The Great Fen Future Vision as the living landscape of open water, lakes, ponds, reed bed, fen and marsh dictated the form of our proposal for the Visitor Centre not vice versa. It is our response to this unique location and its heritage providing freedom of exploration, learning and preservation of the fenland. The conceptual reasoning behind this design can be compared to various insect forms such as water striders and caterpillars. The engineering bears resemblance to the Meccano construction set and finally the inflatable skin to Her Majesty’s umbrella?
Therefore a mobile inflatable air structure emerged as the best solution. The final stage of the Masterplan for the Great Fen development presents flood waters which used to be a natural occurrence to this land, therefore the Visitor Centre Pavilion together with additional capsules are elevated off the ground via hydraulic legs which are attached permanently to pontoons pads. This decision gives us the safety off the changing water levels, can cope with the demands of the marshes, eliminates the costs of the ground works and most importantly gives the opportunity to temporary float hence travel to other parts of the fenland and beyond the boundaries, subject to kind permissions. To achieve this magic happening everything must be very light. Employing a pressured air as the main structural element is giving us this opportunity. Also the semimonocoque fuselage construction of aluminum alloys used for the bases of the Visitor Centre Pavilion and additional capsules overcomes the strength-to-weight problem. Because of its stressed skin assembly it can withstand damage and still be strong enough to hold together.
Our first encounter is a small information capsule located along the B660 road with immediate car-park offering the visitors a brief look of the awaiting adventure. The Great Fen Visitor Centre Pavilion is sighted mid way to the East off the Long Drove which is leading to the New Decoy farm buildings, serviced by adjacent car park to the West. This is our permanent docking station complemented by arrivals foreground with decking, stations for the Camera Obscura and the Explorer capsules. Along the one way access road are two Public Lavatories and three capsules of Garages and Store Rooms which are kept unlocked for the use outside the visiting hours.
The Visitor Centre Pavilion can be accessed by water or land from two entrances on either side serviced by the help-information islands. Following the shape and the structural grid principles in the centre we have three symmetrical runs divided into different activity zones with fresh spatial qualities developed from the open plan concept. Both ends are free to accommodate larger number of visitors. Central run is a restaurant tables arrangement with exhibition space and retail to both ends. In front there is an open plan kitchen with a long bar with store rooms terminating with a meeting and learning zones. At the opposite side we have private and public lavatories with offices and staff room. For more intimate meetings at the first floor we designed two 1000 sq. feet tea mezzanines with balconies.
To let the light in the enclosing skin of the Visitor Center Pavilion is clear nylon reinforced PVC which offers unobstructed views of the outside in any direction and reduces the need for the artificial lighting. Also collects rainwater that can be treated and stored in tanks within the base void for use in flushing toilets etc. Overall it encloses an area 230 feet long, 52 feet wide and 26 feet high at the crown. By keeping the internal layout clear of the edge we are limiting the air drum effect and notably not obscuring the wildlife outside.
The base has been designed out of only 10 different types of prefabricated components to simplify transportation and erection. Because of the evolving landscape we are in favor to prefabrication of the bases hence the majority of the work is created in a dry, efficient environment which is more economic, controlled and highly finished than work which is subject to the conditions on the site and weather. The full height structural ribs are set on the 20 feet grid to allow deflation with minimum disturbance. They also carry led lighting fittings which produce indirect background illumination bounced back from the inside surface of the skin. It can change colours according to different events or seasons.
Means of escape are resolved by a pair of ribs constructed by the entrances which will support the enclosing skin clear of the routes. Assisting the Visitor Centre Pavilion is one multi-purpose system which combines the functions of heating, infiltration pressuring and ventilation. It is located within the base and powered by solar energy – backup by standby batteries. Ventilation is based on the air being part re-circulated and part fresh. The ratio is being automatically controlled to the desired mixture and pressure controlled. Incoming air is conditioned in a simple duct – slot system, discharged through the side panels of the base fuselage. Additionally battery operated stand-by fans with automatic switching and recharging gear can maintain erection of the enclosing skin for 24 hours under all weather conditions, before recharging using the power from the solar panels or wind turbines installed at the roof.
Because of the design modularity we see the local community involvement via the Great Fen Apprenticeship scheme gaining technical training and work experience with a partnership of the main contractor while the Visitor Centre Pavilion is constructed. Thereafter the additional capsules can be developed by themselves under the supervision. Keeping within the same design language we see also the potential involvement for design and production of inflatable furniture incorporating the fenland materials such as reed or straw.
All additional capsules are in principle smaller versions of the Visitor Centre Pavilion. All of them are capable of adapting to changes in the surrounding landscape. They are free to explore different locations which will attract different visitors interested in the landscape, wildlife, photography, skywatchers etc. The Observation Platform is our Explorer capsule which can accommodate up to 18 fen enthusiasts eager to truly go into the wild. Can be moved or float to different locations and be lifted above the ground or water and between the air – as it is mounted on a scissor type lift with a rotating platform. It is our kinetic response allowing the freedom of observation to overcome one fixed viewpoint. The Camera Obscura capsule carries the same principle as a moving module. It is equipped with twelve tubular lenses which can be turned to any desired view. The Bat Hibernaculum should be moved at the specific location under the expert advice. All capsules are media connected forming a network of encounter information with the live broadcast back to the Visitor Centre Pavilion’s exhibition zone.
Because of excluding the ground works, using pressured air as a structure, minimizing the construction time spent on site through prefabrication we can deliver this proposal for the Great Fen Visitor Centre comfortably within the project budget in the region of two million pounds. The approximate cost commence with £1,764,000 for the Pavilion plus £198,000 for external works – a total of £1,962,000 including 18% for preliminaries and 7.5% of contingencies. Additional desirable components planned as a second phase of the project, such as: Camera Obscura, the Explorer, Outside Lavatories, Garages & Stores as might be expected will cost also and concluded to £1,218,480 (preliminaries and contingencies inclusive). Determined by the approved funds we are committed as a team to ensure that the original budget parameters are met.
The eventual outcome of this proposal is a mobile air structure which can realized 10000 sq. feet at a minimal construction time spent on site. Final erection of the Visitor Centre Pavilion can be achieved from scratch under one hour. Taking the leap of imagination The Great Fen Visitor Centre can become an example to follow of non-static architecture, gently drifting the marshes as a natural companion to the environment it will truly inhabit.Architect: Quixotic Architecture Project team: Wojciech Dziubek & Maciej Wierzbinski Award: Cambridgeshire, UK RIBA Competition / Top 20 entry