Natural materials in natural environments

Materials World magazine
,
30 Apr 2017

Natural materials in natural environments may still be something of a niche interest in architecture, but that hasn’t stopped some of the most creative practitioners exploring this area to great effect, as Peter Wilson explains.

In many people’s eyes, modern buildings can often appear disconnected from the environments they inhabit – form, scale and materials appear alien and lacking a special characteristic that the Romans referred to as genius loci – the spirit of the place. 

These natural landscapes are where indigenous materials have been ignored in favour of more contemporary design. There are laudable reasons for the latter, such as durability, finish, maintenance and security. But, recently, the tectonic plates of contemporary design have been shifting as more architects reconnect with traditional materials and construction methods. Far from being a nostalgic impulse, innovative use of bio-based materials can deliver healthy, sustainable buildings from renewable sources. 

Some building structures lend themselves more easily to natural materials, none more so than the category of visitor facilities – a range of buildings also variously described as discovery, environmental and interpretation centres. As a typology, this group has few, if any, historical precedents that restrict its design options and material selection. The first example in the UK emerged in the early 1970s at the Landmark Forest Adventure Park Visitor Centre at Carrbridge in the Scottish Highlands, UK, designed by John L Paterson. The timber-clad building was ahead of its time but, in the period since, many different architectural approaches have emerged in response to the visitor centre design brief. These buildings are not themselves the subject of the visit but rather the introduction or gateway to the actual attraction, be it a historic building, a battlefield, a distillery or a nature reserve. The buildings can show remarkable variation, and while there is often the desire on the designer’s part to produce something distinctive and decidedly unusual, the purpose of these buildings is that they should complement, rather than compete with, the visitor’s intended primary experience. This is not to suggest that the architecture of these projects should be invisible or lacking in quality. 

The best examples are sensibly placed in terms of location to the landscape that surrounds them and the selection of materials employed – factors that are as visible in countries throughout Europe and North America, where there are many well-designed visitor facilities, as in the UK. The Ataria – Salburúa Wetlands Interpretation Centre, Spain, by QVE Arquitectos is an ambitious environmental restoration and reclamation on the outskirts of the city, with exhibition areas designed to introduce the values, functions and importance of the Salburúa lake surrounding the capital. In silhouette, the building could be interpreted as having the form of a long-necked, prehistoric creature about to drink from a pool, with its skeleton exposed for the entire world to see. Yet, fundamentally, this is a modern, environmentally conscious building set on an auto-compactable concrete plinth assembled from glue laminated timber (glulam), the sections of which remain uncovered, inside and out. The architects avoided conventional construction materials including asphalt and plastics to create a sustainable building. The arrangement of the timber frames creates rhythmic patterns of light and shade within, while  producing cross-ventilation, removing the need for air conditioning. As the location is based in a wetland area, water automatically runs off the structure, eliminating the need for a surface water drainage system. The structure of Ataria uses wood as never thought possible in traditional timber buildings. Using a hybrid of glulam connected with steel rods and bolts forms the creature’s long neck to cantilever at 21m, making it possible for visitors to walk out over the water below and view the area’s wildlife. 

Nature-sensitive architecture

Another building using natural materials is in Östergötland, southeast Sweden. The Lake Tåkern Bird Sanctuary is a nature reserve renowned for its special flora and rich bird life, with more than 270 bird species to be found in abundance each year. As such, it is considered to be a kind of paradise for both birds and visitors. A competition was launched in 2007 in response to the need for better access to this location. The winning design, by Wingårdh Arkitektkontor AB, opened in 2012 and is one of the most standout examples of nature-sensitive architecture to be found anywhere in Europe today. The architects aimed for duality in the building’s design – on one hand, the desire to make it discreet and almost invisible, exerting minimal visual impact on the landscape, while on the other, giving the visitor facility form and function.

Raised on stilts to ensure minimum impact on its site, the building mediates the space between the forest and the lake, with its angular composition covered entirely with straw. A small portion of the lake’s reeds are cut every year in the early spring and the 2011 harvest from the Väversunda Farm was used to cover the Naturum visitor centre, using 36 million reeds in total. A traditional cladding technique, the thatch has been used to define a building that has been folded to create an outdoor room metaphorically open to the birds and the sky above. The steeply pitching folds generate forms that fit with the natural surroundings but which, from a technical point of view, give the material an estimated lifespan of more than 50 years. The ridge is traditionally the most vulnerable part of a thatched roof, but it is covered with glass, to give the exhibition below natural light. 

Weather-resistant 

Concern to find contemporary uses for natural materials in natural environments may still be something of a niche interest in architecture, but some of the most creative architects have recently been exploring this area to great effect. Dorte Mandrup is one of Denmark’s renowned architects and has, in project after project, shown real imagination in rethinking established uses of materials. 

In updating and extending the original Wadden Sea Centre, the largest, flattest and wettest National Park in Denmark, Mandrup and her team recently demonstrated how, even on the raw coastal mudflats in the Wadden Sea region, traditional materials can prove resilient to the weather if their properties are fully understood and detailed correctly. To achieve this, the profile of the building has been kept long and low, appearing to have emerged from the ground, to maintain its environmental and regional culture. Traditionally, the area’s farmhouses are four-winged structures and, in adding to the existing three-wing building, the architects have positioned the new extension to provide a fourth side to shelter – the exposed courtyard. This is an example of a sculptural re-interpretation of the region's indigenous building culture, for example to root it in its place and time, pointing to the future while referencing its past. 

The roof planes and walls of the redesigned visitor centre are formed from long lengths of Robinia, a hardwood species that is both robust and resistant to fungi and termites. It has been blackened to avoid colour variation that can be caused by different weather conditions. Those of the new, seaward-facing exhibition are made entirely of thickly bedded thatch. The material is unusual and appropriate to its natural environment – harvested from nearby fields, the thatch takes on salt from the sea air while drying, a process not dissimilar to traditional methods of preserving fish. Hung from lightweight timber panels and supported by a steel frame, the straw was laid, sewed and patted into the final roof forms and walls by a team of
11 thatchers to deliver a timeless, hand-finished effect. 

Architecture, as universally taught nowadays, rarely includes instruction on the properties, uses and techniques involved in traditional construction. These three different buildings demonstrate exemplary contemporary use of natural materials in natural environments. They are, in effect, applied research projects from which others can learn and seek to surpass. 

Peter Wilson is an architect and Managing Director of Timber Design Initiatives, UK. The company facilitates Europe-wide approaches to professional education for architects, engineers and other construction professionals in the design, manufacture and use of advanced timber technologies, supporting innovation in, and demonstration of, new timber products and systems.