Case Study

Zero carbon in the Marshes

RSPB Environment and Education Centre

Kent / 2006


RSPB Rainham Marshes is a bold departure from traditional RSPB reserves, developing a site in the urban fringe environment of outer East London. Our client’s ambition was that this building should act as a catalyst to attract people to the Marshes, where they would learn about the 250 species of birds to be found there, and also about sustainability.

Our response was to design a building that is not only iconic, but also demonstrative; a building which clearly and proudly displays its sustainable credentials. It is the opposite of a polite low-lying timber-clad building that you might expect on a precious wetland. The twin roof vents provide natural ventilation to the internal rooms and draw light down into them; they also provide a beacon that can be seen from afar both day and night, when they are dramatically lit from below.






Rainham Marshes is a former Ministry of Defence firing range which was bought by the RSPB in the summer of 2000. It is now run as a 362 hectare nature reserve and Special Site of Scientific Interest, and is the largest remaining area of grazing marsh on the Inner Thames. The site straddles the London – Essex border, one of the growth areas as London expands eastwards.

Given its location, the brief asked for fortress-like security when it was not in use, but it also needed to be welcoming and engaging, acting as a beacon for this new RSPB site without alienating the locals from the nearby housing estate. Our design, with the public area and offices oversailing the storage, workshops and wcs below, keeps the building safe from potential flooding and vandalism. It allows the public floor to be more open and transparent and the lower floor to be closed and secure. It also provides optimal views over the reserve and the Thames Estuary so the two worlds are connected visually.




How we worked

The RSPB held a design competition, and we were chosen to lead the team of consultants. The competition entry benefited from having our whole office working on it in some way or another. Some of the best ideas, like the dazzle-pattern boarding, came out of our group discussions.



From the outset, the brief demanded the achievement of BREEAM ‘Excellent’ and the aspiration to deliver a building that was carbon neutral in operation. That required particularly detailed collaborative design team work; we were also responsible for administering the contract. It was our first building to achieve BREEAM ‘Excellent’.

We had to be very persistent in order to overcome problems with the Environment Agency, to persuade them that we could build as close to the river as we did, because the site was only just inside the flood boundary. We worked hard with other consultants and engineers to clarify and make their technical information accessible and reassure the Agency.


The RSPB ran a very effective outreach programme to engage with the local community. This helped to engage the local community and further strengthen the security measures inherent in our design.


Making it happen

The open and closed nature of the building is legible through the architecture. Shutters and large cargo doors are pulled down or across when the drawbridges are up. The static elements of the coloured timber cladding are horizontal; the sliding, movable components are clad in vertical strips. When the building is open floor-to-ceiling glazing on the upper floor provides views into the centre and out across the reserve and river.

We were keen to provide the most flexible space possible, so that the building could be used by the RSPB for different purposes at different times. We suggested folding walls between the two classrooms in the upper space, so that in the evenings and weekends the reception and visitor centre activities could occupy the whole space.

The superstructure is a deliberately heavy mass frame. It is clad in a double skin of blockwork at ground level and horizontal sawn, painted larch timber boards on the first floor. All materials had to have traceable sustainable sources. External steelwork is all galvanised, which gives the building a hardy yet crafted aesthetic.

A rain-harvesting tank is sunk below the car park, and rainwater is used for all flushing toilets. Maximum use is made of daylight and artificial lighting is controlled by daylight sensors. There is a ground source heat pump linked to an underfloor heating/ cooling system. All ventilation is natural.






The sustainable design and energy efficiencies of the building sit perfectly alongside the RSPB’s values and drive to reduce our impact on the global environment...  All of the staff and volunteers involved with Rainham Marshes are tremendously proud to work at such a flagship site, paving the way for quality and sustainable design across the hitherto neglected Thames Gateway area.’

Neil Kellythorn, RSPB Development Project Manager

‘Architecturally the new building looks like something out of Star Wars and is utterly spectacular. It is a wonderful achievement. The view from the Centre is breathtaking, the 864 acres of marshland at the foot of the Thames, with views to Canary Wharf and the London Eye is quite unique.’

Comment from the visitors’ book.




Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds









Our Role

Architect And Lead Consultant


World Architecture Awards, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
RICS East of England Regeneration Awards, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
Civic Trust Award, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
RIBA Sustainability Awards, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
RIBA National Awards, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
Green Apple Award for Environmental Best Practice, RSPB Environment and Education Centre
BCI Awards, RSPB Environment and Education Centre

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