Home » Tradition and technology builds a straw house for the future

Tradition and technology builds a straw house for the future

by Mark Cantrell
CDB's plans are part of the National Trust’s ‘Reorientating Shugborough’ masterplan

The design for a sustainable visitor centre at the National Trust’s Shugborough Estate combines the technology of the modern age with traditional materials and techniques to fashion a net zero structural innovation

When you are responsible for managing 500 properties, monuments, parks, and estates, achieving net zero by 2030 is an ambitious goal, but if anything, the National Trust has clearly embraced the goal.

The trust is working with architectural practice, Citizens Design Bureau (CDB) to flesh out its vision and deliver a sustainable future. The firm, headed by Katy Marks, has recently been granted planning permission for its proposal for a new welcome centre at the 17th-century Grade I-listed Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire.

CDB’s plans are part of the National Trust’s ‘Reorientating Shugborough’ masterplan, which includes improvements to access and accessibility, re-wilding, and improving visitor experience across the site.

The masterplan comes in response to the National Trust assuming management of the estate from Staffordshire Council in 2017.

Once complete, the interventions will see the 900-acre parkland estate benefit from a new, visually distinctive and ecologically sensitive welcome building; a safer, one-way system for cars; and rationalised parking facilities that enables the estate to be traffic-free, along with a new maintenance centre housed in a preserved Second World War hospital building.

Katy Marks, CDB’s founder, said: “Shugborough is extremely special – full of incredible trees and wildlife, unusual architecture, relics, follies, and other wonders. It has been a privilege to bring our experience working on cultural buildings to this project – set within such an impressive, historic landscape.

“It brings together thinking around characterful public buildings, conservation, sitting sensitively within a dramatic landscape – and doing all this with incredibly ambitious sustainability goals.”

Natural welcome

The new visitor centre is the largest and most significant element of CDB’s plans for the estate.

On a typical National Trust property, the visitor centre is usually an unobtrusive timber pavilion, or outhouse conversion, designed to be modest and recessive to avoid distracting from historic monuments and buildings that are often the main focus.

At Shugborough, however, the site is so large that the manor house is not visible from the visitor entrance .This led to a brief from the National Trust that called for a structure that would have a distinctive appeal of its own, capturing the identity of Shugborough while setting the tone for the estate as a place of discovery, with a “spirit of adventure and innovation”.

The latter aspect is fulfilled in two ways; in its setting, and the way it uses the immediate environment to make a statement, as it were; and in the way CDB has placed carbon-reducing sustainability at the heart of the design.

An ancient oak tree on the site serves as the reference point for the visitor centre’s orientation and design approach, CDB says, with the arc of the tree’s root protection zone defining the gently curving form of the structure.

A second building containing WCs and services mirrors this; gently curving around the contours of the landscape and protecting the root zone of the chestnut trees behind the building.

Embracing the oak in this way is said to create a welcoming focal point, and calls attention to the many unusual and ancient trees on the estate. A large café window emphasises the connection to the oak.

Another episode in the story of Shugborough – the first place in the UK to grow a hothoused pineapple – is referenced in the centre’s detailing; with an abstracted pineapple-skin textured pargetted lime rendered façade offering a nod towards Shugborough’s history of horticultural innovation.

The design for a sustainable visitor centre at the National Trust's Shugborough Estate combines the technology of the modern age with traditional materials and techniques
Citizens Design Bureau’s new visitor centre is curved to protect the root system of an ancient oak. Visualisation by Secchi Smith

Sustainability built in

At the core of CDB’s plan is a commitment to go beyond statutory targets for energy use, and to create a ‘net zero carbon’ building that requires minimal operational energy in line with the National Trust’s 2030 net zero goals.

Heating will be drawn from ground source heat pumps, with electricity coming from a combination of roof- and ground-mounted photovoltaic cells.

Fundamental to the net-zero ambition is the choice of renewable and locally sourced materials. The visitor centre will be constructed as a hybrid building: A timber structure with straw bale infill.

This – alongside other measures, including low-carbon foundations and roof structure, as well as energy-efficient services – is considered central to the goal of minimising embodied carbon in the construction, and the ongoing operational carbon of the building in use.

CDB’s design uses both round and rectangular bale elements, allowing for the construction of both columns and walls; enabling the building to have a “refined finish that belies the rusticity” of the material, and shows the versatility of natural, readily available construction materials.

Whereas standard building techniques require multiple material layers (sheathing boards, insulation, vapour-control membranes, cladding and so on), straw bale requires only plastering. In addition, it is breathable, a great insulator and, with the application of lime render, CDB says it is also water- and fire-proof.

Straw is also biodegradable, simplifying end-of-life disposal, but CDB goes on to say that properly constructed straw-bale buildings are durable enough to last for many decades.

Marks added: “Nowadays we are all aiming high in terms of sustainability. Inevitably we come up against cost constraints and, in this case, conservation constraints as well, so we are keen to honestly document and publish the process.”

Accessible by design

Alongside sustainability, accessibility is integral to the scheme. For CDB, this means much more than physical access to the site.

Alongside landscape designers HTA, the practice says it has taken a holistic approach to access, ensuring that Shugborough offers and provides an “equitable array” of opportunities for outdoor adventure, learning, ecological and cultural experience for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.

In practical terms, that means that toilets with accessible changing, family and gender neutral toilets, dog wash and external picnic areas, as well as a pick-up and drop-off station for access buggies to use around the site.

More broadly, it means that careful consideration of visitors’ journeys around the site has resulted in a CDB calls a “considered collection of landscapes” that offer all visitors the “surprise and delight” inherent in the process of exploration.

With planning now secured, the architecture firm says construction is set to begin this summer, with completion anticipated in summer 2025.

Main image: The proposed visitor centre at the Shugborough Estate. Visualisation by Secchi Smith. Courtesy of Citizens Design Bureau

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