Hastings Visitor Centre Update: July 2020

This article from the Hastings Independent Press highlights the challenges and achievements of 2020:

The Visitor Centre is emerging from its forced hibernation. Work ended on the day after lockdown, and now Mary Rawlinson (Project Manager, chair of the UK Straw Bale Building Association) and Phil Christopher (Huff and Puff Construction) are back on site preparing to restart the work after a three-month hiatus. David Jeffery, a member of the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve went to find out more.  

It has been a hard winter. £10,000-worth of tools and equipment were stolen from the site in November; then in the New Year the builders faced three successive major storms with winds that shredded the protective polythene. And then came the pandemic. The challenge now facing Phil and Mary is to re-mobilise their team of skilled workers and local tradespeople and iron out some of the materials supply problems to finish the Centre.

Originally it was scheduled for completion in mid-June. Mary estimates that it will now take another three months for the building to be finished, although the final look of the new Visitor Centre will be discernible when the scaffolding comes down this week. Key exterior features already visible are the picture windows and the cantilevered wooden canopy that overhangs the south and west elevations and the rainproof cladding of these two most exposed walls.

Inside, the serious construction work on walls, floor and the ceiling – with its exposed Douglas fir beams – is complete. Doors and window surrounds are still to be finished, as is wall painting and the surface finish to the ‘limecrete’ floor. Once the electrical wiring is installed, the conduits will be covered with timber: the result an attractive interior feature. 

It is going to be a large and versatile open-plan space. The full personality of the building will emerge over the coming months but it is already a building of integrity in its design and use of materials, a blend of ancient and modern practices and skills. Phil Christopher describes it as ‘well-designed but not over-engineered’ and ‘as simple as you can make a building – almost nothing can go wrong.’ He says that it embodies the principles of ‘natural building’: ‘respecting and holding dear the environment’. It is not a building that speaks about itself, but more about the values and features of the landscape and history of which it is now a part, and which it is intended to serve.

The bulk of the construction materials are natural and sustainable: straw bales, Douglas fir and larch timber, lime in the floor and walls. Other materials are recycled sheep’s wool and foam glass (made from recycled glass from bottle banks) for insulation, cement blocks made from recycled material, and old car tyres that provide the foundations for the supporting wooden posts for the canopy. 

It should be a comfortable building, designed to be warm in winter and cool in summer, largely because of the insulating property of the straw bales. The canopy will provide shade for the south-facing picture windows in summer while allowing the low winter sun to provide some warmth. It is designed to be airtight: cold winter air will not rush in when the doors are opened, and the internal temperature, moisture levels and air quality will be comfortably regulated by an automated ventilation system.

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