Stowe Gardens Visitor Centre
Commercial & Public Access Award Highly Commended 2012
Building Owner/ Client: The National Trust
Architect: Cowper Griffith Architects LLP
Structural Engineer: Ramboll Whitbybird
Main Contractor/ Builder: ISG InteriorExterior plc
Joinery Company: Carpenter Oak & Woodland Ltd
Wood Supplier: Ashridge Estate
Other associated companies: Parkrose Builders Ltd
Wood Species & Products Used: English Larch, European oak, Southern Yellow Pine.
Stowe Garden’s new visitor facility sits on a beautiful rural site that is once again the gateway to one of the world’s greatest landscape gardens. The project is based upon the restoration of the ‘New Inn’ originally built in 1717 by Lord Cobham as lodgings for visitors to his new emerging gardens. The inn has been restored and new buildings sympathetically created around it on the original footprint of the farm complex, which together provides a series of public areas for today’s visitor including a 85-seat restaurant, shop with plant sales, conference facilities, estate offices and interpretation for learning about the gardens and the experience of the 18th century visitor.
This is a highly unusual project in that it manages to combine restoration, reconstruction and new build in a single connected and unified group of buildings. The construction of the new buildings in timber was inspired by the former use of the site as a farm populated by timber barns. The main space in the scheme, the restaurant, was designed as a modern reinterpretation of the fallen threshing barn. The triangulated ‘dia-grid’ roof structure is made of a series of linked timber triangles connected by stainless steel flitch plates and tie rods.
The new timber buildings are built from both larch and green oak frames with oak cladding finishes. Only sustainably sourced timbers were used, timber for the restaurant frame was cut from the National Trust’s nearby Ashridge forest. Larch was selected for the frame due to its durability and availability and air-dried prior to use. Timbers were then precision engineered to reduce on-site time and eliminate wastage.
Oak framing was used to rebuild the range of outbuildings immediately behind the inn. The same traditional detailing of the original surviving timber frame was followed, including the eccentricity of varying shapes of the jowl posts and randomly spaced stud in the external walling. The only difference is that the new sections of frame external walling were increased in depth to allow good thermal insulation.
The project aimed for zero-carbon both in use and production, using materials of low embodied energy, high levels of thermal insulation and building air tightness, natural ventilation, and off-site prefabrication as well as on-site energy generation and waste treatment. The sourcing and durability of the materials used, potential for recycling, and distance to site were all considered within the design.
The buildings are clad in random oak battens which are left untreated to gradually weather to a silver grey. Internal screens and furnishings were made largely from ash ‘stripy’ plywood with box jointing at the corners and finished in a translucent grey. Acoustic slatted ceiling finishes follow the roofline in all public areas to echo the exposed tiling batten of the former barns. These ceilings used fire treated timber battens equally spaced over an acoustic tissue and sound absorbing insulation.
Larch has been cut from the National Trust’s nearby Ashridge forest for use in the larger timber framed structure of the restaurant as part of both the Trust and Design Team’s sustainability goals. It was air dried for two years before construction to reduce movement and splitting in service.