Lately, I’ve started to appreciate how dependent I am on a side quest to help boost creative energy. They come in many different forms but the key criteria for any side quest is that it should be tangential, of uncertain outcome and ideally include a companion to help you chart a new part of the game map that the main story arc wouldn’t have taken you through.

A variation on this – the coronavirus coping mechanism – has involved research and podcasts on interplanetary habitats, digital materials or assembling 3D printed telescopes to take pictures of the moon with a Raspberry Pi.  Turning the lockdown period into something more positive also resulted in a collaboration with Justin Pickard on our Street Support Hub concept, which was shortlisted for an RIBA Journal competition last year.

As I’ve recently been tweeting, you should always be looking for excuses to team up with cool people and I’m very happy that Justin and I have been able to turn occasional twitter banter into proper project collaborations. Our latest has been exploring alternative possible futures for a Birmingham high street, splitting duties on drawing and writing while bouncing thoughts around together over several online platforms. Alongside that there has also been another competition entry.

This time the split between us could perhaps be described as ‘hallucinating’ and ‘goading’, as what we ended up referring to as my fever dreams needed the occasional prompt, nudge or counselling from the friendly neighbourhood anthropologist. The final, slightly bonkers outcome is called the Oriented Stranded Grotto project and it’s been shortlisted for another design competition hosted by the RIBA Journal – The Retreat.

One way to summarise the project would be to admit that during its development I saw the year’s (decade’s?) greatest film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the title spurred me on. Another would be to acknowledge that as climate change demands we better understand fundamental material science questions in our work, any brief that demands the use of a man-made composite product such as OSB requires a thorough examination of exactly what that composition is, both right now and long now.

Notes on the project development are offered below and the full submission is available in a seperate blog entry: Retreat! Re-peat! Uncurated notes from this period are also available, including numerous links and reference to future possible tangents and side, side quests.

Retreat, Re-peat, the revisit

It began by wondering about the layered, striated surface of OSB as the base for other materials to flourish. A sort of doubling down on the composite nature. Could the carbon negative benefits of mycelium be added? Sure enough, late night research proved the answer was probably yes, with the discovery of papers and experiments on sandwich panels and fungi frameworks. Memories of NASA domes formed by mycelium triggered ideas about the unification of lightweight, inflated forms and sandwich panel structures assembled with the interlocking planes of a rigid sheet material. 

“…The Retreat. We want you to select a site and design a country escape for up to 10 people; one whose form and material have a strong, considered relationship with the landscape it sits in, as well as internal volumes that elicit meaningful interactions between users.”

extract from competition brief

To retreat into the landscape, then, or as described by a critical essay found by Justin on Renaissance Grottoes, perhaps the building as landscape, in which the mycelium grows over OSB starter frames to foster  “…the curved ceilings of natural caverns… the movement of water… and rugged ‘rusticated surfaces’…”

extract from Discord chat

Reflections on the individual versus the collective became a networked field of hexagonal monastic cells and the geometry repeated itself in both plan and section creating a pleasing variety of views, light and shade through cavern-like arched openings that become frames for flora to climb. OSB structure point loads pass through cork platforms to screw piles drilling down into the earth, searching for in-situ gases to inflate the balloon-formed roof, thus linking the question of site location with the existence of swamp gas, or methane (CH4).

extract from Discord chat

The search for CH4 offers two possible geographies: either tackle the creation of methane from man-made landfill sites (such as the balloons collecting fuel to light up Freedom Park in Bangalore) or go to the primary natural source: peat wetlands.

As tempting as it was to posit hills of waste as a successful site for a rural retreat, it was ultimately the importance of water in an authentic grotto experience that caused us to head for the Norfolk Fenlands.

The reconstruction – or re-wetting – of wetlands offers vital ecology diversity benefits and numerous programs to achieve this are underway. Caution is needed, however, due to the fact that wetland methane emissions are the largest natural source in the global CH4 budget. In addition CH4 has a global warming potential over 20x worse than CO2. The Oriented Stranded Grottoes tackle that emission at source as the wetland reconstruction takes place, capturing it for use in processes that reduce its impact.

Above each inhabitant’s cell, a balloon roof stores the methane for re-use in processes with reduced global warming potential such as heating hydroponic facilities, or fueling artisan kilns. Alternative deployments across the UK include landfill site remediation or in the Scottish Highlands, feeding Sutherland spaceport’s methane rockets, as they launch cubesats to monitor global wetland emissions.

extract from competition submission text

With this bacterial methanogenesis filling balloons above the grotto flora which was growing over the mycelium funga panels and providing a roof for the visiting fauna as they enjoyed their retreat, we now appeared to have both the eukaryote and prokaryote domains of all life covered.

extract from discord chat
extract from Discord chat

A building in a wet environment harboring mycelium and plants amongst its perishable timber structure is destined to become victim to the anaerobic processes of the wetlands. How might a composite material like OSB behave as it sank into the water on its journey to becoming peat? More research unearthed studies that gave pause for thought on the increasingly common use of OSB in construction. The good news is that the estimates used by the IPCC accounting on wood as a biogenic carbon sink may be pessimistic. Experiments burying timber samples in land fill have found that most timber samples take longer to rot and hold onto their carbon for longer than expected. The bad news is that OSB isn’t one of them, rotting more quickly than other samples and therefore being a poor carbon sink.

Imagining a structure that built emission capture of its rotting predecessors into its cycle seemed even more relevant at this point.

One more form of ‘life’ mainfested itself with the realisation that the fabled ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ was a phenomenum of the wetlands. An ethereal apparition – whose few recorded sightings resulted in namechecks from Newton, Shakespeare and Milton – ignis fatuus, the foolish fire, has now not been witnessed for decades, resulting in theories about the reduction in methane emissions from lost wetlands being the cause for the wisps absence.

Might the unavoidable quantities of fugitive emissions beyond the structure’s storage system one day give life to will-o’-the-wisp again? Visitors to the retreat may be the first to witness it. The welcoming AI at check-in will need to be trained on Kenneth Williams.

Finally, with this question of bacterial life emitting methane, the Fens, OSB, mycelium and will-o’-the-wisp spotters find themselves connected to the wider solar system and the ongoing debate about unexplainable traces of methane detected by Martian rovers and the possibility of microbial extremophile species.

See? Everything, everywhere, all at once.