On a small island in the Thames, five silver-grey pyramids emerge from the surrounding trees and undergrowth, forming a linear structural rhythm that resonates with the Gothic silhouette of Eton College Chapel in the distance. At close quarters, standing in the outdoor anteroom underneath the first pyramid, the building starts to be understood as a unique construction – the walls are simply large interlocking blocks of solid cork, in which structure, insulation, external surface and internal finish are all one and the same thing.
Designed by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne (CSK Architects) and Oliver Wilton (UCL), the award-winning Cork House is an innovative and thought-provoking response to pressing questions about the materials that we build with – what are the origins of these materials, how are they fixed together to create a building, and where do these materials go when buildings die? Designed with immense attention to detail, the project is a structure of great ingenuity and beautifully reflects and respects the natural surroundings in form and construction.
The project is the latest development in an ongoing research project by Howland in collaboration with the Bartlett School of Architecture, the University of Bath, Amorim UK and Ty-Mawr. The team had been working on a sustainable construction system that depends almost entirely on cork – a renewable, resistant and insulating material that is sustainably harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree – since 2014. According to the designers, their work started with some questions about how we build today and wondering if it would be possible to develop an alternative with less complexity. In particular, they were interested in an approach that took into account environmental sustainability principles at each stage of a building’s lifecycle.