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Joanna van Heyningen and Birkin Haward set up van Heyningen and Haward Architects in 1983. Since then the practice has worked on schools and university buildings, a range of cultural projects, and on facilities for clients such as the National Trust - its Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre won a RIBA Award, a Civic Trust Award and a Wood Award. Current schemes include the New Court at Clare College, Cambridge The cold wind that blows across Rainham Marshes (even in the uncannily mild autumn we have just experienced) is the wind that whistles across the Fens, braces body and soul at Cromer and echoes through Britten's Peter Grimes. This is the beginning of East Anglia (though it's - just - within the M25, 19km from central London and 1km from the Dartford Crossing), a bleakly beautiful place where the Thames runs wide under a big sky and the drab modern housing, industrial sheds and superstores of what was once rural Essex fade into insignificance.

East Anglia is the native territory of Birkin Haward of van Heyningen and Haward (VHH). Working with Norman Foster in the 1970s, Haward was a key member of the team that designed the Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich. More recently, VHH has completed a conference and events centre at the Suffolk Showground in the Ipswich suburbs (AJ Specification 09.06) a reworking of the classic agricultural shed that was the precedent too for the practice's National Trust visitor centre at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. 'We are not afraid to take up the same idea again and rework similar ideas', VHH states. 'We see our work as a continuation of a typology of available architectural forms'.

These are sensible thoughts that underpin all the practice's work - its intelligent reworking of the classic Charles Holden themes of the 1930s makes its West Ham Underground station, for example, one of the (under-rated) highlights of the Jubilee Line Extension.

In short, there is a clear philosophical base to VHH's work and, to some degree, a recognisable VHH 'look': rational, contextual and reecting a passionate interest in materials. The environment and education centre at Rainham, commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which opened in October, is a project which, in Haward's words, 'bucks the received style for buildings of this type'. In other words, far from being crumbly, self-consciously rustic and too obviously rooted in vernacular modes of building, it is hard-edged, tough and colourful.

The RSPB acquired the 360ha of marshland at Rainham in 2000, after some years of campaigning for its protection. Fenced off for decades by the Ministry of Defence for use as an army firing range, though still grazed by cattle (as it has been for centuries), the site had escaped the draining and development that transformed much of the Thames estuary.

Clearing the site of potentially dangerous material was a process which took a year. The site is a precious breeding ground for wading birds and a sanctuary for other wildlife. Acquiring the land was part of a concerted RSPB strategy for the Thames Gateway in south Essex and north Kent, with nature protection successfully projected as a vital element in the long-term regeneration of the region.

Full public access and an emphasis on education were fundamental to the Rainham project, and a building was planned on the eastern edge of the site, where there is convenient road access. VHH won the commission against competition from Sergison Bates, Caruso St John and Tony Fretton - the RSPB sets its sights high where architecture is concerned and is making its mark as an inspired client, with ongoing commissions to John McAslan, Sutherland Hussey and less-established practices. But the location of the Rainham building, which went on site in the summer of 2005, makes it a landmark project for the charity.

The client brief included provision of a reception and café area, with a good view across the marshes; education space; offices and a meeting room; kitchen; WCs; and storage space - all on a budget of around £2 million. A ground-oor shop was not originally in the brief but has been slotted seamlessly into part of the storage space. Achieving the highest possible environmental credentials and gaining an 'excellent' BREEAM rating were fundamental objectives, close to the core philosophy of the RSPB.

The diagram of the building places a 340m 2 upper oor above a ground oor of 160m 2, so that the principal public space has a fine view of the reserve (where up to 140,000 visitors are expected annually). The site selected for the building posed problems in itself. It is close to the river, located on land built up as a defence against ooding, necessitating a costly piling solution (deep-bore rammed piles sunk 19m into the ground) dictated by the Environment Agency.

The site is also 100m from the edge of a classic 'sink' housing estate - Haward recalls his first visit to the marshes; returning to the road to find local youths trying to break into his car. Nobody doubted that vandalism could be a problem and the building is designed to combat it. The site is dug out to form a protective moat, with entrances at firstfloor levels via walkways that include drawbridges, raised when the building is closed. All external openings are protected by heavy sliding shutters, operated either electrically or manually, with those at firstfloor level clad in vertical timber boards.

Metal fences - not originally envisaged by the architects and a stark presence - form a further defensive barrier, though the hope is that the community will value the RSPB presence and local schools will be regular users.

This is a deliberately tough building, industrial in feel (after all Ford of Dagenham is just down the road), made to withstand the elements, but equally using a heavy superstructure (a reinforced-concrete frame with concrete oor and roof slabs and blockwork infill) as part of a menu for exemplary environmental performance. When the 15kW wind turbine planned for a location close to the approach road is in operation, the site should be self-sufficient in energy terms - or even generating surplus energy.

Working with Max Fordham as services engineer, VHH developed a strategy for conserving resources: the use of materials with low embodied energy and minimal maintenance requirements, naturally occurring where possible, natural ventilation and lighting, photovoltaics on the roof, water and space heating using a ground-source heat pump, and the collection of rainwater for flushing WCs.

The agenda extended to the use of high-efficiency light fittings, with automatic dimming and switch-off facilities, and low-flow taps and waterless urinals in the WCs. The building was not connected to a main sewer, and sewage has to be treated on site. The BREEAM assessment of the project is still not complete, but the accolade of 'excellent' is confidently awaited.

'We deliberately didn't set out to look at lots of similar buildings around the country', says VHH project director Henry Binns. The aim was to produce a fresh response to the brief, without any preconceptions as to the appearance of the building.

'The clients stuck to their guns - no compromises', says Binns.

'It was an outstanding collaboration'.

Externally, the building has a subtly colourful presence, with the fine sawn and painted larch boards providing a look that the architect compares variously to bird plumage and army camouflage but, whatever its rationale (and the inspiration of Bridget Riley is also cited), is visually enjoyable. (VHH expects that the palette could be changed a number of times in the life of the building. ) Cone-shaped light towers on the roof, with mechanically controlled vents, are part of the natural lighting and ventilation strategy, acting as markers by day and after dark (when lighting from inside makes them glow). An external covered terrace along the south side of the building provides a pleasant breakout zone.

The interior is a model of intelligent and economical planning. Around two-thirds of the first floor space is public, with the office areas at the east end of the building. On my visit, staff were sliding back partitions that enclose the classroom area, which has a dedicated stair and lift access, to provide more space for the café - the operation was achieved in minutes.

It was a relatively dull day, but the calm natural light provided by the light towers made the use of artificial lighting beyond the café service area all but unnecessary. White walls and tiled floors create a simple and practical aesthetic - this is a place where visitors will typically be wearing boots and anoraks.

The regeneration agencies that backed the project financially (along with the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies) stress its role in the economic revival of the Thames Gateway. Its didactic agenda notwithstanding, it challenges the clients and architects for future development in the region to seriously address issues of energy conservation and climate change.

But this is far from being a solemn, hairshirt design: this is a pleasure to look at and to use. It's one of the best buildings VHH has completed to date and evidence of its continuing ability to blend innovation with an intuitive feeling for tradition.

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