22 February 2015

Birding Architecture - bird hides & nature reserve innovation

 Merlin (adult female) at Snettisham RSPB reserve, Feb 2015

3000 kilometers on the road in UK 


On our recent tour around UK Tormod from Biotope and Graham White from RSPB visited several of RSPB´s nature reserves. We have also given many talks, both public and staff talks at various places, from Dorset in the south to Minsmere in the east and Flamborough in the north. Our aim has been to share ideas and inspire people by presenting our work. This article feature some thoughts and ideas presented on the UK tour.

"Viewing the future tour" or "The mud and the wood talks"

Our talks was quickly labeled the ´mud and the wood talks´, referring to our respective fields of expertise. Graham White is a senior wetland ecologist at RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). In his talks Graham have outlined the amazing work done by the RSPB and their making and management of nature reserves. Their aim is to make the most biodiverse and bird rich places imaginable. Designing wetlands, with an immense variety of micro habitats within them is Grahams speciality. This work includes moving a lot of mud around! Hence the reference. 

Tormod have focused on the thinking behind Biotopes bird hide projects, the wood part. Our aim as a pro nature architectural practise is to introduce new ideas, fine tune them and innovate within the niche that is birding architecture. 

From February 2nd to 15th we travelled 3000 kilometers around UK. We met a lot birders, nature enthusiasts, conservation people and more. It has been a very inspiring trip, with lots of valuable discussions and great field trips. We are very gratefull to be part of the international birding community, which is such an engaged group of people. There are so many good things happening with so many great initiatives: From very active and clever nature reserve management, to high tech science and bird monitoring projects, sound recording, to bird art, bird photography, bird identification, citizen science, etc. The RSPB nature reserve projects are impressive both in scale and in detail. At the Biotope office we aim to contribute to the international nature scene by innovating the architecture that will bring people and nature closer. 

The wood 

As a part of the "Viewing the future tour" we have presented the Biotope story, of how we started our architectural office in the Varanger region. This is the place in Norway that we knew had the biggest potential of becoming a world class birding destination. We decided to move to the fishing town Vardø in northeast Norway, and set up the worlds first birder-architect office in 2009. Since then we have engaged with a wide variety of pro nature projects. This work includes setting up a regional bird ringing scheme, doing school bird projects, arranging the bird festival Gullfest and working closely with the regional tourism scene. A key part of our work have been to complement the Varanger birding destination with a series of custom designed bird hides, photo hides and wind shelters. A work we are very happy to say we got the Northern Norway Architecture Award for in 2014. A lot of our work has also been to engage with people locally, but also to constantly think internationally, and to engage with birders world wide. Our aim has been to positively contribute in Varanger, while at the same time we knew that our birding architecture ideas would have an international audience. We are now a pro nature architecture office based in Varanger, but working all over Norway, in Iceland, in UK and we aim to keep it international. Read more about birding architecture in the second half of this article..

The Mud

The RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. The above aerial was taken on our recent tour around UK. It clearly shows the variety of habitats and scale of RSPBs work. It is an amazingly bird rich place. Graham Whites talks about reserve design and management puts things in perspective. When you walk around in the reserve it seems, well, quite natural and it is easy to think it´s just nature working well. But with the aerials, from a birds perspective, you realize the amount of work that goes into making these incredibly bird rich places. This does not happen by chance. In general humans have become experts in destroying nature, removing nature and replacing it with build landscapes that have little or no biological value or diversity. RSPBs work is the opposite, it is maximising biological value and diversity. It is ´giving nature a home´ in the very widest sense! 

On this tour I brought my small GoPro camera, and made this 2 minute interview with Adam Rowlands, where he explains Minsmere. After walking around Minsmere with Adam and Graham for a full day, you learn to appreciate the work they are doing. A very big thanks to Adam and the Minsmere RSPB team for hosting the "Viewing the future talks"! 


Bearded Tit, male, photographed at Minsmere on the tour. A key species at the reserve. Brilliant birds!

More amazing reserves by the RSPB, with aerials by Biotope 

...and a very big thanks for hosting the talks goes to the good people at RSPB Saltholme, Arne, Snettisham, Bempton, The Lodge and furthermore to our friends at Flamborough Bird Observatory and the Birds of Poole Harbour Charity. Click on any image for bigger, slide show views.

RSPB Saltholme, Feb 2015

RSPB Ham Wall, Feb 2015

RSPB Arne, Feb 2015

RSPB Frampton, August 2014

Thinking inside the box - bird hides

While the creating and management of nature reserves in UK is probably some of the most forward thinking in the world, the arhitecture seems to be less innovative. I guess the first bird hides erected some 40-50 years ago look pretty much the same as todays model. The standard is the box hide and it seems there has been very little evolution in the design of bird hides. This is not just a UK thing. Everywhere we can find these box hides, that aim to hide people away from birds. 

The combination of being both a birder and an architect is rare one. This is where we at Biotope aim to make a difference. Birding architecture is our full time project. We are not your ordinary architecture office doing the occasional bird hide project, as a fun ´side project´ or to boost the ´green profile´ of the company. We have seen many examples of architecture companies trying to do bird hides, and after studying this niché, we have also seen which mistakes that allways repeat themselves. As with the niché of bird art, it becomes obvious when it is an non-birding artist drawing a bird versus when a dedicated bird artist draws a bird. A bird artist will be aware of feather details and bird topography in a way a non birding artist can never match. Lack of dedication and interest in birding architecture, often leaves us with architectural flare over function (= looking good, doesn´t work). 

