By Stephen Smith
The Glass-House recently re-visited an ‘old friend’ for a very special hosted study tour: the Gamlingay Eco-Hub. This pioneering community centre was an early beneficiary of Glass-House project support in 2005 and was completed in 2012. Located on the edge of the village, the entrance frames a view to a new wind turbine, a keynote of the group’s ambition for ‘greening the community.’ It is already a remarkable journey; the opening of the building is a landmark moment with the promise of much more to come.
By embedding the former community hall in the heart of the plan a continuity of associations and memory of community use on the site was established. The former hall was dark, constrained and difficult to navigate. New spaces are bright, warm and welcoming, reaching outwards to long views. Memorable features such as the ‘Aalto-inspired timber-lined scoop’ over the library area, which floods the space with light, are part of a barn-like vernacular that is non-institutional in character. Light and colour create a calming and inspiring atmosphere, the tactile timber lining of the volumes and purpose-made furniture gives a homely feel and consistency throughout.
On the tour, our guide Bridget Smith, took us through the innovative approach to the integration of renewable energy sources – with the incredible result that they have no need for fossil fuel back-up at all. That such a laudable feat has been achieved is the result of a close collaboration between client and architect. The site is favourable in orientation for photovoltaic installations, located on the deep-plan roof. Open playing fields have permitted a generous ground source heat loop to be buried beneath them. The overall ‘greening’ of the project was a key strategic move for initial funding, not to mention removing the potential burden of on-costs for future energy bills.
Bridget, as the champion for the client team throughout, retains an infectious enthusiasm for sharing her team’s approach to chasing and securing funding and a real pride in the finished building. It is notable that some renewable options were not taken up: a sedum roof would have brought ecological benefits but would have had a on-cost on the weight of the structure needed to support it, not to mention attendant maintenance costs to factor in to overheads.
One overriding driver of the brief was to bring young people into a secure and welcoming community environment. Has this worked? Certainly early signs are positive and it really does feel as though the spaces provided have a multi-generational appeal; the clear volumes mean no hidden corners; clear sight lines and the large areas of glazing help with passive monitoring. Parents have the benefit of watching their children through the large glass screen doing dance classes while they search for a book in the library.
It has taken around 10 years for the project to reach this stage from the initial brainstorming and ‘what-if’ stage. A second phase of building is programmed and the community centre is being hailed as an exemplar of its type. The key lessons and inspiration of the project are based around communication.
Perhaps the move to engage the community and to ask hard questions about how together they could bring about change helped to establish good foundations?
Perhaps persevering on several design iterations allowed an architectural language to develop that is uplifting and welcoming.
Perhaps the ambition for the Eco-hub to create a secure emotional boundary for all users and to make them part of the journey is also the basis from which it can continue to grow and flourish?
Stephen Smith is a Glass-House Enabler and an architect with Wright & Wright Architects.