The Eden Project - Regeneration and the art of the possible
The beginning of a story:
‘Around the late 1990s a small group of people gathered in pubs, hotels and offices to talk about an idea – to create a place like nothing anyone had ever seen before; a place that explored our place in nature, a place that demonstrated what could be done if people who wanted to make a difference got together. It was ridiculous to imagine it was possible and that hundreds of people trained to say no could be persuaded to say yes. But the greybeards had a brilliant plan: ask the youngsters to do it – they don’t know it can’t be done.’ Tim Smit, Eden
While Tim Smit (now Sir Tim Smit KBE, Executive Vice Chairman & Co-Founder) was restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan he realised that plants could be made far more interesting by weaving human stories around them, tales of adventure, emotion and derring-do. There was a big story to be told: plants that changed the world. A summer sunset on a china clay tip conjured thoughts of ancient civilizations in volcanic craters, and of putting the largest greenhouses in the world in a huge hole. Why not? We bought an exhausted, steep-sided clay pit 60 metres deep (below), the area of 35 football pitches, with no soil, 15 metres below the water table, and gave it life: a huge diversity of plants we use every day but often don’t get to see, planted in soil made from ‘waste’ materials, watered by the rain, in giant conservatories and buildings that drew inspiration from nature.
‘Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only way it ever has.’ Margaret Mead
Making it happen…
In 1994 Restormel, our local Borough Council at the time, took a leap of faith and put up the first £25,000, so giving the story a beginning. A year on, Grimshaws the architects took the baton from Cornish architect Jonathan Ball (co-founder of the Project) and designed our fabulous buildings (at risk, though we paid them in the end!). The McAlpine Joint Venture worked for 18 months without payment or contract and then loaned Eden a significant sum only to be repaid if the Project was successful. This risk-sharing broke down the traditional barriers between designers and contractors and created a team dedicated to one vision. Why did they do this? Because they wanted to change something and because they wanted to say, ‘I’m glad I did,’ rather than, ‘I wish I had.’
Sound simple? Not really. We were turned down by the Millennium Commission (MC) the first time we applied, and many left good jobs before we had raised a bean – or found a site. When our reworked bid secured £37.5m from the MC (huge thanks, MC), we had to match it. For the next 5 years a small team worked tirelessly (mainly in a shed) to turn the idea into a plan and then into reality. Money was raised, fledgling teams grew thousands of plants, mapped them on to the site, started planning the stories … We recruited a team to run the place and made sure that as well as having a good idea and a fabulous theatre we had the ability to operate it. The Visitor Centre opened in 2000 so the public could watch the construction and share the adventure. The whole site opened on 17 March 2001. For more, read Tim Smit's Eden and visit edenproject.com.
Illustrated caption: The first Biome sketch, 1996, in the pub, on the proverbial napkin.
The recipe for Eden
• Take an exhausted, steep-sided clay pit 60m deep, the area of 35 football pitches, with no soil, 15 metres below the water table.
• Carve the pit into a flat-bottomed bowl and landscape the sides.
• Mix and add 83,000 tonnes of soil made from recycled waste.
• Add superb architecture that draws inspiration from nature to remind us of human potential.
• Colonise with a huge diversity of plants, many that we use every day (but don’t often get to see).
• Harvest the water draining into the pit and use it to irrigate our plants (and flush the loos!).
• Season with people from all walks of life.
• Spring 2000, open for a preview of the making.
• Spring 2001, open and serve.
Building the Living Theatre of Plants and People
Massive sandpit to global garden
To make the pit suited to people rather than mountain goats 17 metres was sliced off the top and put in the bottom. 1.8 million tonnes were shifted in 6 months. Dodgy slopes were shaved to a safe angle and terraces created. 2,000 rock anchors (some 11 metres long), stabilised the pit sides. A plant seed soup was sprayed on the slopes to knit the surface.
The answer lies in the soil: 83,000 tonnes of soil was made. Minerals came from mine waste (sand from Imerys china clay and clay from WBB Devon Clays Ltd). In the Biomes, composted bark provided long-lived organic matter. The Rainforest Biome plants needed a rich organic soil that could hold water and nutrients, while the slower growers in the drier Mediterranean Biome used a sandier mix. A nutrient-free mix was used in South African Fynbos, where fertile soil is toxic to some native plants. Outdoors, we used composted domestic green wastes. Worms were added to help dig and fertilise.
The Biomes: building the world’s largest conservatories
Building ‘lean-to greenhouses’ on uneven surfaces is tricky. ‘Bubbles’ were used because they can settle on any shaped surface.
Overall design: Two-layer, curved space frame, ‘the hex-tri-hex’, with an outer layer of hexagons (the largest 11 metres across), plus the odd pentagon, and an inner layer of hexagons and triangles bolted together. The steelwork weighs only slightly more than the air contained by the Biomes. They are more likely to blow away than down, so are tied into the foundations with ground anchors (giant tent pegs).
Transparent foil ‘windows’: Ethylenetetrafluoroethylenecopolymer (ETFE): three layers, inflated 2-metre-deep pillows, lifespan over 25 years, transmit UV light, non-stick, self-cleaning. They weigh less than 1% of the equivalent area of glass, but can take the weight of a car. We got into the Guinness Book of Records for using the most scaffolding, 230 miles of it – sorry to anyone who was needing some that year.
Illustrated caption: The ETFE pillows were installed by 22 professional abseilers – the sky monkeys.
Illustrated caption: Eden in 1999 and 2003- a mere 4 years later.
Illustrated caption: Top shot of Eden in 1999 and 2010. What’s it look like in 2015? Come and see