The green hills, sunken lanes and flowering hedgerows of the south Devon countryside may not seem a likely setting for design innovation and experimentation: we tend to associate new ideas with big cities – a cutting-edge reflected in the urban complexity of a Shoreditch or Shanghai. But Schumacher College, which forms part of the 1,200 acre Dartington Estate, is challenging this assumption.

For while the notion of sustainability and an interdisciplinary approach to research and creativity are only now gaining a proper footing in the press and in architecture schools, the College, named after the ecologist E.F. Schumacher and modelled on Gandhian principles, has been bringing people together since 1991, to initiate sustainable solutions that have both an environmental and social impact. In fact, innovation and creativity seem embedded in Dartington’s soil.

Cob Shelter in Michelcombe, Dartmoor, built using stone, cob, oak and turf from the same valley ©Robert Somerville

The ‘Dartington Experiment’ began in 1925, when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought the 14th century estate. In addition to funding new farming, forestry, building and educational projects, the estate attracted architects, writers, philosophers, musicians and artists, among them Stravinsky, Ben Nicholson, Walter Gropius and Bernard Leach. The legacy of music and writing continues in the form of literary and music festivals, but in addition to the arts, Dartington’s social conscience is strong. In 1968, the Social Research Unit moved there from Cambridge, and Schumacher College places an emphasis on sustainable strategies that not only address global issues, but through initiatives such as the new Landscope project, also help the local community and environment, creating opportunities for land-based enterprises, reviving old building methods such as timber frame and cob, and teaching by example, with an emphasis on experiential education, as well as theory. ‘More with less’ is the aim of its expanding programmes.

In line with this thinking is former Grimshaw architect Michael Pawlyn, whose practice Exploration is turning biomimetic research into projects such as a bridge proposal for Lancashire County Council (pictured), combining pioneering lightweight technology (small steel elements and a pressurised air beam) with a continuous biodiversity link. Having recently given an acclaimed TED talk and with his book Biomimicry in Architecture (RIBA Publishing) coming out this September, Pawlyn is signed up to teach part of a course on ‘Bio-Inspired Design’ at Schumacher College (20th-24th June), alongside Dartington’s Robert Somerville.

Douglas River Bridge by Exploration with Atelier One, Airlight Structures, Gleeds and Arup Ecology ©Exploration

Somerville is a supporter of biomimicry, ‘a reaction to thoughtless industrial design in a vacuum; we live on a planet’; but his approach differs to Pawlyn’s use of scientific discoveries (the tensile strength of spider silk for example) and advanced technology, preferring to learn by doing: ‘I have more knowledge in my hands than in my head,’ he says.

A Cambridge-trained architect and engineer with 35 years building experience, he will show the international participants (architects and others in the industry, students and academics) how new architecture can use traditional techniques and, as a model of sustainability, the abundant resources of the Dartington Estate: woodlands, lime kilns, clay beds, arable fields for growing hemp and barley straw, and the old quarries of purple-and-green slate that are dotted all over the South Hams. ‘We must use what we have got,’ he says, ‘and a small scale works well with biodiversity.’

Somerville speaks eloquently about different species of wood, how each has a distinctive perfume (‘elm is a sweet wood, like a gorgeous rose; ash is sweet like honey’), about the impossibility of forcing an organic material into the ‘tight minimalist crisp designs with sharp corners’ that concrete adheres to; about the beauty of a restricted palette, and the importance of a site-based knowledge of materials. He intends to take participants (who will first be shown images of biomimetic design) outside, to experience the site first-hand, before developing designs with Pawlyn, ‘using all the senses and understanding’.

Robert Somerville building a cob stove with participants ©Schumacher College

© Clare Farrow 2011

1 Comment
  1. bio architecture

    June 11, 2013

    I love design, architecture, fashion… inspired by biology and nature. I am studying a masters degree in biodigital architecture in Barcelona, and I think I will continue doing research about this subject because it is very, very interesting.

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