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Competition: Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve visitor centre, UK

Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT) is holding an open international competition to design a flagship £2 million visitor centre at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in Kent, UK (Deadline: 5 December)

Open to architects and architect-led teams from around the world, the anonymous RIBA-run competition seeks ‘unique’ proposals for a standalone complex at the Bradbourne Vale Road open space, which was converted from a former gravel pit in the 1960s.

The Nature and Wellbeing Centre project will deliver a visitor centre featuring a reception area, café, shop, toilets, 100-capacity flexible space, catering kitchen, exhibition area, offices and treatment rooms. Proposals should be environmentally sustainable with a minimal carbon footprint and demonstrate a sensitive response to the surroundings.

Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in Kent

Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in Kent

Source: Image by HW Atkins

Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve in Kent

According to the brief: ‘The Nature and Wellbeing Centre will be the gateway to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. It will be a place to discover, learn, research, be active, get connected, give and explore.

‘It will be the first centre of its kind in the country dedicated to connecting people and nature in ways that evidence and demonstrate positive benefits for both people and wildlife. It will also raise awareness about the importance of conservation work on our own wellbeing and that of the planet.’

The Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve was created on the site of a former industrial gravel pit by volunteers more than 60 years ago.

The latest project aims to promote health and wellbeing by engaging visitors in activities such as birdwatching and wildlife education. It also seeks to encourage greater public awareness of nature, wildlife and environmental issues.

The building is expected to be sympathetic to its surroundings, provide a sense of arrival to the reserve, harness natural light and outdoor space, and act as a hub for other similar facilities within the Darent Valley.

Two years ago, Kent-based practice Theis + Khan defeated Tim Ronalds Architects, White Arkitekter, dRMM and Ian McChesney in an early RIBA contest to design a community centre next to the reserve.

A planning application for the new facility, which has now expanded beyond the original competition brief, is due to be submitted next month.

Commenting on the latest competition launch, KWT chief executive John Bennett said: ‘We are particularly excited to be working with RIBA to invite a truly innovative response to our vision for a new visitor centre at Sevenoaks.

‘We are extremely proud of Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve and its history, and it deserves the ingenuity, inventiveness and innovation that we know RIBA Competitions will deliver through their global community of architects. This competition will serve to provide a unique space for people to really understand their connection with nature and its impact on all of us.’

Interested teams are invited to submit anonymous conceptual proposals for the new facility. Four shortlisted teams will then receive £3,000 each to further develop their designs during the competition’s second phase.

Judges include Bennett, Lynne Sullivan of LSA Studio, who will be acting as RIBA adviser, KWT head of people engagement Stevie Rice, and KWT head of reserves David Hutton. An overall winner will be announced in May next year.

How to apply


The deadline for applications is 2pm, 5 December

Contact details

RIBA Competitions
No 1 Aire Street

Tel: 0113 203 1490

Visit the competition website for more information

Langley Vale visitor centre: Q&A with Mark Wray

The director of Mark Wray Architects discusses lessons learned designing a competition-winning visitor centre for Langley Vale in Surrey, England

Mark Wray

Mark Wray

Mark Wray

How will your project deliver an appropriate visitor centre for Langley Vale?

The competition brief asked for an inspiring and sustainable building that is both integral to the landscape and the objectives of the Woodland Trust. Our response was to create a design that touched lightly on the environmentally sensitive site. For us the building had to be a low energy low carbon solution and constructed entirely of timber with the potential to be removed from the site leaving no trace. We also conceived ways of incorporating wildlife into the structure so that is created its own microsystem, becoming part of the interpretation of the site.

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

What methods did you use to communicate your competition entry?

The first stage is about conveying an idea clearly and succinctly to an audience that may not be able to understand typical architectural drawings. For Langley Vale, and our recent win for the RIBA Market Place Competition, we provided legible diagrams accompanied by a computer-rendered image to illustrate our proposal. For the second stage we prepared additional images and plans based on a more developed design and took a three-dimensional representation of our proposal to the interview.

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

What advice would you have to contest participants on designing a new visitor centre for the Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve?

Understand the client’s aspirations and read the brief thoroughly. The RIBA competitions office is skilled at preparing rigorous competition briefs with clients and a lot of work goes into them, so ignore it at your peril. Open competitions are great opportunities for small and new practices like us to raise our profile, but can demand a lot of investment in terms of time and money without a guaranteed return. So select the competition that is a good fit for the skills you have available, and one that will inspire and motivate you to produce something special.

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Langley Vale Visitor Centre by Mark Wray Architects

Q&A with Stevie Rice

KWT’s head of people engagement discusses her ambitions for the contest

Stevie rice kentwildlife

Stevie rice kentwildlife

Why are your holding a competition for a new Nature and Wellbeing Centre?

Because we are extremely keen that our ambitions are infused with the very best design that we can afford. Making this opportunity available internationally means we are able to spread our net widely and identify some really innovative thinking that will match our specifications.

What is your vision for the new complex?

That it will be a beautiful building in sympathy with and complementary to the reserve setting; memorable, functional and durable. The building should make as much use of natural light, outdoor space and its connection with the reserve and its lakes as possible. It should be an exemplar of architectural design for wellbeing. We would like the centre to have elements that can accommodate wildlife as well as people, and be a natural companion and complement to the reserve it serves. We envisage the materials and methods of construction should be selected to deliver aesthetic excellence and sustainability.

The building should aim to be an exemplar of sustainability both in construction and use. It should use green technology to deliver sustainability where sensible and practical. The building must be fully accessible and comply with the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act. Every aspect of the design must be developed with full regard to the varying needs of the building’s users. The building should also demonstrate innovation in addressing access issues for a wide range of people with different access requirements. We feel that delivering a design concept that incorporates these ideas will need to be innovative and inspiring.

Planning constraints may mean that we will be limited to the existing footprint of the centre and its ancillary buildings. This is approximately 500m². There may be opportunities to extend this or to compromise on the design specification.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

We hope that this competition will provide opportunities for a wide range of architects and designers including those newly qualified and smaller practices. We believe that this will be the first nature and wellbeing centre in the country and so there is real opportunity to achieve a significant profile through the delivery of this project.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

Currently there are no other design opportunities on the horizon from Kent Wildlife Trust.

Are there any other visitor centre projects you have been impressed by?

We are particularly impressed with the design of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon visitor centre. This felt bold, it was complementary to its environment and had real relevance and integrity. While we appreciate that this was priced at significantly more than our budget, we felt the design captured the aspiration and innovation that we hope to achieve at Sevenoaks.

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