When we were asked to get involved to lead the project, we discovered that a previous site chosen for the project had fallen through. The first job we had was to quickly find a suitable alternative. After initial enquires we were happy that the National Botanic Garden of Wales agreed to accept alive build project in the grounds at Llanarthne in Carmarthenshire and support the process with the provision of office space and expert staff to facilitate aspects of the build.
A big challenge was to set up the program to achieve both the requirements of the 'summer school' with the limited time frame of involvement with the students and the more uncertain time frame of delivering a finished building that has somehow to gain acceptance with an institutional client, and local authorities for planning and building regulation.
Another significant challenge of the project was to satisfy the requirements for the use of the structure as a performance stage. The Botanic Gardens wished to have a larger stage for future performances served by a well protected power supply. As a consequence, the project took a significant jump in scale just as we were about to carry out the detailed design work. This made it the largest and most complex project ever attempted through the Princes Foundation summer school programs.
The design on a Summer School always begins with a workshop. This is based on the Enquiry by Design model which allows for the engagement of all interested parties. This helps to speed up the planning process with a design which has a high level of buy in. It was helpful in this context, so that the planning students could see full-on engagement in action. Secondly it allowed the Princes Foundation and the National Botanic Garden to agree a preferred design and location for the new structure.
The workshop was carried out at the Discovery Centre at Margham Park and the presentation of around 5 schemes were presented at the Botanic Garden. The winning scheme was a performance stage designed to be located along the avenue of silver birches.
From this point we engaged with the structural engineers and the appointed master craftsmen to build up a detailed design for the construction of the building.
Most previous summer school projects had been entirely craftsmen led. In this case the complexity of the geometry, meant that we either had to consider a re-design or to look at using the principle of 'co-operative' structures. We chose the latter, to enable the concept to be as closely delivered as possible to the original design. Cooperative structural computer models were carried out and the craftsmen had to create timber joints that they would have had little if any experience of previously. The patience of both the craftsmen and the professional on the job was tested to the limit but happily, with great co-operation on all sides, the building came to an elegant completion.
Challenging to the end, the project took long than expected to complete as we sought to use local 'Pennant' stone from a previously demolished building in the area. Winter set in early and proved to be one of the coldest on record. Remaining lime mortar work had to be suspended until warmer weather returned, when the finishing touches were finally made.
The structure was formally opened when the Prince of Wales attended the opening ceremony as part of his annual Wales Week tour.