2015 © Luke Riggall

The ARC Centre
Advanced Research & Conservation
Working to Restore the Highland Peat Marshes
6th Year - RIBA Part II
01.07.2014 - 01.06.2015

My preliminary investigations in the subject of urban expansion highlighted the growing trend of de-densification, and if accelerated, may redefine cities as we know them today. Current predictions state that urban areas will have tripled their developed land in just 30 years time.

Once a city passes its initial spike of growth, it will expand in size faster than its population will grow, this is the start of urban de-densification. The cause of which is often due to improved transport links, enabling developments to thrive along them. As these links continue to improve, I predict that this will become a catalyst for urban dilation and may open up opportunities for the built environment far beyond the threshold of todays cities. This would enable populations to live within previously unexploited landscapes.

More than ever, we should now consider the relationship between the natural and built environments, towards a symbiotic, interdependent approach. This is the underlying theme of this proposal.

The programme manifests itself in the form of a multi-layered, mixed use community working to monitor, analyse and restore an eroding marsh land within the Scottish highlands. The project includes research and visitor facilities, interlinked with an autonomous settlement addressing the essential needs of living within isolated and climatically intense landscapes.

The chosen site has been identified as one of the most significant, yet vulnerable peat marshes within the UK. The majority of this erosion is due to artificial tree plantations which have drained the water levels of the marsh land. The proposal responds by repurposing this timber supply into the schemes structure and materiality. Not only is this stunning and vital landscape in need of preservation, but it also posses a threat to us by releasing high levels of carbon into the atmosphere. In other words, we need this landscape just as much as it needs us.

The site is accessed along a dirt track and cable car system connecting to the main visitor centre. From there, any of the development may be accessed along a timber walkway and there is also the option to explore by boat.

In order to avoid damaging the areas of peat deposits within the land, the proposal is built on the water using pile foundations, driven directly into the base rock.

The visitor centre includes a main entrance atrium, seminar spaces, an information centre and a first floor restaurant with views over the designated nature reserve. The first floor offices bridge over to the research wing of the main building, acting as the control point between the public and private areas. This includes a central break out space for the staff as well as 6 laboratories, each specialising in one of the core erosion processes, and orientated accordingly.

To the North of the development, there is a visitors retreat which overlooks the nature reserve and consists of 9 high quality accommodation units with access to a 2km circular walkway along the waterways. To the South, there is a separate staff community consisting of 18 accommodation units overlooking the less healthy (but no less stunning) landscape and the mountain range beyond. There are also 3 observation towers on the peripheries of the development, used for bird watching, electricity generation and as control towers for automated field modules.

The defensive, aerodynamic forms of the scheme respond to the sites intense climatic conditions, with exterior spaces being shielded by densely woven timber windbreaks. In addition, the design of the accommodation units take references from native highland buildings. The scheme also aims to harness the climatic conditions with integrated wind turbines, water collecting roofs and photovoltaic panels, with biomass log burners as the heat source.

Finally, a proportion of the food can be grown on site via the floating cultivation units and integrated planters.

As a vision for the future - if transport technology can transcend beyond their requirement for infrastructure (to infrastructure-less transport methods) - I can imagine how communities could settle in remote locations such as desolate, oceanic or precipitous natural environments. This hyper-site-specific design approach could be replicated and adapted to different conditions as a new, symbiotic relationship between the natural and built, and perhaps influencing the design of the urban fringe.