Four years after it was first given the go-ahead and four years after Hastings Borough Council (HBC) spent out on buying the straw bales to build it, it looks like work on the new environmentally friendly visitor centre at Hastings Country Park has finally begun.
Vans belonging to the specialist straw bale building companies have been on site and earthworks have begun to prepare the foundations for building work to begin.
Earlier this week Peter Chowney, leader of HBC, said the new centre would be worth the wait and pointed out that work on the timber frame had already been going on off site.
The new visitor centre is being partly funded through a European Union ‘Up–Straw’ grant and by the time it is complete it will have cost more than £700,000 to build.
Plans to build the state-of-the-art environmentally friendly visitor centre had turned in to a major headache for HBC as it struggled to find a specialist contractor who could actually build its planned house of straw.
Eventually, after research into the world of straw bale construction, a consortium of ‘artisan’ straw bale builders was formed. That consortium is headed by SIA Design and Build and the specialist straw bale companies are called Green and Castle, Red Kite and Huff and Puff Construction.
Construction is likely to take several months, Mr Chowney says: “When finished, we’ll have a brand new visitor centre for the Country Park that will also be a showcase for straw bale construction. It’s been a long and slow process to get it started, and at times it looked like it might not be possible, but I’m glad we stuck with it.”
The building will be close to carbon-neutral and it is intended to install solar panels on it to generate its own electricity. It will also have its own mini-treatment plant for effluent, which means it doesn’t have to be connected to the sewerage system. However the decision to install a sewerage treatment system requires an amendment to the planning permission.
When the radical plans for a straw bale built visitor centre were first mooted in 2014 HBC allocated £250,000 for the project. The nature of the environmentally friendly project meant the council was able to attract significant grant funding from ‘Up-Straw’ which was specifically designed to encourage the use of straw bales in building projects.
But three year’s of delays has meant HBC having to commit a further £117,000 to the project as costs escalated. According to Councillor Andy Batsford local residents are ‘excited’ about the prospect of the new centre.
But Hastings In Focus reader Christopher Hurrell commented earlier this week: “Project costs have doubled and the cost per square metre is double that of a conventional building. The standard conventional building cost for a single storey building of this size is about £1,000 per square metre in the South East and the build cost to HBC for the visitor centre is about £2,000 per square metre.
“HBC claims that higher costs and delays are caused by the lack of available expertise in straw building. However, there are commercial straw buildings out there that have not suffered these problems. The Sworder and Sons auction building is an example of an award winning straw bale building that was built for roughly the same cost per square metre as traditional buildings.”
One other reader suggested the project was an, ‘ego trip’ for councillors.
When it’s completed, the visitor centre will be run and maintained by Groundworks Trust, an environmental charity who already work with HBC on a number of projects in the Country Park.
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