Unique ORACLE building has firm foundations for outdoor research and community learning

Swansea University Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies marked the start of work on the construction of a unique outdoor learning building today (Thursday, December 12), with a ground breaking ceremony and first dig of the building’s footings.

ORACLESituated in the Botanical Gardens of the University’s Singleton Park Campus, the ORACLE (Outdoor Research and Community Learning Environment) building will be constructed from the most ecologically low impact, locally sourced materials.

It will consist of three cob (earth) courtyard walls built on dry stone stem walls, with recycled car tyre tiles on two of the walls and a round pole turf roof on the other.

The construction is an initiative led by the University’s Biodiversity Working Group in collaboration with University spin-out company the Down to Earth Project, based in Murton, Gower, which is led by Swansea University graduates Mark and Jen McKenna, who are husband and wife.

The ORACLE build will involve students from the University’s College of Engineering, staff volunteers, University contractors Leadbitter, and participants from the local community on voluntary training programmes.

Work got underway today and will continue for six months. Staff, students and contractors involved in the build will be trained in cob (earth) building, timber frame construction, dry stone walling, green woodwork, and natural renders, plasters and paints.

Cob courtyard house example picVice-Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies said: “I am delighted the University has joined forces with Down to Earth on this project, whose two founders are Swansea University alumni.

“The building is providing research opportunities for our Engineering students. It will also be a doorway to the natural world for our visiting school children, University staff, students, and visiting businesses and community members in three ways: as a setting for lectures, workshops and group discussions; as an opportunity for hands-on engagement with natural elements as part of the campus nature trail; and as a setting for relaxation. As each building is unique in design, I am really looking forward to seeing it take shape and develop a personality of its own.

“The building will provide a traditional and sustainable setting and will positively benefit staff and student wellbeing as well as hosting a full program of formal and informal events to add to the already vibrant Singleton Park Campus.”

Dr Dan Foreman of the Swansea Ecology Research Team at Swansea University added: "The development of ORACLE provides an exciting opportunity to share knowledge and information in a unique setting.

"We look forward to using this amazing resource to help engage with the wider community in Swansea and beyond, so that we can work more closely as a society to share and solve common problems.”

Image 1: Lleft to right, Master’s course in Civil Engineering student Oliver Webb, who is conducting his third year research project on the ORACLE building; Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies; and Mark McKenna, co-founder of the Down to Earth Project.

Image 2: An example of a completed cob courtyard building. However, it is important to note all cob courtyard buildings are unique and this is just an example of what they can look like.

The Down to Earth Project was established in 2005 by husband and wife team Mark and Jen McKenna, who studied at Swansea University. The Down to Earth Project is an award winning, not-for-profit education organisation specialising in working with ‘hard to reach’ and ‘disadvantaged’ groups through the outdoors. With personal development at the very centre, the project supports individuals and groups through practical, hands-on sustainability. See http://www.downtoearthproject.org.uk/index.php.