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Alec French Partnership has given a client strongly committed to sustainability an upto-date conference centre and offices that rework the idea of the cruck-framed long barn

If the full name does not trip off the tongue - The Kindersley Centre at Sheepdrove Organic Farm - it does begin to spell out the background to this project. Peter Kindersley, formerly of publisher Dorling Kindersley, and his wife Juliet, bought the 800ha farm at Lambourn in Berkshire some seven years ago and they have converted it to organic cultivation.

Their sustainability agenda then extended to the now-completed building on the farm, a conference facility called the Kindersley Centre, within a modern version of a cruckframed long barn. Attached to it is a rendered blockwork wing primarily housing the farm offices, some 1,500m 2 in all.

Remotely located and situated in the heart of the farm, the building sits low and sheltered on its site. Alec French Partnership has created a relatively formal, though welcoming, approach sequence with a symmetrical arrangement of wings edging a large, square, treed and paved courtyard, which faces south.

(The architecture here is a more formal composition than the other facades. ) The entrance tower is a clear marker, if somewhat overscaled - among other things it grew in size during the job to include a circular meeting room on an extra floor. The prominent red colour was the result of a collaboration with painter Juliet Kindersley, as are several other colour interventions such as the coloured eaves soffits, which are bolder than most architects would dare to be.

From the outside, the messages may at first appear mixed. Formal planning combines with a palette of exposed timber, render and shingle roofing with associations of agricultural informality. However, it is not necessarily an inherent contradiction, more the need to learn a new reading of form/scale/materials/ composition that is emerging from the work of a range of architects focused on sustainability, such as Feilden Clegg Bradley. It is this, rather than energy gismo waving, that is developing a new strand of architectural expression. For the conference-goer this building is evidently something different, with the opportunity for sustainability messages to unfold gradually within.

Approaching the building could, however, be more legible for visitor orientation.

The entrance composition is symmetrically planned yet the two wings are of different architectural 'weight', with one dominant (the Kindersley wing) and the other subservient (the office wing). On entering, the conference-goer finds that they have entered the Kindersley wing around its midpoint rather than at the end, with the office wing effectively out of bounds (except for two rooms on the first floor that are currently available as small seminar/meeting or breakout spaces from the main conference areas).

The Kindersley Centre, which leads off to both sides of this full-height entrance, is designed as a descendant of the long barn for its full length. This does not reveal itself immediately, an appropriate keeping-of-itssecrets for a building that is occupied, not transiently, but by conference delegates for hours or days. The architect has taken the opportunity to use the barn form differently in different areas of the Kindersley wing.

While the entrance hall includes a taste of the cruck structure, other elements draw the eye - reception, shop and stairs that rise partially hidden behind windowed screen walls. It is in the wing's main space that the historic debt to the cruck-framed barn is fully revealed, a spectacular reworking carried out with engineer Mark Lovell (see Working Details, pages 32-33). Rather than the randomness of traditional 'found' curved tree trunks, the arches are faceted in easily obtainable lengths of seasoned Douglas fir, with laminated timber knuckles where stresses are highest. The Douglas fir is lightly sandblasted, otherwise untreated, so the texture is highly tangible in the many places through the building where you get up close to the frame. In this main space the timber wall/roof surfaces are in ash, alongside walling of rammed earth.

Architect David Mellor first decided to try to keep the atmosphere of a working barn by having a concrete floor. This has become a slab finished in laminated oak, though still coping with requirements for rolling in vehicles for product launches and the setting up of exhibition stands. As a conference space with seating capacity for 200, it still manages to be naturally ventilated, with air inlet at ground level (heated by radiators if necessary) and exhausted through ridge ventilators. Combining these ventilators with rooflights (with motorised shading) provides remarkably good daylighting; the barn atmosphere of the space would have been compromised by more conventionally placed windows. The shading to the rooflights provides adequate grey-out for audiovisual presentations. This space has also been used successfully for a small string ensemble performance.

Following the Kindersley wing plan back through the entrance, the cruck-frame volume is now divided into two floors. The upper floor provides a meeting space with that closeup, in-the-trees feel that you often get with barn conversions. Below is the shop and stores and then the two levels come together in the restaurant, which has an eating mezzanine above the open kitchen. The connecting stair is wrapped around a large conical oven. Finally, the restaurant becomes one full-height space, with windows in all directions onto the landscape beyond.

Interior designer General Practice worked with the architect here, for example in designing the restaurant tables and, more generally, cooperating in selection of furniture and finishes, and specifically the fit-out of the shop.

The farm contributes to the sustainability message by providing produce for the restaurant, including grinding its flour, which is done in the shop. Bottled drinking water comes from a borehole 10m below ground.

In the building itself, the sustainability focus is on energy and materials. Insulation and airtightness standards are higher than Building Regulations required, ventilation is natural except for WC extracts and the kitchen (which has heat reclaim). Two domestic-scale gas boilers are enough to provide underfloor heating on the ground floor and to feed radiators on the floor above, for both wings. Gestural energy measures, such as photovoltaics and windmills, were rejected. Solar water heating preheats water only for the kitchen; demand is too low elsewhere. Generally, the ambition is to halve the energy consumption of a typical comparable building.

As the borehole supplies all water, rainwater collection was not economically viable.

There is reed-bed treatment of sewage, both human and from the nearby chickens.

Building materials are sourced locally where possible, though the shingles came from Canada. Timber comes from accredited sources and timber treatment is largely avoided; where needed, it is waterbased. Concrete from demolishing existing buildings was used in foundations, and demolition timber was sorted and used on the farm. Chalk excavated from the site was used for the rammed earth walls to the main space (the surplus went for farm landscaping).

This conference centre has a specific educational role promoting sustainability, as does the farm. This is mainly for schools, plus the occasional public open day. But as a conference venue it is a facility open to everyone. It is in a competitive market and all the usual amenities are provided, such as full cabling, plasma screens and high quality catering. (It does lack residential accommodation, though this is being considered for a site along a bank immediately to the northwest of the building. ) It succeeds as a place apart - fully functional, beautifully made, tranquil - as conference venues can usefully be. And in being provocative in its assertion that this is how buildings should become, it helps create the stimulating environment that its conference-goers need.

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