Material choices made on re-use and recycle principles

The centre was built as a large demonstration project, bringing together global research on low and high-tech solutions, to inspire and catalyse change. Everywhere you looked, the centre showcased alternative ways of living, opening the eyes of all visitors to possible ‘fantastic futures’. Built on the site of a disused coal mine in Conisbrough, The Earth Centre was the brainchild of sustainability activist Jonathan Smales. This government-backed Millennium project was a prime example of post-industrial regeneration as the UK economy shifted away from traditional production. The Earth Centre worked closely with a collective masterplanning team that included Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Grant Associates, Alsop & Stormer, Arup and Future Systems.  

In the early 2000s, sustainability focused around re-use and recycling, and this drove many of the design decisions and material choices made on site. From the outset no topsoil was used to regenerate the degraded landscape of the old coal mine. The project used a powerful mix of farmyard manure, organic matter and human sewage, planting fast-growing Alders (with nitrogen-fixing properties) and Willow to help build and bind the soil, transforming it into the thriving 170-hectare Country Park it has now become.  

A closed loop system

Being a test bed for sustainable technologies, The Earth Centre saw many firsts. Grant Associates developed a closed-loop system for the whole site based around principles of energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling and use of non-polluting materials. The landscape was multifunctional offering richly diverse habitat, food production, shelter and delight. Atelier Ten created their first large-scale underground labyrinth that regulated the air temperatures, naturally, through thermal storage. Feilden Clegg Bradley built a solar panel canopy which, at the time, was the biggest in Britain. A fifth of the electrical power required came from the 1000m2 of photovoltaic cells supported by a vast structure made from reclaimed timber.  

All the water on site was handled in a closed-loop system. Sewage from the public vacuum toilets flowed through the settling, filtering and polishing tanks in the Living Machine, a plant-bed system. The resulting nutrient enriched water was then fed into tubes full of algae which absorbed the nutritional matter.  The algae were then fed to the Tilapia fish at the centre’s fish farm, which were ultimately served up in the cafe. All food waste was composted and added back into the soil as fertiliser, helping the cafe’s vegetable beds to flourish.