Fruit of the forest

The University of East Anglia's a new addition to its architecturally renowned campus will raise the sustainable stakes by procuring locally

Architype’s Enterprise Centre for the University of East Anglia sets itself against some stiff competition architecturally, prominently positioned as it is at the entrance to a campus whose buildings include a ziggurat-shaped complex of student residences by Sir Dennis Lasdun and Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre. Luckily, however, it seems to be winning hands-down in terms of its sustainability. With the building site opened to the press yesterday, as part of the original brief for this 3400m2, £8.5m complex of education spaces, lecture hall and entrepreneurial start-ups, the client UEA was determined that the building be a model of sustainable procurement and operation – and the architect, contractor Morgan Sindall and Adapt Low Carbon Group really pushed the boat out to rise to the challenge.

‘The embodied carbon is less than 500kg/m2 over the 100-year life span of the building,’ says Architype associate director Ben Humphries.  ‘Compared to best practice educational models of 800-900kg/m2 at year zero, it’s streets ahead of the competition, and far better performing than anything on campus here – even the 1995 Elizabeth Fry building by John Miller+Partners, which was a model of sustainable practice when it was completed.’

Key to this amazing performance, explains Humphries, was the commitment to ensure that as much of the building was procured locally as possible. The result was the decision to source the centre’s timber frame from nearby Thetford forest – until then usually sourced only for fencing materials – and to roof and rainscreen clad the building in a wonderful, dense layer of locally sourced thatch. To do it, the firm dealt early on with craftsmen that could best advise them on using these traditional materials. ‘The pre-fabricated cladding panels even kept local thatchers in business out of season, as they could construct them in their barns during the winter,’ explains Humphries. 

But don’t be led into thinking it’s about traditional performance levels. The inner skin is a high performing frame of Corsican pine, embedded within recycled newspaper. Local contractor Cygnum, with whom the firm developed the timber frame design ‘was incredible’, as are the thatchers making the roof of Norfolk and Suffolk reeds. Humphries says the design has been all about the local supply chain.

The offices within the building are designed to be mixed-mode, depending on the time of year or user need. With a high conditioning demand, the 300-seat auditorium remains mechanically ventilated throughout the year, but this, says Humphries, is not a problem. ‘Passivhaus is inherently flexible. As long as you don’t exceed the 120kWh/m2 target, and with the rest of the building’s make up and performance we don’t, we can incorporate mechanical systems.

Opening in May 2015, the Centre has built-in post occupancy monitoring, to see how user comfort levels can be increased and energy consumption minimised. But like the design process itself, says Humphries, it’s been about trial and error – and a learning curve. ‘I’m 100% sure that it won’t be 100% right when the Enterprise Centre first opens,’ he says. ‘It’s going to need a period of fine tuning to make it so. But then again, that’s the point of soft landings!’