Den Building and Design

Designing for play, learning from nature and leaving blank space

No matter how much we yearn to stay indoors on a cold winters day, the pull of the great outdoors is always stronger. Being immersed in nature seeps into every part of our lives here at Studio 31 and it’s rare that even a day of work isn’t broken by a windswept walk.

Our working days are broken up with brief interludes describing our outdoor adventures and yesterday we were the recipients of a rare and beautiful show of photographs depicting our director’s children den building.

It was cold on Sunday, bracingly cold, the kind of cold where your fingers ache and your toes yearn for the heat of a log fire, but these kids were out. Deep in one of our ancient woodlands, collecting sticks, branches and leaves, building dens and making mock fires to heat them. I commend him on his parenting of course but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about design or rather the spaces between it.

You see, very often design is a necessity, it is a way of creating beauty, making use or enhancing function but sometimes design is also about space. It’s about knowing which parts to change and which to keep; which parts perhaps, nature already does better than we do.

We’ve learned this through forestry and woodland management for example. We’ve learned that it’s often better to leave a fallen tree than to remove it and that the power of nature to regenerate when left alone is sometimes more fruitful than intervention.

There are similar schools of thought when it comes to play. In this place of limited phone signal and zero toys, two small children played with just what mother nature had given them. Can we use design to replicate this and create maximum benefits from our urban play environments too?

There is an increasing trend towards natural play in the landscape industry and the art of designing play schemes for children is fast becoming a specialism in itself. We have been following this trend with keen eyes and take inspiration from many of our peers and colleagues in this field when designing our schemes.  Our peers, Green Edge Design in Australia for example, design play and education focussed landscapes for children and advocate the development of their design approach through the feedback of the staff and children who interact with them. A successful approach that really does let the clients lead the way.

Back on this side of the pond, practices such as Davies White led by Landscape Institute’s current president elect Adam White are setting the benchmark for innovative play space design. What we’ve learned here at studio 31, is that it seems the most successful play schemes are the ones that most closely replicate what nature has to offer and give children the freedom to explore, interpret and imagine.

Of course, being in nature isn’t just about play, we’ve talked time and again about the therapeutic benefits of nature on health, wellbeing and happiness and this applies as much to adults as it does to children. That’s why, the great thing about children and den building, is that they require supervision. Meaning that for every child with muddy hands and dirty boots, there is an adult also benefitting from the power of the great outdoors and the great reward that comes from building your very own shelter. For every child that engages with the natural world there are adults who are learning tree species to answer the barrage of questions coming from their offspring and there are adults feeling fresh air in their lungs and the sun on their face too.

Designing for Play

Here at studio 31, we try to have a simple, honest and reflective approach to our designs. We try to learn, not only from our industry but also our subject matter and what we’ve found is that some of our most profound interactions with the natural world are the simplest ones of all. That’s why, when we design, just like illustrations on a page, we try to leave white spaces that nature can fill; like the view between earth forms on our Kent Architecture Project or the use of native planting across many of our schemes.

So, if you’re short of ideas on what to do this week, go on, build a den and whilst you’re at it post a picture and tag us (@designstudio31) in the results. We’d love to keep our creative juices flowing on this one.


Educating the next generation of Landscape Architects

Studio 31 director reciprocal learning at Writtle University College.

A few months ago, one of our directors Edward Flaxman was pleased to be invited to become a guest lecturer on the Landscape and Garden Design programme at Writtle University College. Edward took up temporary residence last week, leading on one of their final year degree modules which aims to bridge the gap between education and industry.

It’s been a surreal time for Edward as it has led him to reflect warmly on his own time at Writtle more than a decade ago. He felt privileged then to be taught by some of the leading minds in the world of landscape architecture and garden design and their influence shaped much of his early time in industry.

In light of this, it has been a profound experience to give something back to both the current cohort of students and also to Writtle itself who year on year turn out excellent graduates who are to become the future of landscape architecture and garden design.

We have all had teachers in our pasts who have left an imprint on our future and education providers are now using the combination of a core team and external speakers to enhance the learning experience further. Programmes, more and more are using the knowledge and expertise of industry professionals to enhance the learning of their students and prepare them for their careers ahead. Writtle have always been progressive in this way and it only takes a look at their alumni to demonstrate the effectiveness of this joined up approach.

