The construction of the Eden Project in Cornwall: An in-depth look
The Eden Project is one of the UK’s most iconic new visitor attractions of the 21st century – dominated by two huge transparent domes, each home to thousands of exotic plants, with a mission to educate visitors about the importance of natural habitats, biodiversity and conservation. When the Eden Project opened, The Times called it the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
Where is the Eden Project?
The Eden Project is located around three miles from the town of St Austell in Cornwall. It is on the site of a former clay mine.
When was the Eden Project built?
Construction of the giant geodesic domes began in 1998. The attraction was opened to the public in March 2001. It immediately caught the public imagination and featured in the James Bond film Die Another Day in 2002!
Background and origins of the project
A group of people met in a pub in 1996 with the idea of regenerating a disused clay pit in Cornwall. One of them was co-founder Tim Smit, who had just finished restoring the Lost Gardens of Heligan nearby. He was now looking for something much bigger in scale that would reconnect people with plants and nature, and make a contribution to ecological awareness and education.
The first designs for the domes were sketched onto napkins from that first meeting – one was to be a dome for tropical plants, effectively an indoor rainforest, and the other a home for horticulture used to a Mediterranean climate of warm, temperate and arid conditions.
The construction of the Eden Project
‘In the beginning the idea was very simple – let’s take a place of utter dereliction and create life in it’, said Tim Smit. But that was not going to be without its challenges.
The bubbles – biomes, or geodesic domes to give them their technical names – were designed by the architects Grimshaw Associates. Bubbles were chosen because they can settle on uneven surfaces much more easily than traditional structures.
The tubular steel structure of the biomes were covered in hexagonal and pentagonal cladding panels made from two layers of thermoplastic ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). The panels effectively act as a thermal blanket, trapping air between the layers.
Building a bubble isn’t easy. The height and irregular surface made traditional building methods tricky. The 243 miles of scaffolding required during construction is a Guinness World Record! Abseilers specially trained to scale the biomes fitted the two-metre-deep pillows of ETFE material.
Torrential rain hampered the first few months of construction. The clay pit sits 15 metres below the water table, and 43 million litres of water flooded the pit in 90 days. A special drainage system for the pit had to be designed and installed so building work could continue.
Environmental sustainability is part of the Eden Project’s mission. The domes and gardens promote an understanding of how humanity must care for the planet, work with nature, reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and preserve biodiversity.
As part of regenerating a derelict clay pit into a ‘global garden’, the engineers, architects and designers worked with sustainability professionals to make the site as energy efficient and sustainable as possible. Building materials were responsibly sourced. Special effort was made to use recycled and locally sourced materials. Recycled rainwater feeds the waterfall inside the domes, and their bubble design means the domes need 30% less energy to heat them than a standard shaped greenhouse.
Solar energy is provided by photovoltaic panels on the ‘Core’ educational building, and the rest of the site’s energy demand is met from Cornish wind turbines. The Eden Project even produced their own soil – 83,000 tonnes made from composted bark and domestic green waste, with minerals from local mine wastes.
The future of the Eden Project
While most people have heard of the Eden Project in Cornwall, it is just the start of the Eden story. There are plans to build 11 more Eden attractions in the UK and around the world. The first is an Eden Project in the north of England, at Morecambe Bay, which could open as early as 2024 after Levelling Up funding was awarded by the Government. Other proposed sites include Colombia, China, Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica, and three more in the UK.
As you can see, there are huge opportunities to get involved in Eden Projects in the course of your construction career.
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