Working Around Nature and History
Sir Peter Scott’s House, Slimbridge
The transformation of Sir Peter Scott’s house has been an intriguing project to work on right from the beginning because its historical significance is astonishing but not in a typical way. The house itself is not particularly old and it’s not a listed building. There are no notable architectural features to be preserved; no intricate plaster work or carefully crafted masonry carvings. In fact, in pure architectural terms, it’s a fairly unremarkable building. Its historical value comes from how it has been used by Sir Peter and his family. To see how he both worked and lived with his family in the house is fascinating. What has been discussed within its walls and what’s been witnessed from its windows is of great importance to our nation’s social history and to the building’s setting within WWF Slimbridge reserve. The fact that conservation — a concept that’s hugely important to all our lives — was conceived in the house is incredible. The irony of ensuring this building was preserved for future generations to learn the importance of conservation for all our futures was not lost on the architects Millar + Howard Workshop.
Sir Peter Scott was the founding father of the World Wildlife Trust and what we now recognise as “conservation”. It is a fitting tribute therefore that the building which was both his family home and his work base be made accessible and provide insight into his studies and family life. The project, of course, had to be sustainable, so the upstairs bedrooms would be adapted to be holiday rental accommodation and the swimming pool would be converted into a conference space. Much of the living space downstairs on the ground floor however would become a museum dedicated to the life and work of Sir Peter Scott, showing both his research and discoveries while also showing how he chose to live with his family so close to his beloved birds.
Preserving the integrity of both the building and how Sir Peter and his family lived their frugal, post-war years was paramount. While exploring the house during one of the first site visits, Tomas Millar, founder of Millar + Howard Workshop and the lead architect on this project, made a few discoveries which told the story of the lives of those that lived and visited the house. Such was Sir Peter’s dedication to the birds — which used the surrounding land as feeding and breeding grounds, they could be watched from every window. One charming encounter occurred in the observation tower, there was simply a window scraper for chipping off ice and a rather ineffective looking one-bar electric heater. These few, rudimental items highlighted acutely Sir Peter’s
prioritising of the birds over his own comfort and his passion for continual observation of wildlife and discovery of behaviours. It was these elements which gave a true picture of the man Peter Scott, as opposed to the public figure of Sir Peter that became important to the architects to preserve.
The museum rooms are to remain as they were when they were lived in by the Scott family, complete with piles of papers, unfinished paintings on easels and cups in the sink — many of which were samples of WWF branded mugs being well used rather than wastefully thrown away.
It will feel to the visitor as though they are guests in the house while the owners have popped out the room. Achieving this sense of “just how the owners left it” was not as straightforward as simply leaving everything in situ. All items had to be removed during the works so all the museum rooms were photographed extensively, each item catalogued and then packed away. All the light and electric fittings were to remain in place; conserved as part of the museum exhibits. A new socket, put discreetly in place for cleaning and maintenance purposes and when building work finishes, the photos will be used to ensure everything is replaced just how the Scotts left it.
One of the main features of Sir Peter’s former study, the focus of the museum, is a huge window which overlooks the Rushy Pen; an expanse of water to which many species of bird and wildfowl gather.
The room can be recalled by many from the BBC broadcasts made directly from the there featuring Sir David Attenborourgh. Sir Peter, along with his colleagues and family spent many hours observing the birds from this window — and incredible vantage point from which the many birds and mammals could not just be viewed but watched for long periods of time and studied. It tells the story of Sir Peter to us; highlighting his prioritising of the birds over himself and disregard for his own comfort and passion for continual observation of wildlife and discovery of behaviours. It was essential to the project that this window opening was kept, yet its frame (and all the others in the building) needed to be updated to prevent water damage both externally and internally. The PVC windows were meticulously replaced with more sustainable aluminium ones which perform more efficiently, have a longer service life and are easier to maintain. In keeping with the heritage of the house, research, mainly from old photographs found within the house was carried out to discover which type of windows were originally installed. The format and material of the new window frames were matched as closely as possible. Protective film was then adhered to all the glass panes to save the contents of the house, especially the exhibits in the museum rooms, from sun damage. Attention was given to all areas of the museum to ensure the rooms could be kept at the right temperature, humidity and were fire protected so the historical artifacts were protected but that these modern adjustments were hidden from view as much as possible retaining the illusion that the rooms had seemingly been temporarily abandoned by their owners.