Edward’s role is to offer guidance, expertise and insight into the industry itself as well as prepare the students for their final exhibition in May. The exhibition this year is looking to be well worth a visit for anyone interested in exploring some exceptional design concepts or perhaps even looking for some exciting new team members.

Often teaching is viewed as a one-way process; the passing down of knowledge from one person to those less experienced. Edward’s involvement on the course so far though has been one of reciprocal learning. Throughout his career he has taken steps to improve and enhance his development. His time spent working abroad for example, gave him the opportunity to experience new cultures, climates and planting palettes thus greatly enhancing the breadth of his knowledge. In a similar way, working alongside the next generation of designers, has given him the opportunity to keep abreast of changing trends, emerging research and new graphic techniques that very often only young entrepreneurial designers have access to. In our busy lives in the design studio it is easy to isolate ourselves and focus only on the now, but if you ever have the opportunity to get involved on the teaching of the next generation of our landscape architects and garden designers, it is well worth it on many levels..

Countryside Manager

The sixth in our monthly professionals series; Henry Bexley, Countryside Manager, National Trust

 Henry Bexley; Countryside Manager, National Trust

A New Year and we have some exciting new contributors for our professionals’ blog series; Not least this month’s guest Henry Bexley, Countryside Manager at Essex and South Suffolk National Trust.

What’s striking about Henry is both the simple beauty and insight with which he describes his interaction with the natural world. He talks of his childhood as being “out on my bike with schoolmates or on dog walks in the woods, out on the heathland, beside a river or the sea” He mentions “the obviously lasting effect that being absorbed in natural beauty from a young age has had”. And the following blog could not demonstrate more truth in that.

Henry’s path began by volunteering for the National Trust near his home in Devon and his career then took him on a journey through gardening, tree surgery, civil engineering and building work before perhaps inevitably back to the National Trust becoming a Warden in 1999. Home at last, he was subsequently promoted to Head Warden and then Countryside Manager where he now manages a team of six full time rangers and over 150 dedicated volunteers.

Henry has overall responsibility for eleven countryside sites of which the largest and busiest is a place close to our hearts here at Studio 31; Hatfield Forest. But the sites he manages don’t only consist of ancient woodland, they span everything from coastal and farmland sites to a Norman Motte and even a Bailey Castle at Rayleigh. This means that the work is hugely varied too “from coppice and scrub management to fencing, deer management, salt marsh restoration and footpath and signage maintenance.” Henry’s work can also be largely office-based these days; managing teams, planning the projects and gathering the consents and all important funding to achieve them.

“Fundraising for our projects is always a challenge and we have to be far-sighted and often patient but we have a great team which help us meet the challenges we face”

It’s clear to see that along with the challenges though, Henry’s role also has its rewards;

“The times when a plan comes together following a lot of hard team work and when we start taking on rare species as a result of our conservation work. [They] are the things I enjoy the most”

More broadly, he talks of the challenges nature is facing and the importance of the solutions coming from both the valuable work of conservation charities like the National Trust but also from each and every one of us.

“Nature is going through a really tough time at the moment, due to climate change, development of rural spaces, and habitat destruction. However, it is not a lost cause in my view. It does bounce back quite remarkably and our habitat restoration work has proven that time and again. To do this on our best wildlife sites is vitally important, but the effect would be so much greater if it can be achieved at a truly landscape scale, making the most of any available green space with everyone doing their bit and getting involved.”

The National Trust looks after over 200 gardens and 180 parks; the largest portfolio of historic gardens and parks in Europe and contains the largest collection of historically and botanically significant plants. 93 gardens and parks are registered Grade I and II, 30 contain SSSIs or ASSIs, two are National Nature Reserves and the national trust looks after places in seven of the UKs World Heritage Sites. National Trust parks and gardens also host the works of many of the major garden designers in history including William Kent, Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (National Trust, 2018). We therefore asked Henry how he views the connection between his work and something like Landscape Architecture or Garden Design…

