Notes From an Open University Course – The Case of the Eden Centre Roof

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The roof of the Core Education Centre at the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK (Photo One)

Dear Readers, as I draw to the end of the first module in my OU science course, there is some discussion about sustainable building, and the decisions and challenges that have to be made when trying to come up with something that ticks all the boxes. The Eden Centre in Cornwall is known for its innovative buildings, particularly the biomes that hold thousands of species of plants, so it was not surprising that it wanted its new education centre (The Core) to be equally special. The brief was to

‘create a building the shape of a sunflower and the size of a spaceship to pay respect to the plant engine that powers the earth‘.

It was also extremely important that the building was not only inspirational (the intention was that people walking into the space would look up and be provoked into thinking about the place of human beings in the natural world) but sustainable, in the broadest sense of the word.

Inside The Core

The internal structure of the building was made from ‘glulam’ – as anyone who has watched ‘Grand Designs’ lately will know, this is a composite material made from layers of wood glued together that can be shaped and are as strong as steel. The sustainability component comes from the forestry practices of the companies involved – properly managed woodland can be a renewable resource, whereas steel is very energy-intensive to produce. 

The controversy, however, came from the choice of material used to make the thin, waterproof skin on the roof. The roof wasn’t just going to be a roof: it had to make a strong architectural statement, be durable and light, and be easy to work with, bearing in mind the complexity of the roof design. Furthermore, the Eden Project team wanted to be able to trace the environmental and social impacts of whatever they chose.

In the end, they chose copper. This was immediately contentious: copper takes a lot of energy to smelt and refine and the copper industry, like many other mining operations, has a long history of pollution and habitat destruction. Rio Tinto Zinc was used to help source the metal from a single mine (the Bingham Canyon mine in Utah) which had ISO 4001 certification for environmental management. The team worked with the owners of the mine to track the copper right through the supply chain, believed to be the first time that this has been done. In their statement on the use of the material, the Eden Project team state that:

The copper roof provided Eden with the opportunity to investigate how we can supply the 60% of
global demand for copper that isn’t recycled, by exploring the feasibility of sourcing copper from a
single, responsibly-managed mine, and ultimately, generate debate on the potential for certification
schemes in metals and minerals.’

Even within the OU team who devised the module there were differing opinions about the choice of copper as the roofing material. There were those who agreed with the Eden Project team, who concluded that working with the copper mining company had encouraged reflection on sustainability concerns and life-cycle analysis with the mining industry, and might even lead to a certification scheme.

Then there were those who argued that there were several more locally sourced renewable or recycled materials available for the roof, and choosing them would have been a better way to inspire solutions to environmental problems.

The Bingham Canyon mine in 2003(Public Domain)

What all this highlights is how complex the decision making process can be, both for massive projects like this one or for much more domestic-scale renovations. Do we think about external cladding for our chilly Victorian house, or are we more worried about the possibility of condensation and the fire risk? Do we replace our draughty windows and lose the original glass? The trouble is that quite often we don’t have the information in the detail that we need, and there are few ways of measuring one alternative against another.

However, this is not to say that decisions should not be made based on what we currently know. For what it’s worth, I think that the Eden Centre Roof decision was the wrong one: it would have been better to use something local and preferably recycled (even recycled copper), rather than assuming that one project in a far corner of the world could have an influence on the whole mining industry. The Core is an extremely sustainable and well-thought out building in many ways, from its super-insulated walls and solar panels on the roof to the floor tiles made from recycled Heineken bottles. However, getting into a relationship with Rio Tinto will undermine the sustainability credentials of this impressive building in the minds of anyone who hears the name of the company and remembers the long list of human rights and environmental concerns, the latest being the destruction of a cave sacred to the peoples of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, which had evidence of 46,000 years of human habitation. Plus, Rio Tinto has been listed as one of the 100 top industrial greenhouse gas polluters in the world in a Guardian report in 2017. The company refused to bow to a shareholder request to follow the guidelines of the Paris Accord (to limit temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2 degrees Centigrade) on the grounds that they were already making a lot of progress. It seems to me that having a relationship with Rio Tinto is only ever going to benefit the company and enhance its attempts to ‘greenwash’ its reputation.

It is still a very fine building though. Now, if they could only do something about the estimated 76% of people who still arrive at the venue by car that would help…

Photo Two from

Photo Two

Photo Credits

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2 thoughts on “Notes From an Open University Course – The Case of the Eden Centre Roof

  1. Liz Norbury

    I love the Eden Project, having followed its progress from when it was, well, just a project – I’ve had many memorable family days out there over the years. I believe Eden to be an organisation with its heart in the right place, so my inclination is to give it the benefit of the doubt over the vexed question of the Core’s copper roof. In 2005, when the Core was built, not so much was known about Rio Tinto’s environmentally-unfriendly activities and questionable record on human rights. And I wonder if there was less emphasis 15 years ago on the use of local materials in the creation of sustainable buildings (just as I used to buy organic food, no matter how many miles it had travelled, whereas these days, my priority is to buy locally-grown produce from farm shops).

    There’s no easy way to decrease the percentage of visitors who arrive at Eden by car, but one option would be to introduce an efficient, free – or at least cheap – shuttle bus service from St Austell railway station.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I hoped you’d comment, Liz – I was looking forward to getting your perspective! And yes, it definitely is an organisation with its heart in the right place. I hope to visit one of these days….you’re right, too, that perspectives have definitely changed since it was built.


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