early projects that included a collaboration with Walter Segal on self-build housing in Lewisham, south-east London. Committed to a socially and environmentally responsible architecture, the practice has worked in the health, education and housing sectors, winning a Civic Trust Environment Award in 2001 for its self-build homes for the Hedgehog Housing Co-op, Brighton.

Genesis is an idea first, a building second; it is this that shaped the procurement process. The aim of Genesis is to 'explain, explore and evaluate cutting-edge thinking in sustainable construction by introducing the use of sustainable materials into the mainstream of the construction industry' - at least regionally. Even so, this is a serious ambition for Somerset College of Arts and Technology in Taunton.

It is also an ambition that, on the face of it, doesn't necessarily need a building, an option worth taking seriously following the demise of Yorkshire's Earth Centre. Certainly the Earth Centre's large scale and theme-park aspects are missing here.

But the parallels are stronger than might be expected, since despite its campus location, Genesis is not funded by the DfES but by the South West of England Regional Development Authority and the Learning and Skills Council. As a result it has to pay its own way by running courses, visits and exhibitions and hiring out the space to a range of audiences including schools, tradesmen, professional CPD participants, clients and householders, for conferences and other events.

For Genesis' own clients - principally deputy college principal Jo Matthews and head of construction Ian Moore, now the enthusiastic director of Genesis - a building was always on the agenda. But the brief was very open, seeking an exploration of what might be an appropriate built facility. So when Moore says, as he frequently does, that his 'expectations have been far exceeded by the building', these expectations were as much about the architect's ability to develop the brief as to deliver a building.

Genesis was procured through a competition, beginning with nine local(ish) architects, reduced to a shortlist of three:

Feilden Clegg Bradley, Gale & Snowden, and Architype, which won in 2002. The final competition presentations, intended in part as information-sharing, had the three teams sitting in on each others' presentations. These were voted on by some 40 stakeholders.

For such an initially uid project it is uncanny how similar to the initial competition sketches Architype's finished building is; core ideas have been carried through. Various sustainable construction technologies are represented - ones that are felt suitable to join the industry's mainstream. These are expressed in a central main pavilion (called the steel pavilion - though timber and glass set the tone), with four smaller surrounding, interlocked pavilions, respectively of earth, fired-clay blocks, straw bales and timber. Another belief held from early on, informed by client/designer visits to a range of sustainable projects, was that the architecture should look crisp rather than hairy or makeshift; it should look, potentially, mainstream.

As you approach the building's main entrance, the solid smaller anking pavilions point inwards, emphasising the transparent central space with its glass walls and oating roof.

Two rows of CHS columns run the length of the main pavilion and beyond, to the rear, the oating roof extends to become a canopy for sheltered outdoor working. Cost-cutting prevented the realisation of a central spinal rooight to this main pavilion roof; however, the resulting, simpler legibility of the plain soffit is a visual improvement.

A cost battle which was won resulted in the use of the elegant timber-finned curtain-walling system, which won out over a cheaper, standard metal system. This would have completely changed the atmosphere of the main space, which is open and relaxed, not pinched on quality like so many education buildings.

The client found the extra money.

On entering the main space you are confronted by an oval, blue-painted 'water pavilion' housing WCs that acts as a demonstration of water conservation, with air-flush waterless urinals and Corian-like basin surrounds made from recycled yoghurt pots. But this is simply a studwork enclosure, not a construction demonstration. It is questionable whether it should have been a pavilion at all, as it compromises the clarity of the main space. Only when you move beyond this area does the main space open up.

What is not in doubt here is the success of linking the pavilions into the main space. Each is like an exhibit in a gallery, breaking in through the glazed wall in a plethora of difficult but calm, well-handled detailing. The overall effect is a bit busy - as you would expect with five different construction technologies coming together - but as such it is there to be seen and not subsumed into some broader architectural agenda.

The first three pavilions each have a small cutaway within the main pavilion, showing their wall build-up. In the earth pavilion the cob and the rammed-earth, linseed oil-finished walls are exposed as the interior finish; the cob-block wall is made of part-exposed blocks (to show underlying construction), partfinished in a wax-polished earth plaster. It's a beautiful surface - everyone was looking at it. Yet it also evokes some sense of contradiction in this building, which on the surface looks otherwise conventional - there are some varying render and plaster effects plus timber lining boards, but at a glance nothing unusual.

Beneath these surfaces the base building technologies are much more radical. If these conventional surfaces aim to reassure potential occupiers that sustainable buildings can be made to look like any other, they succeed. But these conventional clothes won't hide the radical underlying technology from people in the industry; they will see right through them. So why not be more daring with surfaces too? (Of course, Genesis might still; surfaces could be remade in future to look a bit less mainstream. ) While construction varies from pavilion to pavilion, some systems are common. For example a 37kW biomass boiler drives underoor heating, which can be fed with a variety of timber fuels such as pellets and chips, as well as using sawdust and shavings waste from the college workshops. Roofs drain into a continuous open U-plan channel along the south, west and north sides of the main pavilion, running under the four side-pavilions as part of a SUDS (sustainable urban drainage system). This channel is stepped in section with the upper level, to be planted with reeds. Much of the water is expected to be lost by evaporation, but there is also a weir on the north side draining into a gravel bed, and if this becomes overcharged, water runs to the campus drainage system.

On the roof, evacuated-tube solar collectors will preheat water (little is needed in this building), and a row of photovoltaic panels provides electrical contribution and a renewables demonstration.

The single-storey building is naturally ventilated by opening windows, although there are also discreet wind-catching units on the lecture theatre roof. There is no grey-water recycling - Architype feels that for a smallish building such as this, the equipment and energy costs of collecting the water and pumping it up to tanks would outweigh the other benefits.

Building this mix of construction technologies was inevitably complex and an extended period, some 15 months, was allowed for it. The main contractor, D B Russell Construction, was selected for value, experience and willingness to engage with the strangeness of it all. Site agent Mike Preston began as a sceptic, but has since, he says, become an advocate.

Some work, such as laying the cob blocks and the timber framing, was something different for conventional tradesmen to learn. The more radically different work, such as the rammed earth and straw bale, came from specialists as subcontractor packages, and the architect sat in on subcontractor interviews. D B Russell's managing director, Paul Kempton, sees these technologies as too expensive to take up currently if cost is the only measure, but the cob blocks particularly were straightforward and the straw bale simpler than expected (see also cost data, page 35).

The building has come together and everyone is giving each other a justified pat on the back for getting this far. But sustainability is very much about the longer term. As to whether Genesis will succeed, you can only wish it well. In durability, it should be able to prove itself. In exibility, what is the future?

Director Ian Moore said he would be happy if this building became a victim of its own success; if the now-radical construction technologies joined the mainstream; and if in a few years' time some of the pavilions were dismantled, recycled and replaced with more radical technologies. The building's mixed architecture provides for that aspiration.

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