Structural Design Ideas
During initial dialogue, the client sangha outlined the concept of a Hall that carried echoes of trees and groves. From this we came up with a design resembling a traditional Sussex aisled barn in which a series of stout wooden columns support the roof. The end of the ‘grove’ of aisled columns framed a large alcove for the Hall’s presiding image – of a Buddha seated in meditation. The open roof structure acts like a canopy of tree branches refracting light from above and allowing shafts of light to fall on the natural stone floor.
Some three years before the frame was built we went into the monastery woods to select out curved timber for the frame. A number of trees with pronounced curves were marked and felled, through and through sawn, and sticked and stacked for cutting the braces when needed. Air-drying the timber in this way helped minimise gaps occurring in the joints through shrinkage, which is more problematic especially in braces.
The main timbers are of green oak. These were shaped, installed and pegged together while green by The Green Oak Carpentry Company who are based just 5 miles from the monastery. This oak came from trees in the monastery grounds that had either been blown over by gales, or were due for felling (through thinning). Other timbers and planking are of sweet chestnut, which resembles oak in its durability and appearance and is found in abundance in the monastery’s woodland.
The triple aisled barn form has nine structural bays, set within super insulated masonry walls. The trusses in the main hall are Crown post type, which is a true mediaeval style of roof, chosen because it most echoes the tree form with the braces curving and rising up through the layers of the structure
The timbers were sawn on site with a mobile band saw. Cutting and shaping the unseasoned oak is much easier than using seasoned timber. Historically it would be virtually unheard of to find dry timber used in a frame. The draw bored mortise and tenon joint is vital to the success of green oak framing as the pull on the joint when assembled, helps mitigate the shrinkage and hence gaps that occur in drying. Shrinkage cracks that occur in the drying of the timber are deemed to be a part of the aesthetic of green oak framing and are accepted as the norm.
Once assembled the frame was sand blasted to clean it, which removes the dirt, and softens the band-sawn surface. Overall the timber has taken on a pale straw-coloured hue and is undoubtedly hugely appealing to the senses as the growing popularity of these structures shows.
Ecological Design Features
In keeping with monastic frugality and ecological principles, a low energy building fabric is achieved with 200mm thick insulation in the walls and 300 mm insulation in the roof, triple-glazed low E argon filled glass in the windows and doors, draft lobbies to all entrances and air tight construction detailing to mitigate incidental air infiltration. In technical terms, the building is intended to be carbon neutral. (Zero CO2)
The heavy weight, high thermal mass, wide cavity walls are super insulated and made from recycled natural stone salvaged from the coach house that formerly occupied the site. The walls are finished internally with self-coloured 1 to 2.5 lime / sand render. Reclaimed clay pan tiles cover the roof, which was super insulated to a depth of 300mm with recycled newspaper between Masonite I beams over the top of the oak structural frame.
The energy efficient building’s thermal mass and super-insulation naturally keep it cool during the summer and warm in winter. Additional warmth is provided during the winter by under floor heating. The heat source itself is a wood-fired Zero CO2 biomass boiler, which delivers heat where it was most needed for seated meditaters – through piping under the stone floor.
The Nordist / Bioenergy Technology log fired boiler heats the monastery dormitories, kitchen, offices, and the main meditation hall. The fuel is provided from the labour of the Buddhist monks with timber extracted from the monastery woodland. The boiler can generate an output of up to 90 kW. The cross-fired log burner operates at efficiencies comparable with fossil fired burners.
The floor itself is made of slabs of sandstone from a quarry that was coming to the end of its 500- year life and converting itself into a wildlife reserve. Rainwater is collected to fill a naturally formed wildlife pond. Toilet wastes are naturally treated on site by a Diamond sewage treatment system where out put nutrient liquids are filtered back to the land via a leach field drainage system. In the final phase of building work, the cloistered walkway will be completed. Funding will be raised to install photovoltaic panels to convert energy from the sunlight to Zero CO2 electricity which will power the building’s lighting and hearing loop p.a. system.
In many ways the materials and their sources echoed similar themes. From a spiritual point of view, such congruence feels very auspicious. It has also been inspiring to note the human factors involved. The whole design teams sensitivity, flexibility and attention to detail has made for easy and enjoyable dialogue. The project manager, Nick Scott, lived on site and put six years of intense work into the project without any salary. Local self-employed tradesmen, carpenters, masons and craftsmen were directly employed instead of using one main contractor. The monks and nuns did much of the unskilled building work themselves.
The whole project was funded through donations, and supported by many acts of voluntary work – including the making of the statue of the Buddha himself who now sits, serene and smiling; an image in human terms of the natural balance that the Hall supports.
Even during the recent busy opening ceremonies, the Hall’s ambience was pervaded with silence and some people sensed the calm interior space as sublime. In our increasingly busy and chaotic world we hope this simple sustainable building will provide a safe, quite haven for meditators to contemplate our shared quest for oneness, for the benefit of all beings.