Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre

Re-discovering the past

Sutton Hoo is the Anglo-Saxon burial ground of the 7th century Kings of East Anglia. In the design of our visitor facility for the National Trust, the reception and exhibition buildings have been kept simple and located carefully to minimise the impact on the grave field, a Scheduled Ancient Monument with a very special character. Set slightly apart from the burial mounds, one overlooks the Deben estuary, up from which the burial boats were dragged over a thousand years ago.

Two elegant barn-type timber structures create a threshold and arrival space at the start of a journey of discovery of the heritage site, and placed to make an entrance courtyard between, they are aligned to the route onto the site, running beside the café; a welcome place to start or end or wait and view from afar.

 ‘…together these elements contribute to the perceptible sense of mild, ordered rightness underpinning the whole design.’ ‘it is the architecture .…. incomparably the most modest element here – and incomparably the best done.’

Kester Rattenbury, ‘National Treasure’, Building Design 

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The essence of the National Trust’s brief was to protect the burial ground, to care for and conserve the surrounding landscape and to increase the public’s enjoyment of the site and its understanding of the Anglo-Saxon England.

The development received a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and has proved enormously popular with the public; numbers far exceeded the National Trust’s projections, and the building has coped with the extra use and hosted many successful hospitality events.

The new buildings have been designed to touch the ground lightly, and are constructed as much as possible from locally sourced timber, itself of low embodied energy. The building is designed for minimum energy consumption. Generous levels of insulation are used, made from recycled newspaper in a ‘breathing’ wall construction, allowing water vapour to migrate through, ensuring a more pleasant environment internally. In addition, because the insulation is blown into the cavity wet, voids and air infiltration within this layer are avoided, reducing heat loss through the fabric. Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in an existing underground tank beneath the activity yard and used for flushing the WCs.

  • Project Details

    • Location: Woodbridge, Suffolk
      Client: National Trust
      Area: 2500 m2
  • Project Awards

    • Winner - Wood Award
    • Winner - RIBA Award
    • Winner - Civic Trust Award
    • Community Benefit Commendation - RICS Awards

Passive elements of environmental design include the deep eaves, which prevent overheating from direct sunlight in the summer, while admitting beneficial light into the buildings during the winter.  The use of natural day lighting, through roof lights, penetrates to the centre of the building and provides stack effect natural ventilation. Sound absorbents are integrated in the construction details and concealed behind timber slats in the ceiling and walls.

The National Trust was keen that it should be a real, living and active place, not just a museum.  vHH worked closely with exhibition designers to create a cohesive design approach and the interrelationship between the reception and exhibition buildings facilitated an active flow between them and out onto the site.

vHH led the design team and worked within the chosen procurement route of Project Prime Cost Contract (with Partnering), fostering a positive working relationship with the Main Contractor and minimizing the risk of price over-run.

To preserve the serenity of the burial ground the new buildings were located at a distance. Barn type structures were chosen as recessive forms and make reference to a common rural building type.

The reception building, including the café and exhibition building, are kept apart, creating an informal courtyard with large eaves providing a semi-protected area under which groups and individuals can gather.

The Exhibition building is placed at an angle, and aligns the building with an existing avenue of trees that form one of the site footpaths. This same path continues to the south, under the canopy of the Reception building, past the restaurant terrace with views over the site, and away to the burial ground.

This is a consummately high quality piece of architecture. The design of the spaces themselves follows through the architect’s noble environment ideals of the practice into beautiful light, elegant and calming spaces.

It is an innovative and subtle assembly of buildings – reading from the past and projecting into the future.

It is an utterly coherent piece of design.Riba Award Report

The ship burials inspired vHH to make the building as a wooden structure held together by metal; reflecting the design of the boats in the design of the construction.

The timber woodstain, the zinc roofs and the gravel in the yard are a natural and neutral grey palette. This, along with the strict 2.2m module of the Douglas Fir structure, provides a unity and coherence to the whole scheme.

Project Timeline

  • 1999
  • Site Appraisal
  • Design development
  • Planning
  • Construction
  • Opening event

  • 2001