The Onion Collective came together to repurpose an old paper mill. They finished up tackling a chronic unemployment problem and the climate emergency. Lucy Anna Scott investigates
A deserted industrial landscape in Watchet, west Somerset, isn’t the most obvious commercial opportunity. But developer Tameer had a different view of these 38 acres of concrete, where seagulls and coastal winds whip wild around dilapidated buildings.
The site lies just 12 miles south of the Hinkley C nuclear plant. The £20bn project, which can be seen from Watchet’s harbour, will eventually employ thousands, in an area that is rich in natural beauty but poor in housing supply.
However, neither Watchet nor Tameer are waiting on the property demand that Hinkley will generate, because under the corrugated roof of the only inhabitable structure on the site, seedlings of a far more sustainable future are growing.
Outline plans for Tameer’s mixed-use scheme are currently being amended, but the site, which will be five minutes’ walk from the town centre, has its first tenant already in situ: Biohm, an innovative, award-winning biotech business that is the first of its kind in the world.
Eight community-interested women born and bred in Watchet and known as the Onion Collective realised that no one else was going to tackle a chronic unemployment problem. The eureka moment? Make Watchet a global player in the biophilic materials revolution
Founded by Ehab Sayed, Biohm manufactures natural building materials for the construction industry using agricultural waste and insulation made from the root systems of mushrooms. Globally, a handful of companies are working with materials based on mycelia – the roots of fungi. However, Biohm is the only one turning them into building insulation.
The enterprise has built a bio-manufacturing demonstration facility on site, which it occupies on a flexible meanwhile lease. But it hopes to gradually scale up enough to occupy a state-of-the-art facility for up to 175 staff.
It’s no accident that Biohm chose to locate its first facility outside London in Watchet, a fair distance from the M5 corridor.
Eight community-interested women born and bred in Watchet and known as the Onion Collective realised that no one else was going to tackle a chronic unemployment problem in a town that is among the most deprived in the UK.
Tameer’s site has been the focus of the collective’s efforts since the Wansbrough Paper Mill closed in 2015, making almost 200 people jobless. The demise of the mill, which had operated for 265 years, represented what Onion director Sally Lowndes describes as “a devastating” loss of identity.
“Many of the houses and public buildings in Watchet were built by Wansbrough,” she explains. “But it was also an exemplar employer, providing opportunities, nurturing skills and supporting the town.”
“So many strategies we looked at were the same – the only difference was the title of the place. We couldn’t see how these ideas responded to the actual place or considered how to link the local with the global”
Lowndes ambition is to emulate those virtues. “This is the best version of business and we are taking inspiration from that. Modern business takes money from a place and does not give it back.”
In Onion’s early days, the group played with ideas ranging from tech-enabled elderly care to supplying components for Hinkley. Then came the eureka moment: to make Watchet a global player in the biophilic materials revolution.
“This is conceived of as a direct response to the critical economic situation and the climate emergency,” says Lowndes. “We want Watchet to be a pioneer of an economic model that values people and the environment as much as profit.”
Onion’s directors, whose collective CV features community facilities management, TV production, conservation work and government research, spotted a glaring omission across the piles of economic strategy documents they scoured, and in their conversations with thinktanks and academics.
“So many strategies we looked at were the same – the only difference was the title of the place. We couldn’t see how these ideas responded to the actual place or considered how to link the local with the global using future technologies,” recalls director Georgie Grant.
Grant says bio-based technology “captures the zeitgeist” and that Tameer has been very open, supportive and flexible. “They are a young company and interested in new ways of working. They want to enrich places with environmentally focused business.”
Onion realised there were growers in Watchet who could provide raw materials and that the collective could give them a market – particularly once they had established contact with Biohm. They emailed the company out of the blue, after Sayed had just been nominated for the UN Young Champion of the Earth award.
