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Great Fen Visitor Centre

Cambridgeshire, UK

Birds Portchmouth Russum architects and Studio Engleback are finalists in the Great Fen Visitor Centre Competition run during the winter months of 2013. Five schemes were selected from over two hundred entries. A decision is currently awaited for the winner. Great Fen is currently a large tract of farmland that will, over thirty years be returned to fenland habitats, a landscape that was all but lost due to drainage. This land has started to be drained prior to the English Civil War aided by Dutch know-how, but it was with the introduction of steam powered pumps in the 1820s that the great reclamation began. Between 1637 and 1934 the fenland reduced from around 3380 km2 to a mere 10km2. The peaty soils are amongst the most productive in the UK but drainage has caused the land to sink by up to 4 metres in the last 150 years so that a large area is now beneath sea level. In addition, oxidation of the dark soils contributes hugely to the UK carbon emissions - agriculture collectively comprising around 10% of these. Our scheme comprised a visitor centre inspired by the fen marsh spider in local thatch and timber on a deck ‘floating’ above the landscape. A tight arrangement of external routes utilizing existing roads reduces materials use and costs. The landscape is an extension of the building accessed by board walks to shelters and hides and providing a flavour of wet and dry grassland, woodland, reed bed, fen and marsh and anchored by a science garden. Willlow frames over the parking area illustrate the volume occupies by 8 tonnes of carbon dioxide - the current average emission per person. They reduce the visual impact of park cars and sun reflected off windscreens, but also house a photo voltaic array for zero carbon energy.