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Wales Institute for Sustainable Education by David Lea and Pat Borer, Machynlleth, Wales, UK

Not only is the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education mainly daylit, but you are led by inviting vistas through a spatial sequence of obvious logic. Photography by Timothy Soar

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Mid Wales was started in the 1970s by a group of environmental enthusiasts in an abandoned slate quarry. Run on a shoestring, it was a project that grew by stages, demonstrating through a series of experiments how to change our way of life to better use natural resources. A community grew with minimal planning and much improvisation, and a wander around still reveals an archaeology of defunct experiments among current ones.

The organisation’s first headquarters was a reconstruction of the original shed in which slate had been made into mantelpieces and worktops at the end of the quarry’s working life. Pat Borer, a practical, ecologically-minded architect, was already involved in the project. He later invited David Lea, who lives in North Wales, to help with the stations of the water-driven funicular railway completed in the mid 1990s, which they designed using timber frames with steel connectors. When the fortunes of CAT improved, raising some serious educational money, they were the architects on hand.

The Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) is a new residential college set up on site. With links to the University of East London it offers courses on ecology and architecture, so naturally it had to demonstrate ecological principles. But it does much more. For the first time, CAT has been able to make a consistent large-scale demonstration of ecological architecture and the way of life it might offer, aesthetically as well as energetically. Likened by one critic to an Oxbridge college, the building proves that energy saving requires no architectural compromise, no necessary meanness, ugliness, or loss of quality. It also shows how energy-saving devices can be integrated without biasing the whole design or spoiling it with add-ons.

The new building sits at the north-east corner of the quarry site, entered rather modestly via the courtyards of the old factory building. Its first main room is an extension of the factory’s restaurant, but the new architecture already asserts itself with a generous door at the end of a glazed loggia, and the rooflight along the inner wall brings a glow even on a dull day. A reception desk and stair lead on to a door in the north-east corner connecting with the heart of the complex. You find yourself in an airy modernist foyer, street-like and caught between an open square courtyard to the left and the great round lecture theatre with its concentric top-glazed ambulatory on the right. The courtyard has a Zen-like quality, with slate-lined ponds, some delicately placed trees and ferns, and a couple of rocks pushing up through the gravel. Gargoyles from above trickle water into shallow pools when it rains.

Although mainly a visual space for contemplation, the court is saved from being a mere lightwell by the timber-decked loggia that defines the route through to the workshops. Many clients might have baulked at the need to step momentarily outside in winter, but itis part of the ethos at CAT. To have an internal corridor would have destroyed the simplicity of the organisation, and in any case studentswill be expected to brave the open air when visiting other parts of the site. Access to bedrooms is also by open-air galleries. Avoiding the air-conditioned nightmare of total interiors is a positive aspect of the new, more ecological way of life.

The great circular lecture theatre was, amazingly, a demand of the client. It is hugely important for the balance of the whole complex and makes a worthy foil to the squareness of the court, subscribing to an old architectural rhetoric of gathering people for a unified event, as with a medieval chapter house or Greek theatre. The chamber is defined by a 500mm-thick drum of rammed earth, a material nearly as solid as concrete and layered up in shuttering to produce a beautiful raw red-brown surface. With a carefully chosen mix and good compaction, its 320-tonne mass is structural and acoustic as well as providing thermal mass, but involving a fraction of the energy input of concrete. Provided it doesn’t get wet, it is perfectly durable.

Since the theatre is needed for both lectures and films, the stage is set to one side, embraced by curved and raked seating. Daylight is obtained Pantheon-like through a central oculus, but it can be closed by a huge swinging panel, the ‘moon disc’. There is also a 7.2m-high sliding door on the south side that can be opened to the ambulatory and to the corner windows, which bring in sunlight to heat the drum. The top-lit ambulatory provides a ramp down to the stage, and top glazing throws strong light on the red-brown wall.

