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Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, CAT

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Light permeates this building, which merges organically with its surroundings, says Hattie Hartman

I recently made my first pilgrimage to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth, North Wales, to see Pat Borer and David Lea’s Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) (AJ 11.02.10), which opened earlier this month.

CAT has long had a following in deep green circles since its founding in a disused slate quarry in 1975, but until now it has occupied a space on the fringes of architecture, offering courses in self build, renewable technologies, and organic gardening. CAT’s enrolment has soared recently – from 30-odd students not long ago to almost 450 with last year’s introduction of a Part 2 course accredited through the University of East London.

For a long time I have been curious to see the institution that motivates so many students to brave half-day train journeys to spend one week a month in the Welsh countryside (the remaining coursework is via e-learning).

WISE, which is Borer and Lea’s third collaboration at CAT after the Cli Railway Stations (1990) and the information centre and shop (2000), opens a new chapter in CAT’s evolution and puts it firmly on the architecture map.

In this age of globalised design and iconic form-making it is rare and refreshing to encounter a building that emerges from the particularities of site, programme and materials.

Borer and Lea have skilfully inserted a very large building into the 16ha site with an almost Lewis Carroll-like sleight of hand. The building is true to the unusual programme of ‘business innovation and lifelong learning’ that the client set out in the first meeting with the architects 10 years ago: a 200-seat lecture hall, a dining hall extension and bar, workshops, forces and 24 en-suite bedrooms. Despite its considerable 1,800m2 footprint, WISE is at one with the landscape and with the random accretion of the existing, modest buildings on the site.

The new building comes as a surprise as one steps through an opening in the slate wall of the existing dining hall - which had been planned for extension 30 years ago - into a beautiful clerestory-lit linear hall measuring 24 x 7m. The immediate effect is one of calm.

‘CAT is about our relationship with the natural world,’ says Lea. ‘We wanted all the spaces in the building to relate to the landscape, and for the spaces to unfold as you move through it and come upon surprising views of nature. The preoccupations of Lea’s early employers - Leslie Martin and Caruso St John - are evident in both the organic genesis of the WISE plan and the quality of light throughout the building.

A collision of site geometries between the eastern bank of the slate tip and the orientation of the existing buildings is resolved by a courtyard that hinges around the drum of a circular auditorium. For such a low-carbon building, solar orientation was not a driver; the site and indoor-outdoor relationships were.

The notion of a round auditorium came from the client, who had admired one in Denmark. ‘We decided to go with it,’ says Lea. It was an inspired decision; one that gives WISE a presence and boldness in keeping with its ambitions and distinguishes it from Lea’s earlier work in Cirencester and the Cotswolds, where gabled roofs speak of a gentler vernacular.

Throughout, there is a sense of procession and grandeur in the way the spaces flow, as if the building is designed from the inside out. Every view is considered, as is the shallow rise of the stairs that leads visitors from the entry level to the auditorium.

The main courtyard with its slate outcroppings and alders is a Welsh nod to Ryoan-ji, Kyoto’s contemplative zen rock garden. The Japanese influence continues as one moves to the upper terraces, overlooked by 24 en-suite guest rooms that will host a small proportion of CAT’s 65,000 annual visitors. It’s a notable step-change from existing accommodation, where six people share a shower room - or are relegated to a nearby hotel. Lea says the different qualities of sunlight, daylight and reflected light capture the passage of time and seasons. Borer adds that while windows offer views into the trees and mountains, rooflights are necessary to bring in enough daylight. Ecotect environmental analysis software was used early on to ensure a daylight factor of at least three.

‘Architects need to become more adept at doing these things,’ says Borer. Both Wales-based, Lea and Borer’s collaboration is one of mutual respect. ‘He’s good at those things,’ says Borer, referring to the complex resolution of the plan. ‘I wouldn’t do another building of any size without Pat’s technical expertise,’ Lea responds.

At WISE, that expertise is translated into a sensual palette of low-energy materials, including a timber glulam structure, rammed earth walls around the auditorium, a Hemcrete exterior, and ash flooring.

Architype director Jonathan Hines, who attended the opening, observes that the same building in different materials would not feel the same. ‘No individual material is that radical, [but the building] shows how sustainable materials can be manipulated to create refined architecture,’ he says.

The theatre’s 7.2m-high rammed earth walls are the most daring element. The mix was analysed at Bath University to ensure that it would cohere properly, and the ramming of each layer was carefully controlled.

A high proportion of materials were made on site. ‘It was an eye-opener to see so many skilled people around and very enjoyable for everyone,’ says Lea. And this was despite a debacle with the initial contractor that resulted in delays, cost overruns and irreparable damage to much of the joinery. Budget constraints and the contractual difficulties made compromises inevitable. The ubiquitous timber wainscot incorporating electric and IT cabling disappoints, but once the spaces are occupied this will matter less.

Ironically, the initial BREEAM assessment (not yet complete) is not very high, because despite its zero-carbon operational energy and low-energy materials, the building loses points due to its greenfield site and infrequent bus service, among other issues.

Yet other simple design decisions offer something beyond the empirical. The building’s yellow ochre walls introduce welcome colour to the former slate quarry and reside comfortably in the verdant green landscape. ‘It’s as if the sun is always shining,’ says Lea.

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