“All of our Essex sites have been designed in one way or another, whether for the growing and harvesting of trees, the husbandry of deer, the grazing of livestock, the growing of crops, clearing a vantage point to see enemy invaders or purely for the enjoyment of our predecessors as formal landscaped grounds (such as the Capability Brown designed lake area at Hatfield Forest). My job is partly to work out the most important layer of a site’s history to embellish; whether that’s by physically restoring it or portraying it in some way for people to easily understand how it once was. We are gathering so much accurate knowledge from expert landscape historians these days that never before have we had so much evidence to go on”

If ever you meet someone who is in exactly the right job role, Henry Bexley is it. His passion and dedication for the natural world and conservation is as evident as his optimism that together we all hold the key to the preservation of both our heritage sites and wildlife. So, in a slightly different manner to normal I will leave the final word to JFK (or rather Henry’s subtly humourous but seriously important adaptation of his words):

“Ask not what your country(side) can do for you – ask what you can do for your country(side)”






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Sustainable Building Material

Sustainable Landscape Building Materials: Bamboo.

A curious exploration of this sustainable building material 

Towards the end of 2017 we began to explore some sustainable building materials that are beginning to emerge across both landscape architecture and architecture. This included, recycled bed springs, rope, traditional timber and the ever-increasing popularity of bamboo.

As we step into 2018 we are once again struck by the potential of Bamboo as a building material and here are some reasons why…

Bamboo is natural. It sounds obvious but we are well aware with the current plastics crisis in both landfill and our oceans that man-made compositions almost always harbour much greater environmental impacts than naturally derived materials.

It is fast growing. It can be more than 30 years before hardwood can be utilised as a building material where bamboo can be cut after 3-5 years and more than this, will then regrow again and again.

It’s strong. Some tests have even shown that it’s compressive strength is stronger than concrete. This would presumably vary from species to species (and there are more than 1000 species of bamboo across the world) but never-the-less, it’s impressive.

Colour. The traditional “blond” bamboo itself varies in colour and shade from yellow to brown and there are methods being developed to dye and colour this. But perhaps more excitingly there are also some species of slower-growing bamboo which provide alternative colouration from dark brown to jet black. There are various theories as to why this colouration occurs including genetic mutation which puts the darker bamboo at an advantage in terms of light absorption but whatever the theory, it’s a lesser known cousin of blonde that could transform bamboo use across the built environment.


There will always be critics and I suspect many of bamboo’s criticisms will be in relation to its raw, rough and “imperfect” form. For this reason, I imagine that its use across architecture will be a harder sell than across landscape architecture. Never-the-less in a contemporary world of clean lines and minimalist garden design, bamboo isn’t the obvious choice.

I would argue though that the imperfections, the knobbles and nodules are where it’s beauty lies. Landscape by its very definition is natural, raw, unformed. No two plants, trees or lawns will ever be exactly the same despite our best efforts to prune, train and manipulate them into place. What bamboo offers us therefore isn’t a chance to shape it into a material that works for us but a chance to create something new.

We already know bamboo has applications across fencing, flooring, sculpture and almost every other aspect of landscape build. However, I would argue if we try to train it to conform to our convention rules, we will in the long term, inevitably fail.  But…if we explore it curiously, embracing it, in all its peculiarity, it may very well offer us a whole new approach to design innovation. One that functionally and aesthetically pushes the boundaries of conventional design and at the same time happens to be sustainable. So sustainable in fact, that Neil Thomas from Atelier One Structural engineers even boldly described it as “the most sustainable natural building material on earth”.






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Planning Permission Granted

Project Update: Planning Permission Granted for Woodland House in Essex

A Cohesive Approach to Landscape Strategy.

Studio 31 are delighted to have received planning permission on a new arts and crafts dwelling in the heart of the Essex countryside. This is exactly the type of complex project that gets the design team here inspired. This stunning site had many complexities, including significant level changes, adjacent SSSI protected woodland and many beautiful veteran trees. It was a complex planning application and the landscape strategy had to demonstrate a cohesive and sensitive approach to the development as a whole.  We therefore worked in collaboration with an arboriculturist and ecologist to develop a landscape strategy which not only met the requirements of the project, but which had the sites character and ecological sensitivity at the core of its concept.
We have spoken in the past about the importance of a unified approach to architecture and landscape architecture and this project was a perfect demonstration of this. The 5 acres of landscape around the proposed house will become a haven for the clients. It will reflect the existing character and habitats of the site whilst also having all the luxuries of a stunning contemporary garden which seamlessly flows from the building at the heart of it.

