Nature reserve’s floating village defies floods

28 January 2016

A pioneering nature reserve has risen above the flood waters that drenched the North West and is proving an example to architects and engineers.

The floating Visitor Village, sitting on top of the Meadow Lake at Brockholes, has been rising and falling with the water level during weeks of heavy rain.

And that is exactly what it was meant to do. Designed by Adam Khan Architects, with Price and Myers and Max Fordham Engineers, the Visitor Village was built to reach a maximum height of over four metres above its normal level. On Boxing Day it climbed to its highest so far – 1.5 metres.

This meant a disconnection of the bridges leading to the village but they connected again perfectly when water levels dropped back to normal.

Brockholes was the winning design in a RIBA design competition. Project Manager of the reserve from 2007 until it opened in 2011, Ian Selby said: “This was the first major flood event at Brockholes and the Visitor Village floated perfectly, the bridges worked and the mechanical and electrical systems continued to perform.”

The Visitor Village is the size of a half a football pitch. It was built by Mansell, with Balfour Beatty constructing the floating platform, which is essentially a two-metre deep concrete box, 60 metres long by 40 metres wide and weighing 4,800 tonnes.

The Visitor Village includes the reserve’s restaurant, welcome centre, education building, conference centre and a gallery run by the Art and Craft Guild of Lancashire. This means it is vital that power, water supply and sewage systems continue to work during and after a flood.
Ian said: “We are satisfied that the Visitor Village performed perfectly during the flood and all the systems continued to work during and after the heavy rains. We knew it would work, this was always the best of British design and that is the best in the world.

“This is an example of a building with long term viability. We took an innovative approach to construction and here we are with our feet dry five years later. This is the sort of engineering that could contribute to flood mitigation in the future. The traditional way to deal with a crisis like this is to try to divert flood water away from vulnerable areas, this would make it irrelevant by design.”

Brockholes Visitor Village and the 100ha (250 acre) reserve around it, which Lancashire Wildlife Trust raised more than £10 million to create, is now one of the region’s top tourist attractions and a nature reserve with a growing reputation. It has attracted more than 150,000 visitors a year since it opened and new wildlife species are being spotted every year.

The Visitor Village has secured a string of awards including BREEAM “Outstanding” for the interim design stage, VisitEngland's Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Scheme (VAQAS), Green Tourism Gold Award, Chartered Institute of Building Services – Building of the Year 2011, Civic Trust Special Award for Sustainability, RIBA North West Building of the Year and a RIBA Award for top 50 new buildings in the UK.

The initial cost was not something that worried Ian, he said: “In this case it didn’t cost substantially more than a conventional building on the sand and gravel of a former quarry. We would have had to build a substantial platform for a land-based building anyway because of the poor ground conditions, probably some form of raft foundation in fact. The difference was this was on the water. It’s not as if the buildings themselves were particularly expensive because they’re floating.

To accommodate movement of the buildings, the design uses a group of underwater, flexible pipes and cables to provide essential services such as water, heat, electricity, telecoms and sewage. Following the worst of the floods, engineers from Max Fordham were on site to assess how the systems had performed. “There’s a degree of trepidation when designing things to cope with influences that are well known to destroy them. We’re pleased to report that the underwater umbilical service connections have successfully responded to the extreme conditions and maintained their functions, before, during and after the flood event.”

Now Ian is keen to show Brockholes as an example for the future of building in parts of the United Kingdom which could be liable to flooding. And it could open up more areas for building which have been restricted because of weather fears.

He said: “George Osborne has a budget of £100 billion which includes some plans for flood alleviation; David Cameron has said he will provide another £50 million for flood defences. This is the sort of thing they should be looking at alongside traditional methods of flood alleviation.”

“It’s a great example for developers, for planning authorities, the Environment Agency and other Government agencies. Here’s a way it can be done.

“We invite them all to come along and look at the Brockholes Visitor Village so they don’t need to be restricted by fears of flooding in future.”

The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is dedicated to the protection and promotion of the wildlife in Lancashire, seven boroughs of Greater Manchester and four of Merseyside, all lying north of the River Mersey.  It manages around 40 nature reserves and 20 Local Nature Reserves covering acres of woodland, wetland, upland and meadow. The Trust has 27,000 members, and over 1,200 volunteers.  To become a member of the Trust go to the website at or call 01772 324129.

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