To me it seems the architecture scene has a very generalistic approach: the Architect is trained to know about a lot, but specializing in a niché is not a part of the education. Many architects complain that the role of the architect is becoming less important, and that other businesses, like the building industry, dictate the standards. Perhaps the architecture scene would benefit from leaving the ´starchitect´ ideals, with pompous building projects aiming to dazzle its audience. Perhaps it is time we go niché and specialize more. There are so many fields one can specialize in as an architect. The birder architect is just one of many possible nichés. Whichever niché of choice it demands dedication, focus and detailed knowledge of the subject. Perhaps it also includes the idea that the architecture itself is not the end goal. 

Still the vast majority of bird hides are not architect designs. They seem to be more or less copy-paste versions of previous hides, originating from the garden shed, but with viewing slots. We appreciate the need for budget hides and rational design, and we are not on a mission against box hides. They are often the appropriate solution. There has also gone a lot of work into fine tuning the box hides technical specifications. Sometimes you need to hide people away from birds, otherwise you would scare the wildlife you are trying to see. 

The above photos show the box hide variety. Essentially it is the same design, but with the variety of taking away the back wall. In many cases the box hides still scare birds away from the hide, as you enter them and that white flash of light and silhouettes of people moving suddenly becomes very obvious to the birds in front of the hide. The potential to evolve birding architecture is huge, and even the box hide could use some design evolution.

Standard box hides. Elevated model + the variety of ´box on top of another box´. Considering that the box-on-box hide found at RSPB Arne reserve has to cater to nearly 100 000 visitors (!), it seems obvious that more people friendly designs would be of great benefit to the reserve. There is a huge potential in improving the ways in which we let people connect with nature. 

The screen hide, is often considered the budget version of the box hide. Again, the aim of them are valid, as birds and people often do not go well close together. But the problem of this hide variety is that in terms of architectural expression, this model basically says to people that they do not belong here. The way we design clearly express our views of people and nature. There is a huge potential to make people feel more included as part of the scenery. Even when there is an obvious need for hiding people, there are ways to make more welcoming designs. 

Thinking outside the box - birding architecture

The Steilnes bird hide / wind shelter in Vardø (in winter above, summer below)

For us birding and nature is the niché we are dedicated to. Bird hides may be smaller pieces of architecture, but that does not mean less design thinking goes in to it. After working full time with bird hides and pro nature projects for five years, we still feel we are at a pioneering stage of this niché. For us at Biotope architecture is a tool to protect and promote birds, wildlife and nature.  

There are many ways in which architecture can bring people and nature closer. Again, we see the value of the standard box hide. The trouble, however, is when it becomes the only solution. One size does not fit all. Anyone who have been in a box hide occupied by a couple of hard core birders, some keen bird photographers and a family on a day out, know that one box does not fit them all, peacefully. 

We are on a mission to bring variety to the birding architecture scene. We believe this will provide better birding for birders. We can fascilitate better for the photographers, who´s needs are different from those of a birder. Introducing new people to amazing nature experiences is vital, and designing bird hides and shelters with welcoming qualities is a key part of this. 

Above is the Barvika wind shelter in Vardø, Varanger. Still a kind of a box, but with very different qualities then the standard box hide. As is often the case with hides, there are not birds directly in front of the hide, and this design shelters you from the winds, while also giving great views of the landscape. When its not needed, why design a dark box with limited views?

At Biotope we do a lot of prototyping and developing of news ideas. Like the above turtle-style photo hide, aimed at getting you very close to waders without disturbing them. The lower design is of a new floating photo hide currently being built, again in search of new bird photo opportunities.

Providing shelter and comfort is vital for a great nature experience. The above shelter is from our Smøla projects, in west coast Norway. 

When building regulations prove tricky, we design mobile shelters and hides (concept & design © Biotope). These can be easily built in a garage and transported to the site, and even removed if so desired. The above shelters are from Varanger (more recent birding architecture projects from Varanger).

Another concept we have developed: the combined bird tower & outdoor amphitheater (concept & design © Biotope). This facility at Ørland, central Norway, sets a welcoming tone and easily accomodates a school class or group of people enjoying a day out. As with all projects we work with we are constantly developing and fine tuning our designs and concepts. There are always things which can be be improved upon, like universal accessibility (wheelchair access), constructional rationality, etc. Newer versions of this concept is already under construction.

If you are planning on birding Varanger here is a map showcasing the bird hides / wind shelters made in Varanger the past few years. We have more projects being built at the moment so this is a work in progress. For more info on birding in Varanger check out this Varanger birding articles overview

Bird hide Innovation - the Biotope hide

We are very honoured to be featured in the recently published book ´Birdwatching in 100 objects´, by David Callahan (with Dominic Mitchell / Bloomsbury publishing). ´The Biotope hide´ is featured alongside important birding innovations such as the microphone and the Swarovski telescope. This fuels our passion for contributing to the world of birding with new ideas in birding architecture. The book itself is well worth the money as it presents the history of birding in a very clever way (that is beside the fact that we are in it!). It features 99 other objects that have had a great impact on birding as we know it!

A request for bird hide photos & a big thanks! 

We are working on a book about bird hide design, and would very much appreciate your input. If you have photos of hides you like, or don´t like, please send them to us (if you allow publishing later on). This is a project in progress, and we aim to make a collection of both good and bad examples. Thanks for sending your photos to tormod@biotope.no

We are currently assembling a set of designs that we have available. We are grateful for all the interest we get, and as the birding and conservation community is international we aim to be so too. If you are in need of a birder architect feel free to contact us!

A big thanks to all birders and nature enthusiast for coming to our talks in UK, and for following our work as pro nature architects!

Tormod Amundsen - architect & birder

email: tormod@biotope.no  ///   twitter @BiotopeOffice   ///   www.facebook.com/biotope.no