We were delighted to start the year with planning permission granted for this exciting new project and are looking forward to following its journey through detailed design and into built reality due to start this summer.

For more information or photos, see our portfolio page here.









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Our Favourite Landscape Podcasts

Landscape Architecture, Nature and Horticulture Podcasts to brighten your festive season.

Christmas is the time for sharing and we thought for Studio 31s final blog of 2017 we would share with you some of our favourite landscape architecture, horticulture and nature podcasts. If you’re travelling back home this Christmas or just fancy kicking back with some mulled wine and a mince pie, here are some perfect accompaniments. Get downloading.


  1. Field Guides

A podcast focussed on North American wildlife but aimed at bringing its listeners out on the trail with its passionate and knowledgeable hosts Steve and (Mr) Bill. Field guide podcasts are thoughtful, insightful and target both flora and fauna (after all they are inextricably linked). A must for your inner nature nerd.

Average running time: 60 minutes

Frequency: Monthly



  1. Common Edge

This non-profit organisation is worth following, as is their monthly (or sometimes a little less) often podcast. They have a mission to “reconnect architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve” and they report on public engagement in the planning and design of the built environment. Their podcasts target some important issues such as sustainability, climate change and social justice as well as citing the role of landscape architecture in the build environment.

Average running time: Varies from 30-50 minutes

Freqency- Ad hoc (A little less than monthly)



  1. Sod Show

An award-winning garden podcast hosted by horticulturist Peter Donegan. SodShow comprises weekly interviews with a whole range of industry professionals in what are often funny, sometimes moving, always informative interactions.

Average running time 30minutes

Frequency Weekly



  1. Remarkable Objects

A podcast taking a look at the ways in which nature and the built environment shape each other. It is created with the idea in mind that if we can incorporate nature into our cities we can create healthy, sustainable places for people. These are conversations that will advance our thinking in this realm.

Average running time- 20 minutes

Frequency- Roughly 2 weekly.



  1. In Defense of Plants

“Plants are everything on this planet.” “From the smallest duckweed to the tallest redwood, the botanical world is full of amazing evolutionary stories.” This is a podcast for plant geeks everywhere, hosted by the insightful and infinitely knowledgeable Matt Candeias. It’s more sciency than some of the podcasts out there so expect a few latin names and mind-melding moments but it’s also very accessible too. Targeting important topics like sustainability, conservation, climate change and ecology, this podcast is a regular in the office here at Studio 31 and is raising the flag for flora large and small around the world.

Average running time: 50 minutes

Frequency: Weekly



A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the team here at Studio 31. See you in 2018 where we will be continuing our professionals’ series, sharing more of our own work and looking at more important issues across the landscape industry.






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Studio Update: Planting Mature Trees

Planting Mature Trees

We’ve had an exciting couple of weeks here at Studio 31; competition deadlines, co-ordinating builds and some adventurous conceptual design work in full swing!

Among all the (happy) chaos, we wanted to come up for air to talk about one of our favourite things; trees. Big trees.

On one particular day last week, two of our team were out on two very different sites, in two different counties with two very different sets of weather but both taking delivery of some evergreen, mature, native trees. Up in Suffolk, it was -3 degrees with snow storms whilst in balmy Hertfordshire there was blue skies and the perfect sunny winters day (not sure who got the raw end of the deal there).

At one site thirteen 3 metre Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine) were delivered to one of our commercial clients to be used as part of a unique entrance way. At the other residential project eighteen 7 metre Ilex aquifolium (Common Holly) were being delivered as part of a screening programme. These were mature trees weighing in excess of a tonne and requiring specialist equipment and expertise in both transporting and planting. These types of installations are where our network of professional partnerships with high quality suppliers and contractors really come into their own and allow the trees the best start to begin to thrive in their new homes.

