First steps in a users primer for reconstructing the recording studio's around green design and architectural practice

III) Box: The Real World , an eco-recording studio exemplar in the making

In the tiny Wiltshire village of Box nestles Peter Gabriel's Real World/Womad complex. The buildings are a watershed experiment in the fusion of elements of green design practise with the musical world of recording studios and rehearsal facilities and other electronic media studios. It does not however utilise renewable energy and it's a dream made possible by someone who's made considerable money, which the average group of people wouldn't have to develop a small or medium sized financially affordable studio.

Peter Gabriel's Box project is arguably the furthest step any established 'star' has committed themselves to the green dimension of recording practise. Indeed it is a perhaps - so far - unique project in the music world, particularly the popular music world. The architects are the Frielden Clegg Bradley who started out down the road from Box, in Bath. Fielden Clegg Bradley are big names in green architectural practises, one of the first to consider seriously the green design dimension. They have been involved in numerous ecologically orientated building projects for the last twenty years or longer. Their latest work includes the Doncaster based Earthcentre as well as many higher educational buildings..

The Wooden Room, RealWorld Studios. Photo: Simon Doling

When I asked Peter Clegg of the practise to what extent the studios at Box were built to ecological specifications, and what were those specifications, Clegg replied that there wasn't an ecological brief as such, but that Gabriel and his colleagues and Fielden Clegg Bradley had a 'vague desire to do things properly'. Later in the conversation, he mentioned that to some extent it was the architectural practise leading the design, although at the same time Gabriel was coming up with ideas which fed into leading the building process.

Clegg lists four fields which he believes are crucial to the ecological elements at the Box studios. The first three echo the fields described earlier: Energy use, Material issues, and the internal health of the building. Fourth, though not least is the general feeling of the buildings, the 'ambience' as he calls it.

Energy, as has already been stated, is the obvious player in sustainable architecture. Whilst there were various attempts to cut down fossil fuel consumption, Clegg says he feels 'a bit guilty' that he didn't consider this more seriously. The two parties could have done a more detailed analysis of energy consumption, but didn't. Later in the conversation he talks of the enormous savings that can be made by low energy flourescent lighting, a revolution that is reducing the energy running cost in domestic equipment. If the same technology could be applied to such studio equipment as the mixing desk, you could begin comparable revolution. It could happen, says Clegg, 'if the desire was there'.

The materials issue comes down as quite ambivalent, and might not resonate with deeper and more purist Greens. For the old Mill building at Box, the primary studio, the materials of the existing buildings or at least the stone/brick infill shell of the seventeenth through twentieth century husk was left as before. The new materials that were introduced were kept in as natural a state as possible. The floors for instance were second-hand oak wood. Steel, which Clegg included as a natural material (but which many in the Green design field wouldn't) as 'it didn't pretend to be anything else', was used for the wallways. In the new control room building there was a concrete frame, steel again, and quere cork - as well as lead, with an oxidised coating, which actually, he said, prevents further degradation on the control rooms walls and roof.
The third section, the internal health of the buildings centred on the pollutants in the air of the air conditioning. Also internal materials were usually as natural as possible, such as timber rather than formaldyhyde panels - where, as he mentioned, the latter can have an adverse effect on some people.

In fact Gabriel had said that he felt ill and nauseaus in many of the recording studio's he'd been in. And although he had no proof, Gabriel's intuition was that it was the air conditioning, and the actual materials of the duct work of the air conditioning, particularly the negative ions. So as part of the brief there was an attempt by Fielden Clegg to use timber and clay, hardly the conventional materials, for the air conditioning, generated by Gabriel's request. Vitrified clay ducts were therefore used in the studio, timber glulam ducts in the workroom, and sheet metal ductwork only where they were concealed from view. In all, the studio, stone room, workroom and mixing room were air-conditioned, whilst natural ventilation was adopted for non-acoustically sensitive parts of the buildings. Indeed it's acknowledged that air conditioning exacerbates problems of Sick Building Syndrome.

