James Parker spoke to Sarah Wigglesworth about life running a successful practice from a pioneering, sustainable HQ which comprises two conjoined buildings – her office and her own home – and is an embodiment of her ethical approach
Sarah Wigglesworth is an award-winning architect who has been celebrated for a variety of community-focused projects that push sustainability as well as joyfulness to the foreground. Founding Sarah Wigglesworth Architects (SWA) in 1994, her strong ethical approach remains the fulcrum around which the practice’s work revolves, and her presence as its driving force is hard to overplay. Wigglesworth long had one foot in academia, beginning teaching before she started her own practice in 1985. She and partner, architect Jeremy Till, were the first architects to be awarded the Fulbright Arts Fellowship, a bursary to study in the US in 1991, and she was given an MBE in 2003. In 2012 she was the first woman to receive the Royal Designer for Industry award for architecture from the Royal Society of Arts. The very fabric of her firm’s premises is intimately woven into Wigglesworth’s life. She and Jeremy designed an ultra-sustainable straw bale building, completed in 2001 on a site next to the railway line in Islington, north London, which is occupied by the practice office and is also her home. ADF chats to the architect at what doubles as her dining and conference table, the designer having playfully created an impressive double-height meeting space that keeps its dual role close to its chest. There’s a crocheted bull’s head on the wall, mannequins sitting on a mezzanine, and pictures on the walls, but little else; the rest of the dwelling is located behind a sliding plywood screen. The artworks and materials hint at the values which drive her and SWA: she exemplifies having the courage of your convictions, sustainability, and craft. However the space negotiates between her domestic role and her position in the practice; it’s part of a long-standing conversation and commitment around addressing gender issues. “There is an acknowledgment there are other sides of your life and other duties you have to fulfil, she tells ADF. “I thought that’s a really important issue to try and talk about.” Wigglesworth is unafraid to tackle head-on several of the more awkward issues which continue to beset the profession and the wider construction industry. These range from what she sees as clients taking advantage of a “buyer’s market”, to how women can still be treated in client meetings. She asserts: “As a female, your ability is always called into question.” Sarah has retained a strong interest in research, originating from her 12 years teaching at the architectural department at Kingston University to latterly, at the University of Sheffield. She says of Kingston, “it was an opportunity to experiment and work with really great people, and explore and test ideas. I got exposed to all kinds of ways of thinking.” This helped formulate her then innovative ethos as an architect, of combining “an interest in both the everyday and in sustainability – neither were very big on anyone’s horizons.”
Keeping it small
Wigglesworth admits she wasn’t comfortable in commercially-oriented practices, where she found “a lack of intellectual debate,” and a “hostile response to academia and ideas.” She left her first job when she was offered a part-time teaching position, which she combined with working at RMJM. She founded her first firm in the late 80s, working out of her north London attic with an architect friend. “If I hadn’t set up at that point I’d probably never have done it.” She says she built the practice “very slowly and modestly, for eight years,” and that going the DIY route proved ideal, despite the risks. She now heads a still small, but growing firm with 12 staff including two associates. After three decades of “learning on the job” in terms of running a practice, she appointed an operations manager early this year, and the practice now has its first staff member on maternity leave.
Sustainability & Stock Orchard Street
Wigglesworth is committed to sustainability, and fond of working with natural materials, yet when being taught by eco design pioneers at Cambridge University such as Alex Pike, she admits the concepts “went totally over my head – I wasn’t interested at all. Something about the agenda had completely failed to resonate.” The Fulbright Fellowship in the US in 1991 changed everything. “It brought the issues home to me, because the States is so wasteful, so energy-hungry – we both decided we should commit to being sustainable architects.” A key architectural inspiration was Alan Short and his way of “combining an interest in English vernacular arts and crafts, and responding to climate in way that it’s all there for you to see.” She cites examples such as Queen’s Building in Leicester as “an exact expression of that kind of thinking.” The creation of a co-located sustainable home and workplace in Islington was something of a happy accident; after the site’s auction, Sarah and Jeremy discovered it included an additional strip of land along the railway. Sarah realised they could negate the need to rent an additional workspace, and “explore the relationship of living and working on the same site.” Of course, with the commute reduced to zero, the premises is already highly sustainable for Wigglesworth herself, but its construction brings together a range of techniques in an innovative whole. She called a friend’s bluff – after remarking she “might be building out of straw bales next,” the architect did just that. Insulation is recycled newspaper within the timber frame and one facade reuses railway sleepers found on site. In order to mitigate noise from the railway, the wall facing the railway is made of sandbags, and natural ventilation by stack effect is provided to the house through grilles on the tower that houses a library and work room. With influences ranging from Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhas and Walter Segal, the building’s eclectic mix proved too rich for some. Wigglesworth reports that many architects were befuddled by the project on its completion. “We were condemned for having too many ideas, which I thought was extraordinary.” Despite this, the public – and Kevin McCloud (the project was featured on Grand Designs) – were, she says, “very responsive”.
Wigglesworth says architects “have an ethical duty to make the world a more interesting, more pleasant, more stimulating place, and to make it work better for everybody”. The practice has an array of projects demonstrating this in practice, chiefly outside London, with perhaps its most celebrated being the timber-built Mellor Primary School in the Peak District, designed by associate Eleanor Brough. Sarah “likes working with schools, as they tend to have a clear educational agenda that we can respond to”. Aside from having an “amazing site,” Mellor was also a forest school, with a “limited” budget but “very ambitious” client. There was very close community engagement, including children and parents taking part in construction of the large ‘habitat wall’, populated by materials donated by parents. Other stand out education projects include Sandal Magna Primary, another timber-built school with ultra-high sustainability credentials, this time in Wakefield. Both projects follow Wigglesworth’s credo of “using the building as a teaching tool”. As well as being aesthetically playful, she says they are also “tactile, intellectually interesting, and stimulating for the kids, getting them thinking about and understanding things they may not have realised before”. A different approach to an education and cultural sector commission, Siobhan Davies Dance Studios in Southwark saw the practice transforming a disused Victorian building with a few spatial alterations that include a sinuous new timber roof inspired by dancers’ movements. The award-winning 2005 result “still gets a lot of positive comments,” says Sarah. The practice has found it more challenging to work in housing, in one case leading Sarah to put her head over the parapet writing a candid piece titled ‘The Battle for Quality in Design’. However having recently won a place on the GLA framework, the practice is looking forward to creating more housing in its own city. Responding to the ageing population, she is keen to promulgate ideas on multigenerational housing – developed during the three-year DWELL research project (Designing for Well-being in Environments for Later Life) she led at the University of Sheffield. To this end, the practice is working on minimising health impacts of the environment at Ebbsfleet Healthy Garden City, but Wigglesworth counsels that the whole environmental system needs to be considered as the end-goal: “there are too many casualties of a siloed approach where it’s assumed that a single building is the answer.”
Sarah Wigglesworth has some forthright views on what can get in the way of quality, but as part of a the practice’s rigorous approach, she says that success in architecture is all about teasing out people’s motivations. “A building is fulfilling a deep-rooted desire, and as an architect you have to get under the skin of that, what is this person really trying to achieve?” “Even a developer is ultimately trying to sell an emotional connection with place, which is what you’re trying to work on when you’re working with people”. She reminds us that a client/architect relationship is also “one of trust, and you construct that by building an emotional relationship with the people you are working with.” Wigglesworth concludes: “Ultimately architecture is a people business and we don’t talk enough about that, we tend to think of it as a technical thing. Often the worst buildings are divorced from the people that will inhabit them”.