Planting Mature Trees Planting Mature Trees

Whilst the debate rages on in landscape and ecology realms about the benefits of native versus non-native (in terms of biodiversity), on these schemes native trees were the right choice. At both sites, the respective trees are building on the existing ecology and habitats by echoing the local flora and surrounding woodlands and with both species being evergreen, they will have the advantage of fulfilling their roles all year round. As with all our schemes, we look to provide planting which carefully considers the needs of the site, the client’s brief and it’s ecological and environmental impact. Planting big, beautiful native trees is an easy win for us as it fulfils all our objectives with ease.


The fifth in our monthly professionals series; James Mors, Associate Director, Clear Architects

 James Mors; Associate Director, Clear Architects

There are many definitions of the term ‘Landscape but one of the simplest is ‘anything that is not a building’ and as such ‘landscape’ is a term that extends from the wilds of mountains and moorlands to the confines of private gardens, public parks and the spaces between buildings. It is, in a sense, an all-encompassing term and as such this blog aims to begin to help people think about the diversity of the landscape profession and those professionals within it.

This month’s interview is with James Mors, Associate Director of the innovative and inspired Clear Architects which may lead you to thinking ‘what has an architect got to do with a blog about landscape professionals?’ If the definition of landscape is ‘anything that is not a building’, then the answer to that question is…a very great deal indeed.

A huge amount of the work professionals across the landscape industries do is to look at the connection between architecture and landscape. And as such architects and landscape professionals are, and will continue to be, inextricably linked.

James came to work at Clear Architects after having started his professional career in commercial focused architecture. Here he gained a core understanding of commercial projects under design and build contracts but over time, also a desire to connect more closely with the end user. The move to Clear, offered him just that and it’s apparent immediately that James sees the value and indeed privilege in being trusted to “design [clients] dream homes and spaces they never realised could be a reality”. His passion, in his own words, is “in designing and creating unprecedented spaces”

When you learn a little more about James, you come to understand that his affinity with architecture extends well beyond design alone. Perhaps stemming from a childhood love of building and creating things “a table, chair or scaled model”, James has as much interest in building as he does with design and describes his role in the construction of projects with equal levels of fervour as the design work itself.

No surprise then, that Clear architects was a perfect fit for James;

Clear Architects have never aspired to create designs that are never intended to be built and push relentlessly to ensure projects are constructed to the highest quality. The practice is all about the detail and ensuring our clients aspirations are exceeded. 

Too often architects are criticised for inspired conceptual design work with no consideration of how that architecture may practically be built. Both Clear Architects and James himself, break the mould in this respect. It is obvious that for James, the design and functional aspects of architecture go hand in hand.

My taste is minimalist.  I believe the key to good design is to not over-complicate details and design in general.  There are simple factors that should alwaysbe considered; orientation, topography of the land, site location; A project must always consider the core values of the site.  Simple lines and well-arranged spaces that are practical and function for the end use.

It follows then that James considers the execution of a building to extend beyond the role the architect alone and he describes his professional relationships as “paramount to creating excellent architecture”

Excellent design/construction can only be realised through collaborative working

[Clear Architects] surrounds itself with likeminded individuals and professionals, as there is an appreciation that creating buildings to the highest quality does not lay solely with the architect, it is a combination of many professionals.

In this vein, James considers the connection of landscape and architecture to be essential.

Some of our best concepts have been developed and inspired from the landscape/context that the building sits in.  I believe that the landscape architect should be part of the design team from the outset, bouncing ideas with the architect to ensure the landscaping is not an afterthought.

James’ expertise in the translation of good design into practical construction is certainly an asset here. He describes the importance of the involvement of landscape in the early stages of design and a necessity to remain open to adjustments in the design of the architecture to better connect building and landscape. In essence, James’ approach is to try to create one design which flows from architecture to landscape architecture and he advocates the value of this method to the architecture itself, to the landscape and ultimately to the client. It is a truly holistic approach to architecture that produces some quite remarkable results and makes it both a pleasure and a joy for Studio 31 to work alongside James (and Clear) on some truly astonishing projects.







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Contemporary Garden Design Essex

Project Update: A Contemporary Garden Design in Essex

The Importance of Design Collaboration

We are in the midst of the detailed design stages for our contemporary garden design project in Essex. With the conceptual design phase for the landscape complete, work on the building is due to commence in the coming weeks with the landscape construction to follow later next year.

