Eden goes Timberbuild – The Core, the Eden Projects new Education Resource Centre

All photo’s Thomas Dodd, Fourth Door Research

In 2005, flush from the success of its Biomes gardens, The Eden Project, launched it’s phase two with The Core, this time a timber educational building. Designed once again by Grimshaws Architects, The Core’s organising idea centred upon the Fibonicci Sequence, the mathematical form found throughout the natural world.

˜Every beam is different!” says Jo Readman, the effusive Director of Education for the recently opened Eden Project Education Resource Centre, the £15 million second phase building which is intended to propel the country’s most successful Millennium project into a new phase of take-off including the hoped for, though not yet completely funded, third Biome.

We are looking up from the third floor open plan cafe at the grid of beams that make a lattice of lines across the ceiling, forming two series of complex curves, an interweave of opposing spirals criss-crossing each other to form a rectangular honeycomb of slightly outsized, open boxes above the spacious foyer entrance. Spreading upwards from the spaces walls, and held in place by a series of columns at the buildings edges, the curves disappear into the middle distance, where the foyer space is cut in two by a perpendicular wall. This wall announces an inner chamber, where a circular clerestory will hold a hidden stone sculpture. Spun around this are any number of admin offices and school visiting party education rooms. High above, the curling centre-point from which the spiral ceiling emanates can be imagined.

It is an impressive piece of timber engineering, a central part of the wow factor critical for any of building of this sort. The ceiling as a structural entity, actually comprising 330 beams, imitates a particular natural form found throughout nature and is crucial to the conceptual whole of the building. This form is the well-known and popular Fibonacci sequence, derived originally from Leonardo of Pisa, who lived around 1200 AD. He discovered the mathematical sequence where each number is the sum of the previous two, ie 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. This sequence is found throughout the natural world, both large and small, from the molecular level to plants – archetypally, sunflowers and pine cones – to galaxy size spiral universes such as the andromeda galaxy. Once discovered, the Fibonacci series became a cornerstone of medieval geometry, relating to the golden section, and a significant page in the proof that God was a geometer.

For the Eden Project, the Fibonacci sequence provided a way into linking the new building explicitly to humans’ relation to plants, the mission statement of Eden’s whole project. With natural growth forms at the heart of the structure, Eden had a compelling and popular visual prompt for demonstrating how plants are more central to people than many consciously acknowledge. Not only are plants the source of our growth and replenishment – food; but are crucial to replenishing the air we breathe, through oxygen generating photosynthesis. Not unlike the current public fascination with the De Vinci Code, in the Fibonacci Sequence Eden hoped they had found an eye-catching metaphor to sum up a major part of what they saw themselves as about.

The Centre, which has been titled ‘the Core’, has been a long time in development. Jo Readman, a PhD in plant biochemistry and self-declared ‘photosynthesis obsessive’ arriving at Eden in 1995 via Channel 4 Nature documentaries, says it has been in development since 1997 and declares a claim in its origins by saying photosynthesis inspired in her “the vision of a sunflower which looked like a spaceship.”

Outside, the 2400 sq metre building feels and looks completely different, curiously unrelated to the space one has just been in. With its’ different entry levels, it is mostly clad with Canadian Western red cedar, and on the public face at ground floor, by stained white pine, which is actually painted tar black. Given the building sits in the basin of the deep Boldeva quarry, much of the viewing comes from above, walking down from the ticketing entrance. From this view the copper roofing dominates the senses in similar fashion to how timber canopy does internally. Again, the Fibonacci sequence acts as the sunflower pattern which connects across the roof space, although every few feet a pyramid sky-light points upward, breaking up the smooth skin of the roof in spiky fashion. As the roof spirals in, an array of photovoltaics circles the open top end of the clerestory, both the Core’s symbolic sunflower heart within which artist Peter Randall Page’s carved cone stone will sit, and the structural core, load bearing much of the building. The external walls tilt outwards at around 10%, making the feel more dynamic. Were it to have been vertical it would have been, by the architects project team leader, Jolyon Brewis’s own admission, “static and lumpen.”