In plan the drum acts as a kind of pivot, mediating between north and west wings which follow the old building and central court, and another skewed wing to the east. The change of angle opens up the foyer as a kind of crossroads and definitive social centre. The corner looking south into the court has been made sociable with a bar and seating, and there a hearth will be added. The stair lies ahead of the foyer in line with the edge of the court. It turns right, so you rise to a view of the southern roof terrace and hill beyond. Slightly to the left is the office entrance and full left another stair to the upper bedrooms. Windows behind reveal the spoil heap of waste slate; nothing to look on, you might think, but the material is beautiful, the close view contrasts with the long, and orientation is provided.

The strategically-placed rooflights and windows continue right to the end of the upper east wing, where the bay window of a seminar room angles itself towards the valley view. All this means not only that the whole place is daylit most of the time, but also that you are led by inviting vistas through a spatial sequence of obvious logic. This concern, increasingly rare as architects ignore plan in favour of image, is typical of Lea, and has been quietly present in his unbuilt projects over the last 20 years: here at last we see at the scale of a substantial social building how effective it can be, how simple and straightforward.

Bedrooms are approached by access galleries; to the east facing the slate slope, to the north screened off from untidy service yards by wooden slats. These open walks provide cross ventilation but also make the bedrooms seem more detached from the social hub. Detailing is delicate, and large sliding windows offer enticing views of rooftop courts.
The usual awkwardness of biting a bathroom out of a corner of the bedroom has been avoided, for the entry zone has bathroom one side and cupboard the other, developing a double-doored threshold in between. This adds acoustic privacy, gives a more layered view, and makes the room a more flexible space to accommodate various sized beds.

The sustainability brief was rigorous, with everything possible measured, including the fuel use of visiting consultants. Apart from the rammed earth, the other notably innovative material was hemp lime, in the form of a lightweight solid wall finished with yellow pigmented lime render. It has the virtue of simplicity, producing a highly insulated wall of low energy content that needs no additional membranes. The mixture was built up around a timber frame, but Borer and Lea think it could be used structurally on its own.

Timber was used in many different ways throughout the building. The structure involved glulam columns and beams, since the process uses small sections and balances out variations in stress and density. Roofs were structured with composite timber I-beams. Floors were assembled from solid softwood panels 150mm thick, lower in energy content than concrete, but fireproof enough because they take so long to burn through. Floors and stairs were boarded in homegrown ash, claddings of larch, handrails of oak. Walking around the building there is a constant concern to use and show real materials, and throughout the building process there has been much participation from the users and organisers of CAT, who kept their faith in the architects even when the initial contractor went bust after producing slipshod work. By contrast, the standard of the second contractor’s work was high.

Behind the buildings at CAT remains the spirit of Walter Segal, known personally by both Borer and Lea, who in the 1960s unexpectedly set an example of alternative building that has endured to this day. Trained as a modernist and always interested in how an architectural identity could arise out of construction, Segal set a puzzle for himself to build the simplest house possible with materials readily available. Behind his efforts was a drive to eliminate the inessential, but also to show how things worked and went together.

The WISE building is suffused with this, and the return to essentials is central to green philosophy, but the building raises this to an unexpected aesthetic level. In the courtyard it reaches an almost Miesian stillness, and in the bar or the bedrooms a vernacular familiarity, reminiscent of Lethaby’s affectionate writing in his Simple Furniture essay: ‘It is a fine thing to be a workman in one of the good old crafts where the hand and eye, individual judgement and experience, have not given way to wholesale production by the machine. To make a thing beautifully, and fitted for real service, is a noble act and needs wise effort.’

A century later the ‘good old crafts’ are gone, but there can still be skill, judgement, proportion and appropriate use of materials. One example represents the whole: the timber columns. Finished in a grey stain, their perfectly rounded shape catches the light before you get close enough to see the laminations. Lea re-read Vitruvius for the formula on entasis and applied it, having the columns turned on a lathe. The extra cost was not much, but it adds an extraordinary sense of refinement.

Architect Pat Borer and David Lea , both Wales, UK
Structural engineer Buro Happold
Services engineer Mott Macdonald Fulcrum
Quantity surveyor Bowen Consultants

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