The Earth Centre Forest Garden was intended to demonstrate how managed woodland could supply the vast majority of all natural resources needed for human survival. The Forest Garden itself was designed as a sequence of humpback mounds creating a 3-D labyrinth of productive woodland planting. The Grid Shells were seen as devices that would emphasise the form and height of these mounds whilst introducing ‘contemporary built’ forms into the landscape. The initial sketches and sketch models capture this intent but we needed an idea for showing an efficient, elegant and structurally inventive way of creating habitable structures from timber.
We had been working with Buro Happold on Hooke Park in Dorset, a centre associated with innovative use of forest timber in construction, and had a joint interest in creating ‘landscape’ structures that could test the boundaries of timber construction without the limitations of building regulations. The engineers could see how we could make these forms using green oak lattice and tensioned cables to build Grid Shell structures. In fact, the Earth Centre project provided valuable research into a technique that was later used to build the Weald and Downland Visitor Centre designed by Edward Cullinan Architects. After the initial sketches, the idea quickly evolved into real-life experiments. We worked with Buro Happold and the specialist contractors, Carpenter Oak & Woodland, to test out various timber dimensions for the lattice and how far green oak could be bent. The combination of green oak and stainless steel (resistant to the tannins from the green oak) created a wonderful fusion of raw natural materials and industrial aesthetics and informed the final geometries and details of the Grid Shells.
The Grid Shells became significant landscape features of the Earth Centre gardens, adding height and scale into a raw, remodelled colliery landscape. Today they have become part of the landscape, subsumed within vegetation but retaining their presence as quirky engineered structures.