From it’s early inception the building went through a series of evolutionary developments. As with the Biomes, the entrance and administration buildings, the Education Centre was designed by the Hi-Tech practice, Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners. During late 2002 into early 2003, the project team had developed a symmetrical spiral grid design, which integrated a three floor plan into a central chamber from which the tree-like timber spiral roofing system emerged. But the design didn’t work, amongst other things being structurally inefficient, with beam depths of 2 metres. Talking to Randall Page, Brewis and project architect Jerry Tate, realised that the Fibonacci grid was not a true growth form and that phyllotaxis – the arrangements of leaves on the stem or leaf needed to be further explored. Over the course of a weekend Mike Purvis, at the structural engineers SKM Antony Hunt, who had already carried out substantial research on the structure, immersed himself in sunflower geometry; and came up with what he called, the Phyllotactic converter. The result, applying the Fibonacci numbers 21 and 34 proved far more efficient, so that the timber structure beams came in at a 0.8 metres.

At the same time, committed to a timber building, Eden and Grimshaws went looking for a team to produce the timber brief in the UK. They approached Gordon Cowleys, feeling they were the only timber construction company with the experience to deliver the construction, just at the moment when Cowleys expired and temporarily went out of business. From Eden’s perspective, although keen to use UK expertise, that expertise, according to Brewis, just wasn’t there, so the search moved abroad, to Switzerland, and the well-established Basel based company Haring Corporation Ltd. Readman tells the story of how during a week long visit to Switzerland, being shown a series of buildings, none seemed to work. Then on the last day, the Harings MD, Chris Harings took the Eden group to a swimming pool, the Solemar, in Bad Durrheim, Southern Germany housing a pioneering double curvature and twisted glulam roofing structure. This did it for the Eden team.

Although a family business specialising in high performance timber structures, Haring’s expertise is delivered across Europe as well as China and Japan. For the construction of the grid an experienced team were sent over, working from September 2004 through to Easter this year. Extra contracted carpentry was provided by local Cornish company, Brown and Evans. The 280 cubic metres of spruce originated in FSC standard woods in Switzerland, undergoing a glulamination pre-manufactoring process at the Haring subsidiary Roth, before being dispatched in lorries to Cornwall. The beams were manufactured straight from computer-aided design to the machine cutting stage. Pre-manufacture included holes and all cutting, and was seen as a straight-forward job by site manager, Steffen Haller. There were problems when the first central clerestory went up, but only a few corrections were needed once this was resolved.

Harings also provided the OSB plywood walls between the 34 columns, as well as the windows, and the birch ply roof elements. Both the pre-fabricated roof and its insulation elements had to be developed by Haring, and Haller acknowledges that double curvature and much of the woodwork was not unusual for the company. Eden have hyped the timber element to the hilt, but anyone with some knowledge of the Euro timberbuild scene will know that double curvature structures are quite common across Northern Europe. In fact, its difficult not to conclude that the wave of new timber buildings coming on line over the last few years, have played a part in the decision for Eden to go timberbuild. And even if the result may do its job of wowing the paying public, those familiar with sub-Alpine Switzerland, South Germany and Austria’s Black Forest regions, or parts of Scandinavia will know that Britain remains a provincial Glulam outpost compared to these parts of Europe, where large scale timber engineering is so much more advanced.

Apart from the timber skeleton much of the building is unexceptional sustainability-wise. Normal masonry and plasterboard have been used in the walls, e value superglass hasn’t been applied, although because there is limited glass there is relatively slight heat loss; although to a certain extent this is compensated by recycled newspaper insulation.

The ground floor is made from recycled aggregate, while the entrance lobby is made from recycled rubber tyres. On the first floor, Marmoleum (made from linseed oil, wood flour and jute) is used, while the second floor is covered with a reused wooden floor. The film room on the ground floor is laid out with carpets which include plant plastic made from corn starch derived from sweetcorn.