During the refurbishment, it’s been a priority to maintain the character of the building so for example, upstairs visitors will be able to stay in Sir Peter’s bedroom which is being remodelled but the glass structure hanging from the ceiling will remain. Sir Peter commissioned this unique construction to house his latest painting to allow him to view and contemplate it from bed. This room will also have his wardrobe in complete with plastic Dymo labels on each shelf and drawer. Visitors will also be able to stay in the bedroom Queen Elizabeth II used during her stays at Slimbridge. While re-doing the roof, as many of the original tiles were kept as possible and put on the front of the building. As close a match as possible was found for any that needed replacing and the new tiles were all placed on the back of the building where they are less visible.
In a rather fitting tribute to Sir Peter, a seagull was nesting on the side of the building, protecting and feeding its newly hatched chick. Builders worked around the new feathered family until the chick was ready to leave and it’s parents deserted the nest. Only then did they begin work on the patch of the roof they refused to access while the birds still needed relative peace and seclusion.
In contrast to the historical elements of the building, the latest technologies were used to design the internal reconfiguration. Thousands of photographs were taken of the entire space, processed and then used to create a 3D model renders of the interior and exterior. This allowed the architects to have a true sense of the existing space; its dimensions and contents so that ideas for alternative uses for the swimming pool space could be developed while retaining the candor of the other rooms.
These, along with virtual reality (VR) walk-throughs were used prior to planning to help the architects develop several designs of various uses for the swimming pool space.
Change of use is always difficult; there’s a desire to make use of the space that would otherwise only be useful in its initial era. It’s especially important to get it right in a building of historical influence and one that needs to be used sustainably or it could be lost forever. Using VR is an incredible tool for producing a variety of designs and allowing the clients to really understand the proposed use of the space. Its immersive functionality means that users experience what it will feel like to walk around the spaces, visualise the materials and gain insight into how they, and other users will respond to it just as they would in a real building in a way that just can’t be gained from a 2D drawing. In this instance, following the VR presentation, the clients were fully engaged with the proposed adaptations of the pool into a dedicated conference area. The reuse of the conservatory, giving it a new purpose as the entrance foyer to a large flexible conference room with tiered seating of timber birch ply and a 20 seater table to either sit around or put to one side as the space can be used for lectures, performance space, receptions, workshops or class room. A kitchenette and loos will also serve the new facility and tall cedar fins at the entrance attract attention and create a welcoming statement.
A long bird hide strip window is to be installed along the back wall too which will allow those on the top seating tier to see out, over the Rushy Pen waters and take in the wildfowl and birds that benefit from it.
All the works had to fit around the time frame set by the migration patterns of the Bewick’s Swans. All the external works on the walls and sides facing the Rushy Pen are only carried out while these timid birds are absent.
As soon as they arrive back from Siberia (some time in the autumn, usually late October) only internal works and on the front of the building will occur. They are scared of strange humans so all the windows will be whitewashed preventing the swans from seeing inside the building and allowing the workers to come and go freely. Noise levels will be constantly monitored and the birds observed for any reactions to the noise. If the birds are at all affected then work will stop, an assessment made and a way forward decided.
Phil Reid, architect at Millar + Howard Workshop reflected that he’d learned “Not to be scared of the potential delays and disruptions over which we have no control. Keeping sight of the defining characteristics of this project that’s remained the focus. It’s sometimes difficult to recognise which are the features that truly define the space as they may be different to the features which define the building’s significance and historical value. Ensuring the building’s new purpose remains relevant to the site, to the ethos of Slimbridge and to conservation itself has always been at the centre of this project”. The impact of these new facilities and the museum on its visitors will hopefully be as positive as the legacy Sir Peter Scott left us all.