Environmental Resource Centre, Ebbw Vale, Wales
A site that was once Europe’s largest steelworks is reclaimed by nature in Design Research Unit Wales’s innovative scheme.
Architect Design Research Unit Wales
Location Off Steelworks Road, Ebbw Vale, Wales
Completed May 2010
The once vast Ebbw Vale steelworks may be largely demolished, but the 80ha site still abounds with vivid reminders of its rich industrial past. A pumphouse and the grade II listed general offices are, however, the only buildings that have survived since the steelworks’ closure in 2002 and its subsequent levelling.
The Design Research Unit Wales, a research practice operating from within the Welsh School of Architecture, was commissioned by Blaenau Gwent Council to design an education centre on the site.
The £315,000 Environmental Resource Centre is the practice’s first project to use its pioneering timber construction system, Ty Unnos. Nevertheless, it was anxious its design acknowledged the site’s 200-year-old tradition of iron and steel making.
Project architect Steve Coombs explains:”In designing the classroom we drew on the form of the nearby pumphouse and the grid of the concrete piles and foundations of the filtration tanks that once sat above and which the classroom now looks out onto.”
The longitudinal, simple form of the pumphouse and its rhythm of windows between brick piers, together with its corrugated steel roof, have had an influence.
The new 140sq m sustainable centre forms part of the Works regeneration project, a joint initiative by the council and the Welsh Assembly to redevelop the site. The masterplan by Alan Baxter & Associates and environmental consultant Environmental Resources Management proposes a mix of uses including a learning campus, hospital, leisure centre, theatre, offices and around 500 homes.
The single-storey classroom is approached via a disused railway line that leads visitors to the entrance. The gathering space on the east elevation separates the two main elements of the building: the classroom with an adjoining office at one end; and the toilet block at the other.
The toilet block is clad in galvanised steel mesh for security reasons and in recognition of the site’s steel history. In contrast, the classroom block is clad in vertical charred timber, and the roof is corrugated galvanised steel.
The classroom can accommodate up to 30 schoolchildren as well as three staff from Gwent Wildlife Trust who educate the children about the wildlife as well as sustainable living.
On the west elevation, the building faces cooling ponds that were created when the filtration tanks were removed and the foundations filled up with water. A site that was once the largest steelworks in Europe has been reclaimed by nature and the ponds and surrounding area now support more than 100 plant species and a diverse range of wildlife.
Ty Unnos construction system
The resource centre is the first building where Design Research Unit Wales has used its innovative Welsh construction system Ty Unnos. The term literally means “the house of one night” and is based on a historical Welsh tradition whereby if you could erect a building on common land and have smoke coming from the chimney between sunset and sunrise, you could take ownership of that land.
Ty Unnos is an integrated whole-house system for low-carbon affordable construction, which the practice has been developing over the last few years, working with woodland management charity Coed Cymru and engineered timber manufacturer Cowley Timberwork.
The system uses Sitka spruce, which is a prolific grower in Wales comprising over 70% of the country’s timber production. In its natural form, it is unsuitable for structural use, since Wales’s moist climate makes it grow very quickly, creating a low-density wood that is prone to warping.
The Ty Unnos system gets round this problem by prefabricating the Sitka spruce into box beams, which stabilise the timber.
The box beams are used to create a series of modular rooms varying in size from 1.2m x 3m to 4.8m x 3m. The beams form portal frames in different modular sizes, which are infilled for floor, walls and roof using either SIPS panels or panels made up of Sitka spruce ladder beams infilled with insulation.
The classroom project used prefabricated box beams measuring 270 x 210mm and the frames were infilled with plywood faced SIPS panels and EPS insulation for the floor, walls and roof, giving a U-value of 0.15.
As well as reducing the embodied energy of the building, the system is designed to meet Code level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Homes through an integrated whole building envelope solution. Computer modelling of the completed classroom confirms that the building has achieved a reduction in energy use over building regulations of 62%.
Solar water panels for heating tap water, and an air source heat pump for heating the classroom in the winter months, have also contributed to its energy reduction.
Natural ventilation is achieved through manually operated, low-level solid oak vents on the west elevation together with manually operated trickle vents above windows and doors. The building is also raised 300mm off the ground to allow for natural cross ventilation underneath, which also allows for quick removal of the building if required in the future.
The practice is also using the Ty Unnos system on a passive house project, also in Ebbw Vale. It hopes that once the system has been tested in these two projects, it will be given formal accreditation within the year, and can then be made commercially available.
The simple, rectilinear form of the classroom is enlivened by the different materials used in its envelope and the way the building opens to its wetlands setting through sliding and folding screens.
A layered effect is employed on the elevations by using colour and different materials that create depth and differentiate the classroom’s two functional zones.
Composite steel panels have been fixed to the classroom and blocks, while bold coloured supergraphics of wildlife and an enlarged hand-drawn map of the former steelworks have been printed and bonded onto the 4mm-thick panels. Over the coloured steel panels and supergraphics either a galvanised steel mesh or vertical charred timber is fixed.
The steel mesh is fixed over the toilet block and is used to create sliding doors that close off both the main entrance and the west elevation (which leads out on to a timber deck and boardwalks) when the building is not in use.
The charred timber clads the classroom block. Project architect Steve Coombs explains: “We decided to char the timber to protect against the weather and fire spread to avoid the use of a chemical treatment whilst also providing an industrial aesthetic.
“Charred timber does not have any form of guarantee as it will vary on the amount of charring and with each individual length of timber. The client was informed of this risk involved compared with the usual methods of applying paint, stains or other chemical based preservatives and finishes, but was very happy to continue, especially since the timber is very cheap and simple to replace”.
A mixture of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and larch, generally poor quality softwoods, were used in timbers measuring 2.9m long x 25mm wide x 50mm deep.
The timber was charred by Cowley Timberwork using an industrial blowtorch, then screwed together on site into 1.2m-wide panels.
Client Blaenau Gwent Council, Structural engineer Burroughs, M&E engineer Halcrow Yolles, Planning consultant Savills, Main contractor G Adams Construction, Ty Unnos specialists Coed Cymru, Cowley Timberwork, Masterplanners Alan Baxter & Associates, Environmental Resources Management