East Anglia’s material palette showcased in the UEA Enterprise Centre


Thatch, Architecture, contemporary and traditional

As the UEA Enterprise Centre nears completion and the ambitious objectives which make this building so unique come into focus, we take a closer look at one of the most interesting aspects of this project; the stand-out material specification.

The function of this campus building is to provide incubation space for new sustainable enterprise to flourish; supported by the regions commerce, both present and future. It stood to reason that the very nature of this build would therefore be an exercise in coming together, collaborating and networking with suppliers local to this project.

Highly supported by the client, The Adapt Low Carbon Group; the Enterprise Centre has placed significant emphasis in the sourcing of domestic, specifically East Anglian materials. Materials have been chosen, fabricated, tested and implemented from as close to site as possible, with a commitment and determination that has unearthed new potential for UK architecture; not only demonstrating the quality of materials available but introducing an alternative design aesthetic that strives to be genuinely local, embedding the building in its regional context.

From the foundations up of this pioneering building, local and domestic material is plentiful. The low carbon, 70% GGBS concrete slab is reinforced with recycled steel that sits on a sub-base, which has been reclaimed from a locally demolished hospital building. Sustainable timber has been a dominating material throughout; this has included 70% of the stud work comprising of Corsican Pine from the Thetford Forest, just 30 miles from site, with the remainder, Sitka spruce sourced from within the British Isles.

Visually the most outstanding and spectacular contribution to the material palette is realised in the vast thatch cladding that dramatically extends across each face of the building. The perfect showcase for East Anglia, the cladding optimises the regions renowned crops; straw, and reed from the beds of the Norfolk Broads. The thatch is an excellent sustainable material choice, a carbon negative material sourced from rapidly renewable crops and with close proximity to site.

Architype, Morgan Sindall and the thatchers worked together to develop a slide-in cassette design to house the panels of thatch that have been prefabricated indoors over the winter. The panels themselves comprise of a range of thatch varieties, chosen for their textured aesthetic. Through weathering, the thatch will slowly develop over time from the fresh cut golden colour to a rich smoky patina that will characterise the building. As if the low carbon credentials weren’t enough, Stephen letch, leader of the thatch team at the Enterprise Centre has even been able to make use of the wheat’s scrap off-cuts, turning the by-product into flour and wheat beer!

The mixed palette of the East facing courtyard is a plethora of sustainable materiality that plays to the senses, from the Larch glulams sourced from the nearby Brandon Estate, to the locally sourced flint shingle, used in the fittingly designed landscape.

Above the entrance are striking panels of plained African Iroko, recycled from old lab desks recovered from the 1960’s campus chemistry building designed by Denys Lasdun. The remainder of the cladding, and most recent acquisition on site is a haul of twenty-year-old seasoned oak, sourced from a local timber yard, who were able to site the oaks origins from a north Norfolk woodland estate.

Seeing all of these local and innovative materials juxtaposed provides an impressive visual gateway to the continuing palette of the interior. The high levels of internal comfort provided by Passivhaus will be complemented by a range of ecological and non toxic finishes, including a timber slat ceiling, wood wool acoustic boards, recycled car tyre matting and natural based paints and oils.

The study pods of the first floor are distinguished with natural colours and materials, made of earth board, nettle fabric, locally sourced reeds, rustic hemp and lime render, a tactile and interesting way to define spaces.

The meticulous specification has been essential in the overall success of this low carbon building. The enthusiasm and commitment behind the material palette has enhanced the design and concept of this building through heavily involving local materials and skills to achieve sustainable solutions. The Enterprise Centre is proof that innovation can be delivered closer to home than we think and 21st century buildings are not beyond the remit of the people and materials that surround a project.