Country Park’s Visitor Centre

The Visitor Centre is emerging from its forced hibernation. Work ended on the day after lockdown, and now Mary Rawlinson (Project Manager, chair of the UK Straw Bale Building Association) and Phil Christopher (Huff and Puff Construction) are back on site preparing to restart the work after a three-month hiatus. David Jeffery, a member
of the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve went to find out more.
 

It has been a hard winter. £10,000-worth of tools and equipment were stolen from the site in November; then in the New Year the builders faced three successive major storms with winds that shredded the protective polythene. And then came the pandemic. The challenge now facing Phil and Mary is to re-mobilise their team of skilled workers and local tradespeople and iron out some of the materials supply problems to finish the Centre.

Left Detailing; Right The internal space

Originally it was scheduled for completion in mid-June. Mary estimates that it will now take another three months for the building to be finished, although the final look of the new Visitor Centre will be discernible when the scaffolding comes down this week. Key exterior features already visible are the picture windows and the cantilevered wooden canopy that overhangs the south and west elevations and the rainproof cladding of these two most exposed walls.  

Exterior corner feature

Inside, the serious construction work on walls, floor and the ceiling – with its exposed Douglas fir beams – is complete. Doors and window surrounds are still to be finished, as is wall painting and the surface finish to the ‘limecrete’ floor. Once the electrical wiring is installed, the conduits will be covered with timber: the result an attractive interior feature. 

It is going to be a large and versatile open-plan space. The full personality of the building will emerge over the coming months but it is already a building of integrity in its design and use of materials, a blend of ancient and modern practices and skills. Phil Christopher describes it as ‘well-designed but not over-engineered’ and ‘as simple as you can make a building – almost nothing can go wrong.’ He says that it embodies the principles of ‘natural building’: ‘respecting and holding dear the environment’. It is not a building that speaks about itself, but more about the values and features of the landscape and history of which it is now a part, and which it is intended to serve.

The ‘honesty window’ will show the construction materials

An example of this is in the south-east corner, where the straw bales have been forced into an elegant curve, with Douglas fir cladding that looks like the clinker-built stern of an old fishing boat.  

Respect for the natural materials used is shown in the decision to include an ‘honesty window’ which reveals an oblong of the compressed straw otherwise hidden behind the plaster. Given the building’s potential life-span, it is amusing to think of children a century from now looking through the ‘window’ and seeing the bale slumbering undisturbed within its wooden cage. 

Mary Rawlinson, Project Manager, chair of the UK Straw Bale Building Association

The bulk of the construction materials are natural and sustainable: straw bales, Douglas fir and larch timber, lime in the floor and walls. Other materials are recycled sheep’s wool and foam glass (made from recycled glass from bottle banks) for insulation, cement blocks made from recycled material, and old car tyres that provide the foundations for the supporting wooden posts for the canopy. 

It should be a comfortable building, designed to be warm in winter and cool in summer, largely because of the insulating property of the straw bales. The canopy will provide shade for the south-facing picture windows in summer while allowing the low winter sun to provide some warmth. It is designed to be airtight: cold winter air will not rush in when the doors are opened, and the internal temperature, moisture levels and air quality will be comfortably regulated by an automated ventilation system. 

Phil Christopher, Huff and Puff Construction

The new Visitor Centre will be a welcoming place to start or end a visit to the Country Park, and also an inspiring place from which to enjoy the panoramic views that extend to the horizon in front of the building. But it will also bring visitors because it is a pioneering building for sustainable construction in the public sphere that is a credit to Hastings and the vision of those who commissioned it and those who are now completing it. 

It’s a good time to welcome it back to life!

Find out more about straw bale construction from strawbalebuildinguk.com


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