Building of the week: WISE

I mentioned on Monday that I’d been to the Centre for Alternative Technology last week on holiday. Since CAT’s founding in 1974 they have trialed all kinds of building techniques, including passive solar and natural materials. The earlier buildings are more DIY, and as the centre has become more established and had more access to funding, they’ve been able to be more ambitious. The culmination of that ambition so far is WISE, the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education. It’s home to their post-graduate courses, with a lecture theatre, function rooms downstairs and student accommodation above.

Like everything CAT does, WISE has been built as an active demonstrative of alternative techniques and technologies, so it has more sustainable ideas per square foot than almost any building in the country. The whole construction is a learning exercise in itself, with ongoing monitoring on its performance. Everything was measured and considered, even the carbon footprint of the construction worker’s commute to the site.

CAT WISE

The building nestles into the valley, its honey-coloured limecrete blending in with the orchards and gardens. To the right of the picture above is the lecture theatre, which is a round drum of rammed earth – the tallest rammed earth wall in the country. There’s a corridor that runs around the drum, keeping it at a comfortable temperature. It’s open to the south, with tall windows that trap the sun – a nice example of the solar walls I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The roof is recycled steel, with a large circular window at the top for natural light.

To the left is a courtyard with workshops and seminar rooms, and a cafeteria. This feels like a sort of zen take on the college quadrant, which is fitting for an educational establishment. It also provides natural light all along one side, and skylights that break up the roof terrace and gardens above. These have been oriented to maximise solar gain, keeping heating costs lower.

Materials have been chosen for their environmental impact, so there’s no PVC. Windows are timber framed, drainage pipes are clay. Hempcrete has been used instead of concrete. Sand lime bricks were used, as these are ‘steam cured’ rather than kiln baked, and that uses less energy.

Passive solar techniques are used throughout, and the whole building is highly efficient in its insulation. There are solar hot water systems on the roof for the student en-suites. Electricity and heat will be provided by a combined heat and power boiler is which under construction nearby.

There’s a lot to like about this building, and that’s been well recognised – it won a RIBA award, and The Telegraph named WISE the best new building of 2010. What’s nice about this is that it’s the same architects that built several of the other buildings on site. The larger and higher profile build has brought their pioneering skills to a much wider audience, breaking out of the hippy origins of CAT and the niche interest in ‘natural building’.

One of the things I liked most is that the building blurs the indoors and the outdoors, the natural and the man-made landscape. There are skylights and terraces, floor to ceiling windows. I like the fact that it has no internal corridors, and if you want to get to a room on the other side of the courtyard, you have to go outside and come back in again. It’s a building that feels one with its environment and insists that its occupants engage with the environment as they live in it. And that feels absolutely right for a home to postgraduate courses in sustainable architecture and climate change adaptation.

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