Wetlands, grottoes, rural remediation, extremophiles, methanogenesis, will o’the wisp, flora, fauna, funga, fenlands and the sublime.

Retreat! Re-peat! The sunken land begins to rise again*

The Fens, Norfolk – endless sky and sunken landscape, drained for agriculture and taxes, a common land divided by channels and dykes. A future victim of greater human intervention: climate change and sea level rise.

The Oriented Stranded Grottoes (OSG) project combines engineered timber with constructed wetlands to create a rural retreat of flora and fungi, where fauna can meet in a fresh and shaded grotto-portico (Scamozzi 1615) amongst pools, niches and tableaus with statues, or look out toward the landscape and witness the methanogenic rebirth of ignis fatuus, or ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ – a marshland phenomenon unseen for centuries.

Estimates suggest only 10% of original UK wetland remains today. Recent studies have proposed ways to restore ecological diversity and abundance through rewetting and replanting (Stratford/Acreman 2016). However, wetlands’ natural production of methane, a greenhouse gas with 25x the impact of CO2 (Zhang Z. et al 2017), risks exacerbating climate change through ‘pollution swapping’ (Pangala 2004). The OSG project collects and re-uses this gas, whilst also imagining the possibility of microbial extremophile species – believed to be the origin of the will-o’-the-wisp spirit (Edwards 2014) – to once again manifest its delusive light (Milton, 1667).

Kindled through agitation to a flame

Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends

Hovering and blazing with delusive light

Misleads the amazed night wanderer from his way

Paradise Lost, Milton

Tiled across the landscape on cork platforms as a hexagonal mat-building, the Oriented Strand Board structures transfer loads through screw pile anchor points, tap the methane caused by prokaryotic microbial life and form the support to be infilled by the eukaryotic supergroups: flora, fauna and funga.

sketch development

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.)

Envisaged as the return of the Renaissance grotto (cave), the OSB structure evokes “…the curved ceilings of natural caverns… the movement of water… and rugged ‘rusticated surfaces’…” intended to contrast artifice with nature and elicit Burke’s notion of the sublime (Tradii 2022). Inhabitants are surrounded by climbing plants trained over OSB arches, as cable stalactites feed rainwater to pools and mycelium growth, engulfing the OSB columns of their monastic cells (Dessi-Olive et al 2021).

Protected by the methane inflated roof, rainwater travels via surface tension to stalactite chains into pools. Like the plant life of the fens turning to peat through anaerobic conditions, the grotto’s eventual failure is anticipated. Sinking into the surface, consumed by flora and funga as biogenic carbon storage, the process can begin again, with future grottoes capturing fugitive emissions caused by the increased rapidity of OSB decomposition compared to other timber (Wang X. et al 2013).

Retreat, re-peat.

Competition entry in collaboration with Justin Pickard for the RIBA Journal SterlingOSB Zero 2022 Retreat design competition. For an expanded description of inspiration and process see blog entry ‘competitions and collaborations‘.

* project title borrowed from The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

Reference List

Dessi-Olive, J., Buntrock, R. and Oliyan, O. (2022) ‘Radical tactics for mycelium structures’, in Structures and Architecture: A Viable Urban Perspective?. 1st Edition. London: CRC Press, pp. 387–394.

Edwards, H. G. M. (2014) ‘Will-o’-the-Wisp: an ancient mystery with extremophile origins?’, Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences, 372(2030), p. 20140206. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0206.

Milton, J. (1667) Paradise lost by John Milton, Project Gutenberg. Available at: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20.

Pangala, S. R., Reay, D. S. and Heal, K. V. (2010) ‘Mitigation of methane emissions from constructed farm wetlands’, Chemosphere, 78(5), pp. 493–499. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.11.042.

Scamozzi, V. (1615) L’Idea della Architettura Universale (The Idea of a Universal Architecture)

Stratford, C. & Acreman, Mike. (2016). Rehabilitation of degraded wetlands: UK experience.

Tradii, L. (no date) Petrified waters: The artificial grottoes of the renaissance and beyond, The Public Domain Review. Available at: publicdomainreview.org/essay/petrified-waters (Accessed: 6 August 2022).

Wang, X. et al. (2013) ‘Decomposition of forest products buried in landfills’, Waste management (New York, N.Y.), 33(11), pp. 2267–2276. doi: 10.1016/j.wasman.2013.07.009.

Zhang, Z. et al. (2017) ‘Emerging role of wetland methane emissions in driving 21st century climate change’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(36), pp. 9647–9652. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618765114.