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Mixed-use Flimwell Park puts life and soul into the Sussex woods

Words:
Soraya Khan

Learning, living, leisure and work harmoniously co-exist at Flimwell Park, a sustainable scheme that sets a benchmark for rural development

Detached workspace units and subterranean overnight accommodation block viewed from the south-east.
Detached workspace units and subterranean overnight accommodation block viewed from the south-east. Credit: shootlab.co.uk

Eight timber towers peering over the main road from Flimwell to Hawkhurst signal an unusual sustainable mixed-use development deep in the East Sussex countryside. Touring the scheme with its designer, Steven Johnson of the Architecture Ensemble, there is so much to Flimwell Park that it’s hard to know where to begin. There is the story of its creation – a combination of good fortune and good judgement – of which more later. There is the backdrop of a 22ha ancient woodland, interwoven with trails and ponds that link it to nearby beauty spots like Bedgebury Pinetum. And there is a mix of uses – work, educational, residential and amenities – that offer a lead in sustainable rural development.

From the main road, an entrance ramp descends several metres to a ‘SuDS-tastic’ central car park, flanked on its south side by the eight towers raised on spindly legs, which contain lettable workspace. To the north, a low-lying accommodation block is tucked into a bank aligning the road. At the west end is the Focal Building – a large double-height workshop reminiscent of an Amish barn – and its skittish sibling, an angular two-storey restaurant. Two affordable houses also lie at this end. To the east are a cycle hub beside the entrance ramp and three further private houses, yet to be completed. 

  • View of the Focal Building and restaurant from the south-west.
    View of the Focal Building and restaurant from the south-west. Credit: Roland de Villiers
  • Ten subterranean ‘chalets’ can be booked as overnight accommodation for visitors.
    Ten subterranean ‘chalets’ can be booked as overnight accommodation for visitors. Credit: Roland de Villiers
  • The Focal Building provides workshop and studio space for UCL students.
    The Focal Building provides workshop and studio space for UCL students. Credit: Roland de Villiers
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The idea for a new type of rural eco-community was sparked by the O’Callaghan family’s decision to acquire the former bird sanctuary in 2001, when banks were still supportive of new development ideas. The O’Callaghans are developers with an interest in design, who engaged Steven Johnson after seeing a variety of workshops work he has built at the nearby Woodland Enterprise Centre. Johnson has an expertise in timber architecture dating back to his time as project architect of Edward Cullinan Architects’ Downland Gridshell, completed in 2002. His role as associate professor at the Bartlett brought an additional dimension to the project: together with professor Bob Shiel he saw that Flimwell Park could make a base from which UCL students in many disciplines could undertake timber-based creative work.

The planning process was inevitably challenging, as the site lies within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and outside Flimwell’s development boundary. The case officer was initially reserved, not wanting to set a precedent for the development of sensitive sites, but the planners did want to support a boundary-pushing scheme that would generate local employment and draw people into the area. When new planning laws came in, allowing local people a say on development, support from parish councillors and community groups following public consultations was pivotal to its success. 

Creating a mix of uses has been the cornerstone of the concept; workspace and education were the key drivers, with the three private houses added for diversity and to balance the books. The only Section 106 requirement was to build those houses last, and fortunately the bank remained supportive.
In the surrounding Sussex woodland, an open meadow, newly cleared, reveals itself as a biodiversity sink where a nearly extinct flower – the Heath Lobelia – was discovered and immediately tracked by botanists from Kew. ‘There is biodiversity in the soil which springs into life as soon as some trees are cleared and light gets through’, said Johnson. 

  • The eight 84m² two-storey workplace units include private and shared offices and co-working space.
    The eight 84m² two-storey workplace units include private and shared offices and co-working space. Credit: Roland de Villiers
  • The eight 84m² two-storey workplace units include private and shared offices and co-working space.
    The eight 84m² two-storey workplace units include private and shared offices and co-working space. Credit: Roland de Villiers
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The woodland will soon be explored, researched, and built in by UCL students. The construction of an anagama kiln will kick-start a programme of diverse projects including a sewage pump devised by engineering students and sculptures set around the ponds, created by art students in collaboration with hydrologists. There are some parallels with the AA’s woodland facility at Hooke Park in Dorset, but at Flimwell Park the presence of businesses, residents and the restaurant will lend a different, more public character. 

