The Attenborough Wildlife Trust, near Nottingham, was a relatively inexperienced client when it commissioned a visitor centre for its wetlands reserve. Although the site is ideal for spotting birds, it is by no means remote. It is at the end of a road and vandalism had been a problem. Any new building had, therefore, to be robust and to result in an improvement to the way that the area is treated.
In this it has succeeded admirably, with a building that is unsatisfactory in only one way - the energy consumption at the end of the first summer is higher than anticipated. The reason for this? That visitor numbers have been much higher than predicted.
The architect, Groundworks Architects, has a reputation for environmentally conscious design, a philosophy it has applied on this project. In fact, there was a planning requirement for 'total sustainability', since the building has been allowed on greenbelt land. There was a total budget of £1.8 million, with construction making up £1.2 million. Some of this cash came via aggregate tax from RMC - the lake was created through its dredging operations.
A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund provided most of the rest.
The low building sits on what was previously a spit of land. The architect has dredged a channel across the narrow neck, linking the building to the entrance area via a drawbridge. During the day this offers an enticing welcome. At night, when the centre is shut, it creates a near-impregnable fortress.
The building is long and narrow, with an entrance at one end into the public space of the visitor centre and café. As one progresses through the building it becomes increasingly private, with a conference room, a space for visiting pupils and administration offices. At the back is an enclosed exterior space, with a dipping pond and other features for schoolchildren.
The building has a butterfly roof with glazing beneath it, bringing in as much light as possible. All framing, except to the bridge, is of softwood glulam. A steel structure supports the bridge.
The building is sited 60cm above the 200-year flood level.
The exterior consists of a timber wall frame, with highly insulated softwood panels. Their external faces are a mix of Trespa high-pressure laminate and European oak. The decking for the drawbridge is also European oak and the architect worked closely with the Timber Research and Development Association to develop the detailing for this. There are 6mm gaps between the treads to allow for swelling when damp and the long edges of the treads are chamfered so that the gap widens as one goes down.
For the roof, the architect selected stainless steel because it is inert and 90 per cent recycled. It also is maintenance-free, an important consideration for a trust with a limited budget.
The impression is of a busy building that works well.
An acoustic ceiling in the teaching space and well-insulated walls ensure noise transmission is kept down, so serious meetings can take place next to a room full of ebullient children. The building was supposed to be carbon neutral. However, this demand was predicated on visitor numbers for the first season of 100,000.
Instead, these have been estimated at 250-300,000. This is the type of problem any building operator would be happy to deal with.