Green building to be a showcase for local skills

Thatchers at work on one of the thatched cladding panels for the new Enterprise Centre, where work h

Thatchers at work on one of the thatched cladding panels for the new Enterprise Centre, where work has started on the building at the UEA. Master thatcher Stephen Letch, right, demonstrates the panel to, from left, Edward Acton, UEA vice chancellor; and John French, project director. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2013

A special ceremony with a difference commemorated the start of work on the UK's greenest building at the University of East Anglia yesterday.

Building is now set to begin on the Enterprise Centre, at the UEA, which will be a home to start-up businesses and academics as part of a drive to harness entreprenuerial ideas generated both locally and on campus.

The £15.9m scheme is part of ambitious plans to expand the Norwich Research Park (NRP), and the centre, which has been five years in the planning from concept to reality, and is funded by a mix of EU and government cash, will be a flagship green building project aiming to showcase sustainable methods, using renewable materials from timber sourced from Thetford Forest to straw from Norfolk and Suffolk farms.

The 4,000 sqm building will include teaching rooms, a lecture theatre, exhibition space, and a business 'hatchery', where as many as 25 fledgling low-carbon firms could be nurtured.

Yesterday, instead of the traditional sod-turning ceremony to mark the start of work, guests, including NRP officials and represenatives from Norwich City Council, were treated to a demonstration of the thatching process being used by local thatchers working on the pioneering external cladding.

Dr John French, project director and chief executive of the Adapt Low Carbon Group, who is overseeing the scheme said: 'This is going to be the greenest building in Britain. When you come down the University Drive you will see this new 'gateway' building which is going to be quite stunning. It's an important part of the UEA architecture - post modern, but it's softer. This is the first time we have moved away from concrete. Not only will it be low carbon, but it shows that you can use bio-based materials.'

Steve Brock, contracts manager at Morgan Sindall, which will be undertaking the building work, said: 'The design team are working hard in the background trying to find more ideas and materials. This is a steep learning curve for all of us, but it's something we are very much looking forward to. We have got so many challenges including how we move and transport the straw panels.'

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Stephen Letch, from the East Anglian Master Thatchers Association and managing director of Thatchspec, said thatchers were using wheat straw from three farms in Norfolk and Suffolk equivalent to 10 thatched houses.

'It's something fresh and new,' he said. 'We are making up the panels on plywood panels with the thatch fixed inside it. From a thatcher's point of view this is very exciting. This building is so high-profile that it will raise awareness among architects and the general public on what is being done on contemporary buildings.

'Our main interest is traditional thatching, but this shows that it can be used on contemporary buildings and doesn't have to be just conservation work.'

UEA vice-chancellor Prof Edward Acton said the new building symbolises the university's ambitions for the Norwich Research Park.

'I am enormously proud that the UEA will lead the way in the country in sustainable architecture and will be building Britain's greenest building,' he said.