This project really highlights the importance and advantage to the client of a collaboration between an architect and landscape architect in the initial design stages. The benefits of this early strong working relationship can be many fold; not least to ensure that the quality and level of detail evident the design for the architecture is continued and congruous within the landscape but also for practical and cost-effective reasons.

On this site, design work for the landscape at this early stage has meant the opportunity to plant mature hedging around the boundary of the site in advance of the architectural build commencing. One of the main concerns with the site for this project was the imposing boundary of the neighbouring property. Planting mature hedging at this stage is a cost-effective way to mitigate against this problem. The 18-month construction period gives the plants time for growth and to establish further, thus allows for slightly smaller initial plants to be used.

A good collaboration between architect and landscape architect will develop cost-effective solutions such as this in order to provide the best possible overall delivery of the design in the most efficient way.

Of course, there are disadvantages to planting pre-construction as plants can be sensitive to the impact of heavy machinery and can be liable to damage during construction phases. With this in mind, it is also important to have a good working relationship with the main contractor. Good contractors will be well used to putting in place protection for sensitive landscapes (such as trees with preservation orders) so clear communication here should easily mean provision can be made.

With this site, the hedging is located well away from the main construction area and can be easily fenced from the building work, therefore any impact to the plants can be avoided.

The design itself is an exciting one, providing a seamless link between the building and the wider landscape through using the continuation of themes from Clear Architects’ contemporary building design into the garden. An example of this, is a linear cascading water feature which breaches the two levels of the terrace. We are excited to see the building begin to come to life and the landscape with it over the coming months and are working closely with our colleagues at Clear to ensure the results are something astounding.

For more information or photos, see our portfolio page here.







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Horticultural Science

Horticultural Science and Research at RHS Wisley

Education, Science and Learning

This weekend we took a trip to visit flagship RHS site Wisley in Surrey to get a closer look at Wisley’s portion of the RHS 160 million pound development. Wisley is one of the UK’s best loved gardens, welcoming over 1 million visitors per year and is well known for being a great day out for garden enthusiasts, families and professionals alike. What it’s less well known for though is its history and credentials in horticultural science that’s what this expansive new development is hoping to put right.

Wisley has been home to RHS Science since 1903 and RHS School of Horticulture since 1907 where a team of botanists, scientists and horticulturists have, to date, compiled some of the most important horticultural collections in the UK, if not the world. Their database alone houses 325,000 plant names and they have cultivated over 80,000 plant specimens in the RHS Herbarium. The existing grade II listed garden was originally designed to be a “living laboratory for experimentation and education in horticulture” and to this day provides a foundation on which scientific research there tackles globally important issues.

The new development at Wisley aims to open the laboratory to the public for the first time in over 100 years and aims to be both a step back in time to explore how scientists pioneered horticultural research and also a classroom for the future, lifting the lid on the latest scientific advances in botany and horticulture.

As part of the development, there will also be seven new gardens, some of the most interesting of which surrounding The Centre of Horticulture, Science and Learning. The three gardens here will focus on mental health and wellbeing, gardens as ecosystem services and also a brand-new kitchen garden teaching people about our connection to the natural world through the food we eat. Each garden having a unique educational focus like this, really grounds the theory in practice, thus making it more tangible and palatable for its visitors.

The great part about this development is that there is this keen focus on learning. The RHS is aiming to encourage future generations to “embrace all aspects of horticulture and understand its value and importance”. This is something vital  in a world where technological and scientific advances are so often perceived as synonymous with indoor pursuits.

For so long now, science and research has been something conducted behind closed doors, only put on display once the reports are written and results are validated. The work at Wisley is attempting to turn all that on its head and quite literally open its doors to the public in a bid to help engage and educate all of us. And in relation to this new idea of transparency, they’ve already started as they mean to go on with a ground level viewing platform of the building work as it occurs. An absolutely genius idea, though, we probably spent a little too long watching the diggers.

Horticultural Science

Wisley have long-since had a mission to “Enrich everyone’s life through plants and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place” and from next Summer we will begin to see how they are fulfilling that objective. Great work Wisley, here at Studio 31, we look forward to seeing the work unfurl.