The copper roof is perhaps the most problematic of the sustainable issues this building raises. The use of copper brings a rich and sculptural element to the rooftop facade, but as Brewis acknowledges the very process of mining is increasingly a building issue, from pollution produced by extraction, to transportation as a resource, to the issue of human rights. The copper is from Rio Tinto Metals PLC, a giant of the mining industry. Brewis says that the team went through many hours trying to resolve the roof issue, going through initial plans for timber, membrane and metal sheet versions, before an old Eden colleague, Richard Sandbrook who has worked closely with big mining companies including Rio Tinto, brought the team’s attention to the Bingham Canyon, Kennecott Utah plant, seen by Eden as an exemplar in responsible mining. Eden’s approach is to engage with the big corporate world, attempting to persuade the mining industry to move forward. But, according to Brewis, they came very close to not using the material, or alternatively trying to find a way to use recycled copper – which as the Eden education film on the making of the building alerts the watcher, comprises 40% of the metals market – but found there wasn’t sufficient developed infrastructure to seriously go the recycled route. Rainwater runs off the roof, and flows into pipes through limestone purifiers, but the water isn’t harvested as such, rather left to feed into the surrounding ground area.

If there are questions about its ‘core sustainability’ would it float, come the flood? type questions, what is undeniably intriguing is the design strategy. Eden began with plants, indeed the buildings design emerged out of the quest for a geometry of the sunflower, and particularly the spiral patterns within the plant world. Readman points out that Professor Peter Guthrie of Cambridge Deparment of Architecture has said that the building demonstrates throughout how the process of design has been arrived at. This is potentially radical, in the midst of the media hype and theme park edutainment.

There will be many across the grassroots sustainable architecture and building community who will wonder at the degree to which the building is genuinely sustainable. Grimshaws are a part of this countrys’ high profile and hi tech establishment architects. Alongside Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins and Richard Rogers, Grimshaws have been at the forefront of developing the Eco-Tech school of hi technology solutions to lower energy building. While their Eden domes seemed to open a new chapter in this evolving story, Grimshaw, along with Fosters and Rogers have moved with the fashion to embrace timber into their materials portfolio. So it is not hard to see Grimshaw coming in on the recent wave of anglophone excitement about timber, like Rogers’ recent Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, North London, to produce statements about how timber can be part of the hi Eco Tech repertoire and vocabulary.

In this sense the Eden Project, both in architecture as much as philosophy, exposes the fault line running through the sustainable architecture and building movement, dividing the purists from the pragmatists. There are those who work only at the edges, seeing the centre and the mainstream as fatally flawed, and those who work with and in the centre and the mainstream. The latter generally relate the belief that conversation and dialogue is worth pursuing for the influence and change it brings to the centre. Those who remain at the edges decry those who move into the centre as reneging on the real ideals of the movement; those who work from the centre talk of their being realistic and pragmatic, and of the purists being naive. The anthropologist, the late Mary Douglas got it right in the title of her famous book, Purity and Danger.

Eden went, ambitiously and knowingly, straight for the centre-ground, with big, big buildings, a media creature which knew the way to use the media. This far they have succeeded, pulling off a remarkable achievement in the round of recent millennium-timed launches. This time around things seem more complicated. Aesthetically, I found the Core an odd and confusing building. Some of it I loved, such as the timber structure, and the clerestory. There is also an organic expressiveness to it which is eye-catching. But some of it, such as the spiky pyramidical skylights I couldn’t begin to get on with. I wasn’t helped by the founders, Tim Smit’s preposterous loudmouth publicity statement, ˜I hate exaggeration so I’ll tell you the simple truth. This is the finest modern building in the world”. Actually it is only too clear how ill at ease the centre was with the soft spheriodal domes with which it has to contend. There is also something paradoxical about cosmic geometry, quite a significant hippie sub-cultural fashion during recent yesteryears, and no doubt partial source of Randall-Page’s fascination, finding itself the subject of the brash theme park makeover. My sense is that the Core will do more for a prospective organicist understanding of process and systems, than it will for the orthodoxies of low energy sustainable building. Bearing in mind the long view, this, perhaps, will be its most far-reaching legacy.

A version of this piece appeared in Building for a Future vol 15, no 3 winter 2005/6 All rights reserved – OL

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