The Building | Rye Harbour Nature Reserve
Discovery Centre

Discovery Centre

Oliver Bates

Simpson and Brown designed the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre. We spoke to architect Stuart Allan about how he feels now it's finished.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement with the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre project.

I've worked at Simpson and Brown almost all of my professional life, on a mix of conservation projects and new build, including visitor centres, a new chapel and private houses. I became involved in this project from the very beginning, both as designer and project architect I think our practice probably caught the eye of Sussex Wildlife Trust due to our work on the Scottish Seabird Centre (North Berwick) and visitor centres for English Heritage like Rievaulx Abbey

How well do you know the Rye Harbour areas?

I've worked quite a bit in ‘the deep south’ at Osborne House, Hurst Castle and Dover Castle. I now know Rye and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve quite well and love it. Part of the appeal of this project has been experiencing an unusual landscape for the first time and reacting to it.

Tell us about the process of how you came up with the design, choice of materials etc

Well, it follows on from learning about the site, particularly from a tour of the site given by Barry Yates. There were subtle things, like the experience of being in a hide, the focus and concentration it provided, that would be key to the design. The centre is basically a large bird hide after all.

For materials, the seasonal colours in the landscape, the grasses, water were an influence, For the structure, man-made objects that lie along the coastline are all acknowledged. It is also a site consisting of unique, distinct views; the river, the saltmarsh, the coast and back to Rye Harbour and Rye. The design made the most of what might be considered constraints, such as significant flood levels. The centre’s floor is raised by over a metre high to improve views. I thought the most significant influence on the building form was hearing how the trust describes the surrounding landscape to visitors, particularly schoolchildren, so you will see that the building has direct internal views that help form the shape of the building. Materials like sweet chestnut, that Sussex Wildlife Trust were keen to include from the outset, have been used. These materials will continue to age well. The raised platform and columns relate to the hides and the timber jetties seen along the river and towards the harbour.

During the early design stages, there was pressure meeting the ambitions of Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve with what was a very constrained site.

Early designs included a two storey building and an accessible rooftop viewing area. A ‘tennis balls on sticks’ exercise was carried out to check how proposed heights would appear from distant views. All of that discussion, and refinements to the brief, definitely helped produce a building that is appropriate to its setting.

Were there things you’d like to have done but weren’t possible because of the budget/geography/location?

Not really. The challenge to meet all of these makes for a unique building. The budget was always under pressure due to the underground services requirements. Having so much of the budget directed towards linking services to Rye Harbour village was necessary in order to make this building useful and commercially viable. A very ‘low impact’ and fully off- grid building would have been great for the site but was found, unfortunately, to not meet the demands. There is a hope that future technologies can be incorporated into the building.

Whatever we show on our early drawings or with design images, the finished building always looks better as you get the real relationship with landscape, the sunlight and the views.

How do you feel about the outcome – is everything as you expected?

It is a thrill to see a design, from being a sketch to be being built, reacting to the pressures of the wider project without suffering too much from compromise.

What would your dream project be?

I think not knowing what projects are ‘around the corner’ is what keeps things interesting. I particularly enjoy any project that is cultural, within natural landscapes or in some sort of interesting or challenging context.

How 'green' a project was it possible to make the Discovery Centre?

There is an uncomfortable fact that many ‘green’ buildings opt for materials like timber that have ‘green’ credentials but still contribute to habitat loss. It does make sense that a nature reserve buildings does as much as possible, rather than just improve on the current statutory requirements and regulations. It is an aspiration to design a building with negligible or even no environmental impact. This would be extremely difficult to achieve unless there is active encouragement from local authorities, building regulations, and time in design development to really think outside the box.

There is often a conflict with a building that must be sustainable commercially as this can introduce a layer of complexity. The Discovery Centre building can be proud of its ‘low environmental impact’ construction process and how the environment has been considered by its design and specification. Conversations with our client and decision making has always considered the environment. Positive and environmental benefits for the building include reducing typical running costs and energy consumption using thermal mass, an excellent air tightness value, natural ventilation and environmentally considered materials. The building process throughout produced no waste for landfill.

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