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The pioneering design process behind the sustainable architecture of Skelton Lake Services

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By Nick Baker – 16th March 2021

Corstorphine & Wright Director, Nick Baker and Architect Sara Burgess discuss their thinking behind the innovative design and environmentally friendly building materials, incorporated into Leeds Skelton Lake Motorway Services, leading a step-change for reducing carbon emissions through the whole life cycle of this pioneering, new-concept services station, from design and build through to operation.

This award-winning, stand out project is merited for its unique ability to seamlessly blend the new build of the service station with the stunning natural landscape in which it is located.

Where does the Corstorphine + Wright story begin on this project? 

We started working with the Extra Motorway Services Area (MSA) Group in 2006; securing detailed planning approvals for the pioneering developments at Cobham on the M25 and Beaconsfield on the M40. The team delivered the Cobham site before then designing new facilities at Sheffield on the M1 and Warrington on the M62, the latter soon to be granted planning approval. Plans for Leeds Skelton Lake on the M1 were originally conceived in 2009, before being revisited in 2016, when a shift in attitudes towards sustainable development opened the door for further design investigation.

Tell us about your thinking behind the concept for the masterplan at Leeds Skelton Lake?

The proximity to the lake was one of the key drivers of the masterplan arrangement, along with the relationship to the landscape and levels. The ambition was to create a building form that appeared to rise out of the landscape and be reflective of the undulating hills beyond.

The long views across the site were a key consideration, as was the need to respond positively to the ecology of the surrounding area.

The approach to the facilities needed to be sensitively controlled and care was taken to balance the needs of a range of transport users – cars, lorries, coaches, caravans and so on with pedestrians and cyclists visiting the lake. Accessibility for fueling and ease of navigation around the site were key priorities, along with the need to present an attractive building frontage.

What aspects of the surrounding landscape inspired the design? 

The lake provides a habitat for a wide range of bird species and was established following the reclamation of the former mine workings several decades ago. The shore itself is protected by a tree belt and a nature walk circles it.

The key driver for the design was to establish a building form that echoed its surroundings. It was important the new buildings did not break the horizon line and that, instead, they appeared to rise and fall within the natural contours of the site.


What influences did you draw upon for the varying parts of the project design and what commonality did you deploy to blend the structures together?

The primary design element of the development was the curvilinear “living-roof” with its ribbon form, which was designed to seat the new buildings within the landscape. This dynamic roof form was used as a unifying element, beneath which were conceived a series of building blocks – the facilities building, the hotel and the pavilion. Each of these different blocks had distinctly different functions and each was addressed in a subtly different way.

The roof was developed as a series of twelve individual ribbons; each with its own unique geometry. Each one was supported with two glue-laminated timber beams (Glulam) which were visible from below. The intersections of the ribbons gave opportunities to create eyelid roof lights.

With the central, publicly accessible space, it was important to give the impression that the roof was a separate element to the buildings below. The Glulam structure was continued beyond the line of the buildings with generous overhangs.

The facilities building contains the primary retail and leisure uses; each of which overlooks a central communal seating area. This building was developed as a predominantly solid building form, expressed with locally sourced, natural coursed stone. Openings within the stonework were limited, but each was designed with deep reveals to enhance the impression of solidity.

The hotel element was expressed as a separate entity, with long format grey bricks chosen to tonally complement the natural stone. The hotel form projects into the facilities building and is expressed within the central seating space. The green roof ribbon forms are extended over part of the hotel to provide further unity.

The final component of the scheme was the ‘pavilion’. Located to the south of the site with a direct connection to the lake frontage, this element was identified as a distinct building form, dressed in sustainably-sourced timber cladding. Within this block was located a viewing gallery and visitor centre for the RSPB, with expansive views across the lake.

The addition of the Wildlife Visitor Centre is a highly distinctive feature. Who made the decision to include this in the project and why? 

The original idea for a viewing gallery was a direct response to the uniqueness of the site and the proximity to the lake and the motorway. Early motorway service areas were often characterised by the inclusion of raised viewing areas where people could lift themselves above the traffic.

We wanted to reflect this feeling of separation and elevation above the traffic by incorporating a raised viewing platform. The move provided an opportunity to increase the height of one of the roof ribbons to create a focal point and to signal the development from the motorway.

Skelton Lake is a maturing lakeland bird habitat and the RSPB has been involved in trying to manage and enhance the quality of the environment around the lake for some time. We identified that there was an opportunity for them to use the viewing area as a base for their activity. It is anticipated that the facility will be used for educational visits.

Sustainable building materials are essential on a project such as this, particularly where carbon emissions will run high, what measures did you put in place to address this issue and the consideration of our current climate change crisis? 

Wherever possible, the design team specified sustainably-sourced building materials. The move to predominantly Glulam structural solutions was driven by the desire to reduce the amount of steel in the scheme. In addition to the Glulam, the roof deck cassettes and the timber cladding for the pavilion were all from sustainable sources. Locally-sourced natural stone is used throughout and other locally-sourced materials were specified where possible.

The green meadow roof build-up retains a significant proportion of the rainwater run-off one would associate with a building of this size. The site includes provisions for electric vehicle charging and we have also future-proofed the layout to allow for a future hydrogen charging plant should the technology come forward.

What was the most challenging part of this project? (and how did you overcome these challenges)

Changing long-held pre-conceived ideas as to what is a motorway service area was the main issue facing the design team at the outset.

The local authority was nervous about accepting the new use on a site they had hoped to allocate for housing. The original concept design for the scheme was important as it started to demonstrate that the proposals would be of positive benefit for the City of Leeds and early discussions related to how we would develop a building which would sit comfortably within the landscape whilst also providing Leeds with a flagship development.

Following a favourable response to the initial concept design, we had to persuade the local authority and other key stakeholders that Extra would deliver the ambitious scheme. This culminated in a presentation to the LPA where our client, Extra, made a commitment to the Council that we would deliver on the scheme as designed. Following that decision and the subsequent approval, the challenge was to engineer a building that retained the essence of the concept whilst removing a lot of the structural complexities.



Leeds Skelton Lake Services will be fully open early 2021 and won the 2020 Northern Design Awards Best Commercial Build category.

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