Chiltern Hills Gateway Centre

Bedfordshire County Council & The National Trust

Project Outline

The sleek Visitor Centre provides a unique experience and vastly improved facilities for all those visiting the magnificent landscape of Chiltern Hills at Dunstable Downs. Commissioned by Bedfordshire County Council in partnership with The National Trust, the purpose-designed centre replaces an undistinguished kiosk snack bar with basic visitor facilities.

Our building provides a rich visitor experience for the 400,000 people who visit each year. The centre is located at Bedfordshire’s highest point, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

From the outset, Architype intended to create a highly sustainable building, so the centre includes many green technologies including a wood chip boiler, rain water recycling, and a beautiful, unusual, ‘windcatcher’ that captures air from the hill naturally and delivers it into the building through a 90 m long underground concrete 'earth duct'.

On Site / Oct. ‘05
Completion / Aug. ‘06
Gross Internal Floor Area
605 sqm
Construction Type
Steel Frame
Total / £2,500,000

2007 Sustainable Building of the Year Finalist

Architype has created a popular building. The flexible design combines innovative environmental strategies, indoor and outdoor educational activities, leisure pursuits, café facilities, and successful building operations.

Jeremy Sutton, The Centre Building Manager


Constructed on an exceptionally windy site, the new centre features an elegant wing-shaped roof that appears to ‘hover’ on the hillside. Its form allows it to withstand extremely heavy wind loads, and also to reflect two of the main leisure activities of the area – kite and glider flying.

The building, along with the car parks and landscaped areas, is nestled into the existing contours in order to reduce impact on the immediate surroundings. The fully glazed public viewing deck provides panoramic views across the Vale of Aylesbury and along the Chilterns ridge. The Centre is entered via a paved court directly facing the main entrance, on the other side of the building from the viewing deck. The entrance court’s sunny south facing position makes it ideal for enjoying refreshments outside.

Process and Strategy

The Chilterns Gateway Centre is positioned at a key visitor site within the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and great consideration is given to the building’s location within its immediate surroundings. The site layout includes a carefully designed sequential approach to the building, which collects visitors arriving by different means and orientates all towards the building entrance. Visitors arriving by coach, bicycle or car will pass across the hills with the downland interpretative gardens.

The development of the centre has been designed with a rigorous environmental agenda, with great consideration given to reduction in use of fossil fuel energy and the adoption of a palette of ecologically sound and non-toxic materials.

Pioneering Wind Catcher

Architype designed a 'wind catcher' that captures the air from the hill naturally and delivers it into the building through a 90 m long underground concrete 'earth pipe'. Although pioneering in the UK, the system has been used for centuries in many hot, dry countries as an environmentally friendly method of cooling buildings.

The system is energy efficient for two reasons:

  • Fresh air is drawn into the building naturally instead of using the energy consuming methods used in most commercial buildings.
  • The temperature of the earth 2 metres below the surface is relatively constant at around 12°C throughout the year. In the winter, this means that the incoming air is naturally pre-warmed. In the summer, the system eliminates the need for energy consuming air conditioning equipment as the warmer air is naturally cooled down as it moves through the earth pipe providing 'free cooling' as it enters the building.

Dunstable Downs is on the north-facing scarp slope of the chalk ridge in the Chilterns. The aim of the project was to evoke the landscape's character and make it obvious that the setting for the building is derived from it. The landscaping is designed to be sustainable, durable, and indigenous to the Chilterns.

The potential for erosion is countered by creating a channel of movement from car and coach park to the centre, café and viewing terrace through the ‘wind’ garden. Edges to car parks with banks and ditches define car movements and pedestrian routes.

The car parks are set into the contours of the site. Reclaimed soil and grass are used to form banks forming a defined edge between the car park and the Downs, preventing egress by cars on to the grassland.

Architype Team

Project Partners

Structural Engineers
Building Environment Engineers
Landscape Architects
Jennifer Coe


  • Runner up for Sustainable Project of the Year - Small Projects at the Sustainability Awards 2007
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