Designed on principles of sustainability, the scheme developed organically through the construction phase. Functional input from the client, and site construction manager Matt Blackwell, produced a new lightweight SIPs construction system, Combipanel. 

The predominantly timber construction uses local materials but doesn’t reference local styles so one wouldn’t call it vernacular. Given its celebration of function, material, and construction it could perhaps be called ‘sustainable constructivism’ – a style arising from sustainability and functionality with its own aesthetic and formal language.

The eight distinctive workspace units, whose style has had puzzled locals guessing at their function, were originally conceived as one block to maximise energy efficiency. Planners wanted to preserve the ‘green’ view from the road to the woodland, however, and insisted that it was broken up. The 84m² units arranged over two levels are set 6m apart to prevent spread of flame (fire retardant would render the panels unbiodegradable). Although fully accessible at ground floor via a metal gantry that floats over a 5m change in level, first-floor levels are not fully accessible which may yet have to be addressed. Full-height bay windows at first floor encourage communication so people don’t feel isolated. Tenants already include a potter, a sustainable fashion ­designer and a data security firm.

High-level studios around the main space will be crowned with a greenhouse for food

  • Like all buildings at Flimwell Park, the restaurant is fitted with rooftop photovoltaics which produce more energy than is consumed on site.
    Like all buildings at Flimwell Park, the restaurant is fitted with rooftop photovoltaics which produce more energy than is consumed on site. Credit: Roland de Villiers
  • Restaurant Birchwood, run by chef Will Devlin, will offer dishes using ingredients foraged from the woodland.
    Restaurant Birchwood, run by chef Will Devlin, will offer dishes using ingredients foraged from the woodland. Credit: Roland de Villiers
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The workhorse Focal Building provides a workshop for UCL and uses heavy timber bracing and engineered timber panels to take higher loads and make long spans. High-level studios around the main space are reached by lift, and will shortly be crowned with a roof-level greenhouse for growing food. 

Next door, the timber-clad restaurant was being fitted out when I visited. Rumour has it that punters won’t be disappointed. The building provides far-reaching views from its balcony and roof terrace, but it will need the planned bridge link to the Focal Building and its lift to enable everyone to enjoy them.

Wash off the main road all flows towards the site, and the 10-bedroom accommodation block had to be heavily tanked to withstand this and protect the ancient woodland. Intended for both students and tourists, the single-storey block offers well-fitted suites, and a veranda forming shared outdoor social space. An ingenious roof made of solar panels and minimal framing meets most of the energy demand, which is supplemented by air-source heating. All buildings on the site have solar panels and energy use is constantly monitored. Allowance has been made for the easy installation of additional on-site energy generation, rainwater capture, sewage and food waste treatment and biogas systems.

Further enlivening the site, the cycle hub adjacent to the entrance ramp will be a base for a bike hire company. The five houses designed in the same sustainable constructivist style will add to the scheme’s 24-hour use and have garnered huge positive interest from locals previously used to the offerings of volume housebuilders.

If the promise at Flimwell Park is fully realised, the team will have created an exemplar rural development that is both sustainable and enhances the local area. The key is its multi-use: the people who work there provide vibrancy and creativity; the people who live and holiday there contribute to security, spread energy demand over time and add life in the evenings and at weekends; people who come to learn are essential for research, innovation and the transmission of ideas between the country and the city. Benefitting from the luxury of its slow gestation, Flimwell Park is the product of bold thinking, intelligent ­design and a big-hearted vision. 


Soraya Khan is a director at Theis & Khan Architects

IN NUMBERS

2.5ha built and landscaped site
630m² net internal area, workspace
220m² net internal area, overnight accommodation units 

Credits

Architect The Architecture Ensemble
Client Regalmain
Structural engineer Timberwright, Echo Pit Workshop
Main contractor Combi Construction
Quantity surveyor Blade Construction
Planning consultant Stephanie O’Callaghan
Ecologists David Kavannagh-Spall, Ralph Hobbs 
Woodland management planning Christine Meadows

 

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