"Literally every visitor comments on how nice it is..."

Birmingham University BIFoR Project

Wernick Buildings Provide Low Carbon Building for High Carbon Experiment

In 2014 the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) secured funding to undertake an experiment concerning one of the big issues of our time: climate change. The FACE (Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment)experiment, which aims to measure the effects of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere on mature woodlands.

The experiment is conducted using a series of ‘arrays’, made up of 25m tall pylons arranged in roughly 30m diameter circles. Each pylon can be individually controlled to pump CO2 into the air, and the height at which it is pumped in can also be controlled. By carefully monitoring windspeed and direction, researchers at the site can create an area of elevated CO2 within each array. “The area we’re working in is very typical of mature Northern European forests,” Dr Kris Hart, FACE Operations Manager, commented, “which makes it ideal for this type of experiment.”

If handled incorrectly, this ideal setting could have been ruined by the very experiment established to study it, so the entire project had to be designed from the ground up to have as little impact on the forest as possible. One of the ways this was achieved was, quite literally, working from the ground up.

“There are absolutely no concrete foundations used anywhere on the site,” explained Kris. Instead, the pylons are secured using helical piles, or in layman’s terms, large corkscrews screwed into the ground. The pipes providing the arrays with CO2 have also not been buried unless necessary for access, to further reduce disruption to the area.

Construction of the pylons took place offsite, and they were installed by helicopter. For the research station, Wernick Buildings were on hand to provide an offsite, modular solution. The building, designed by Glancy Nicholls architects, consists of three connected rooms in a staggered asymmetric layout. To blend with the wooded environment, it is clad in cedar shingles which when combined with a pitched roof removed the need for downpipes or guttering. The building also features canopies over both entrances. The building rests on a metal frame which, like the pylons, uses helical pile foundations.

The inside of the building is mainly occupied with a large open plan area featuring an office and kitchen space. It also features male, female and disabled toilet facilities; storage and a workshop. Kris is keen to point out a particularly important factor of the internal finish “It’s really easy to keep clean. With four people spending all day coming in and out of the woods, the hardwearing finish makes maintaining the facility much easier.”

The project is set to run until 2024, though the university hopes it will be able to secure funding to continue after this. Manned ten hours a day by a team of four researchers, it was important the building felt comfortable. “We all enjoy working here,” commented Kris, “and it isn’t just the staff here that like the building. Literally every visitor, without exception, has commented on how nice it is; from scientists and arborists to construction professionals, estate managers and even the locals.” The greatest compliment of the building, though, has come from the landowners. Because of the special foundations, the building is easily relocatable: “My understanding is that the landowners feel the building is so nice that they want to keep it after the experiment has finished.” Kris told us.