The last issue that the brief dealt with was the ambience. Plastic was reduced as much as possible as it was divorced from the experience of the outside world, and as much natural light was brought into the building as possible without affecting the balance of the air conditioning. This is unusual as most studio's are buildings within buildings designed without any connection with natural light. It is a difficult strategy to take, because of the effect on air conditioning, but at Box north-facing windows were built in, looking out at the Mill, and providing a real connection with the outside world. As part of this re-integrating the water of the ByBrook tributory and the watermill into the site, added significantly to the aesthetics of the design, including the various qualities associated with water to the whole experience of the place, if not the practical application of a working watermill.

There's also the small timber-framed writing room which has proved popular with musicians. It isn't air-conditioned though, nor sound sealed from the outside. There were other problems, namely that it was a few yards from the main London to Bristol railway line (not named Box for nothing) and when 125 trains were passing, heading up Box hill, both engines in use, the silence was deafening. Musicians had tried to get round this by playing in between the trains; in fact Nigel Kennedy once timed his quartet to play movements lasting just short of the interval between trains.

I asked Clegg about the use of local materials, such as Cotswold stone, or whether woods particular to the immediate environs had been used. Regionalism wasn't really part of the equation, he said. It wasn't a matter of conservation of style either, and the conservation of materials. This wasn't part of the practise's remit. They were quite happy to import cheap timber from Canada, when global material is 'stunningly' cheap, and local materials excessively expensive. Almost all the architectural world, including the vast majority of ecologically motivated architecture and design wouldn't be anywhere without the modern technology upon which global transport is predicated, Clegg claimed. Tell this to the Permaculturists, I thought, but sympathised with the pragmatics of the example Clegg provided, the ubiquitous silicon in double-glazing. Which is of course a key method of reducing building energy usage. Still it was peculiar that a practise that claimed to have designed and built the lowest-energy buildings, and had been completely within the domestic market prior to Box, hadn't considered the energy remit of Box with a forward-thinking seriousness, and also didn't give the other hidden costs of the great global transport jamboree much attention, and consider the virtues of the region even a possibility. The Gabriel people had talked about and possibly began to study the feasibility of solar and turbine power - turbine particularly as much of the studio is in the river sited Mill. But it was too expensive to install £30,000 turbines which would need regular cleaning and maintenance, so as a project it had gone by the wayside. As it is, the electrical supply is generated from a 300kVA substation at the grounds edge, supplying a main distibution board which in turn supplies lighting, small power and mechanical services control panel as well as offices, accomodation and store areas. I continue to wonder if there isn't any feasibile possibility for Box to inaugorate and integrate a small field of Solar panels or Photo-Voltaic Cells to help with the energy required. As it was one of the studio manager's at Box said the electricity bill there was 'phenomenally expensive'.

The acoustics element was the primary engineering and design problem set by Box. Various proposals were advanced to control the airborne and structure-borne sound, both from and to the studio complex in relation to the outside; acoustically suspended floors and walls, triple glazing, and silencing of inlet and exhaust ducts. As a result the main studio's floor and mixing room was designed to include a secondary floor independent of the main structure, comprised from a 200 mm reinforced concrete slab sitting on rubber anti-vibration mountings. This doesn't sound, with concrete and rubber, purely green, and it may well be that acoustics will be a central stumbling block which green design would have to get its teeth around were it to take up the idea of Eco-Studio's.

Real World Studio. Photo: Stephen Lovell-Davis

After Box Fielden Clegg did some work for Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics in the south of France, and one of Box's studio engineers did some consultancy, but essentially the notion of major league studios organised around elements of green design principles remains stalled. Box remains in a category of its own, a signal beacon of a step along the way of how the world of recording could complete the surrounding natural world rather than exist completely alienated from it. What's needed is the proliferation of the materials so that it is accessible to the individual and small scale studio builder - without a formidable international recording career behind him. If a few record companies or 'star' bands could literally build upon and extend the notion of Box with a green dimension the beginnings of the green recording studio would be here to stay. However placing the Real World studios in a comparatively rural setting seems to be a radical gesture, because it demonstrates how hi-tech music and media worlds can thrive at some distance from the city, and in so doing sets up new futures for the country.