We’d missed the Building Research Establishment (BRE) open day in 2016, and were desperate to go this year after hearing great things from friends. We’d booked in advance (tickets were free), planning to spend a couple of hours there, but the huge amount of things to see and do meant that we ended up staying most of the day!
The site, right on the northern edge of Watford near Bricket Wood station, is huge – 75 acres – and home to the largest UK not-for-profit charity dedicated to research and education in the built environment. All kinds of building testing and research takes place there, from wind tunnel experiments to energy efficiency tests, in the many buildings scattered around the landscaped site.
Lots of thought had clearly gone in to organising the day, with many expert staff on hand to answer questions. Public understanding is also aided by excellent signage and lots of maps, with information boards explaining each building’s purpose. It brought to mind a large science and engineering-focussed university campus, and it’s clear that the BRE sees itself as a centre of excellence for education and training as well as a research and testing facility.
We started at the Innovation Park, looking at displays explaining the BRE’s work (above). We then went outside to look at the many examples of sustainable/eco-friendly buildings, including one designed by the Prince of Wales (below). We were worried that much of the site wouldn’t be accessible or of interest to our little one, but he loved exploring the buildings and the landscaped areas (there is also a small wooden playground).
One of the big draws listed in the marketing literature is the scale model of the Möhne Dam (below). This was used by Barnes Wallis in the first stage of developing the Bouncing Bomb, and is built from approximately 2 million tiny bricks (click here for a full history of its construction and use). The model is in one of the wooded areas of the site, and a pleasant short work away from the main buildings. There was also a talk on the dam and another on a plane that crashed on the site during WWII.
Lunchtime arrived and we managed to get into the on-site café (see below) before the rush. This is situated in a pleasant, green part of the site, and we enjoyed our sandwiches and coffee. There was some hot food, with prices similar to what you’d pay in town, and it was also possible to picnic on the grass and benches.
Another feature that really made it a great family day was the pair of bouncy castles (well, one castle and a kind of bouncy assault course with slide). Our little one loved these, and it would perhaps not have been as long a trip with our two year-old if there hadn’t been something like this to break up the building visits. We don’t know whether these were here last year, but they were a nice touch. These also gave us chance to split up and see a few other things that our little one would have been less interested in, including the Victorian mansion (used for office and meetings) and the flood resilient house (‘as seen on BBC Countryfile’).
One of our favourite buildings was the xylarium. This is the largest timber library in the world, and home to 30,000 timber specimens of hardwoods and softwoods. At first glance it appears that you’re looking at a library of Victorian or Edwardian-era volumes, and only when you see close up do you notice that each ‘book’ is actually a wood sample. The facility is used by builders and architects during their planning, and we enjoyed touching some of the wood and bark samples.
Some of the buildings weren’t included in the open day, such as the Burn Hall (where cladding samples were tested after the Grenfell Tower fire), and others that were open couldn’t be photographed due to containing commercially sensitive material (such as the fascinating, vast Structures Hall where different materials are tested to breaking point). We completely understood the reasons for this, but on leaving we thought that one improvement that could be made to the open day would be the inclusion of a few practical demonstrations (especially ones suitable for kids).
Another fascinating building was the anechoic chamber (below). This is a silent, echo-free testing space covered in thousands of spiky pieces of polyurethane, and is used for the testing of sound devices such as fire alarms.
We had a fantastic day, and it’s amazing to think that such a large and important site is there, right on the edge of Watford. Late-afternoon rain only slightly curtailed our visit, and we could have easily spent an hour or two more exploring the site.
Aside from perhaps having an exciting demonstration or two (see above), the only other improvement we’d suggest would be to have a couple of changing tables in the loos. There were loads of toilets across the site, but we had to change the little one on the floor each time.
All-in-all, an excellent day. As we said, it’s free to go, but you do have to book – make sure you get on the list for next year!