Although research lies at the heart of all we do, we could not have predicted the number of people who would wish to visit the Allerton Project. In 1996 we invested £60,000 and converted a cattle shed into a small visitor centre. As time moved on, our research agenda has broadened from game management to biodiversity, soil management and water quality, renewable energy and waste recycling, and with it has grown interest in the project. Increasingly people want to come and see the project for themselves and this, coupled with school visits and the introduction of training courses, meant we had outgrown our existing visitor facilities.
In keeping with our ecological approach to land management, we sought to design a building that stood on a brown field site, was constructed using ‘green’ materials (straw bale walls, sheep’s wool insulation and a car park membrane made from recycled farm plastics) and was as environmentally benign as we could make it to operate (a biomass boiler using wood chippings from our own farmland, rainwater harvesting for flushing the toilets, and solar panels providing electricity). Thanks to the assistance of the charity ProHelp, we secured some expert pro bono help and submitted plans for a new building around three times bigger than the previous one, based on a design by Sylvester Cheung. This incorporates a new toilet block, boiler house, kitchen, laboratory and store room, three meeting rooms with retractable screens, and a new entrance and car park.
After planning consent was granted, we applied to the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) and in December 2010 were offered a 60% grant towards the construction of the building. Work started autumn 2011 and, as with all projects, particularly those involving non-standard features such as straw bale wall insulation, we encountered problems, but these were overcome and the centre opened as planned in June 2012.
We use wood from the thinning of our woodland habitats instead of oil to heat the the Allerton Project’s headquarters. The visitor centre uses an Austrian built system from Hertz. This burns wood chip fuel and has a 1,000-litre buffer tank, which stores hot water at around 80 degrees. This means if heat is required quickly, say to warm a room for an imminent meeting, then the reserve can be drawn upon and the boiler can restore the heat through the day.
The thinning work is done through the winter months and the timber and brash stacked to dry. In July the chipper moves around the farm chipping into our grain trailers and the chip is tipped into the empty grain store. We then use the solar panels to produce the electricity to drive the fans to blow air through the chip to get the moisture levels down to the optimum level for burning. The chip is taken from the grain store and stacked in the redundant stock sheds, and the grain-handling bucket used to top the boiler hoppers up through the winter time. It’s an excellent example of using existing equipment for a diversification operation. The heating system alone saved us over £3,000 worth of oil heating in the first year of operation of the visitor centre, and we incorporate aspects of woodland management and timber use into our training and visitor programmes.
80 people attended our 20th anniversary celebrations and the opening of the new building. In November 2012 the building won the Property & Construction Award ‘Sustainable Building of the Year’, a huge accolade to all those involved in the project and a tribute to the generous and lasting bequest of Lord and Lady Allerton.
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