“There was an instant connection between us and Ehab,” says Lowndes. “Ehab is kind and thoughtful. He loves that we want to make a place that gives people purpose. Biohm aims to create healthy buildings and places and we want social justice. It was clear that together we could do something extraordinary.”
Biohm manufactures its sustainable insulation using locally sourced organic materials, such as grass cuttings or cardboard. It shreds these in the old mill and puts the results in moulds to feed mycelia. These eat as the fungi grow, eventually filling the moulds to create solid blocks that look like cheese.
“The end product is an insulation sheet – a completely natural, non-toxic and high-performing material that makes buildings healthier,” says Lowndes.
Paul Atton, associate director of JB Planning Associates, which is advising Tameer, describes Biohm and Onion’s strategy as “exciting”. “The hope is that their operations will attract other similar companies to come in and create further employment opportunities,” he says.
Tameer is open to working with such innovators on flexible leases to help generate momentum for a biotech hub. “The developer is flexible and open to ideas; it is a team effort to make the site a success.”
“The end product is an insulation sheet – a completely natural, non-toxic and high-performing material that makes buildings healthier”
Biohm will need up to 17 staff in its first year, quickly scaling up to produce 3,000m2 of insulation by the end of 2020 – enough for 20 homes. Onion estimates this will make between £3m and £5m annually, with some of that money retained in Watchet.
“This is about sustainable growth,” says Lowndes, who has begun talking about the concept to schools, hoping to give children a sense of ownership over this potentially globally significant industry.
This could happen sooner than anticipated. Funding from Waitrose is helping Biohm to rapidly advance its R&D into whether plastics could feed the mycelia – the team at its site in Shepherd’s Bush, London, has found the mycelia consuming nearby synthetic sponges.
This is not the only proof that Onion, which operates from a cabin on the harbour, is a serious outfit.
The collective has secured funding and planning consent to build East Quay, a £7.3m cultural centre that will open next spring and employ 37 people – a project that has succeeded where other developers have failed.
The masterplan created by JB Planning Associates, has been designed for up to 400 homes; 10 live/work incubator units and a new employment space for business and R&D; a residential care village, or up to 160 sheltered apartments and a 60-bedroom retirement home; plus an aparthotel, leisure facilities and a public car park. Public realm includes green space, riverside walks and cycle and pedestrian routes that connect the site to the town centre.
The brownfield site, which sits in a valley surrounded by trees, will provide new habitats, as well as a civic building that will host exhibits of the former mill and provide a community meeting space.
“We want to create a community rather than a housing estate,” says Atton.
An amended masterplan is being submitted and developer Tameer hopes outline planning will be granted by the end of this year.
Onion has worked to corral the town’s vibrant sense of community into a coherent voice. An 18-month-long feasibility study into how to create a “new time, place and community-appropriate industry” involved regular public meetings that were scheduled around the working day and where children were welcome, so parents could attend.
The meetings drew healthy audiences and their questionnaires yielded hundreds of replies. An engaged and independent community panel steered the ideas for reinvigorating the mill site. “There’s a real feeling that the community can make a difference,” says Grant.
This groundwork meant that last spring, when Tameer opened the doors for a two-day public consultation, 425 people flooded in. “People wanted something to be done. It was a positive event because of that and they had ideas that we put into the melting pot,” says Atton.
By then, of course, the town had established what it did – and, crucially, did not – want: an economy for Watchet that cares about people, jobs and a healthy built environment, developed with and for the people.
It is a familiar ambition for anyone with an interest in making places and spaces meaningful, but Watchet appears to be bringing its dreams to fruition through dedicated, committed engagement that bridges the local with the global. As a Roald Dahl quote on the walls of Onion’s harbourside cabin says: “If you are interested in something... go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms.”
Lucy Anna Scott is the co-creator of indie magazine Lost in London, which celebrates nature in the city, and the co-author of Lost in London: Adventures in the City’s Wild Outdoors. She has written for the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the Metro and the National