The Shape Built Environment Christmas Lecture 2006:
Sustainable Environments for the Future
by Sarah Wigglesworth

December 2006

“Sarah opened my eyes to what can be done if you have a vision: I think it has really inspired me to take a further career in design, it was hugely enjoyable, inspirational, I am so glad I could come.”

Audience member. Shape East Christmas Lecture


Sarah Wigglesworth, architect of the award-winning Straw Bale House featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs was invited by Shape East to talk to a mix of built environment professionals and sixth form students at our Built Environment Christmas Lecture 2006.

One hundred and seventeen people attended the lecture, which, thanks to the generosity of The Leys School, Cambridge, was held in the stunning new RIBA award winning Music School. CABE, the CITB and the Cambridge Forum for the construction Industry sponsored the event.

In 1998 Sarah Wigglesworth was selected by the Sunday Times in their ‘Hot 100’ poll as one of three architects most likely to make an impact on their field in the next ten years. She has run her own practice in London since 1993.

“We enjoy making buildings using readily available materials that are ecological and energy efficient yet robust and long lasting. We explore highly inventive ways to employ these materials in order to achieve unexpected results.” Sarah Wigglesworth

Her practice’s best known building to date is the award-winning Straw Bale House and Quilted Office project, known as Stock Orchard Street, an experiment exploring sustainable living on a brown field site beside the busy rail approach to King’s Cross Station. Stock Orchard Street won the 2004 RIBA sustainability award, 2004 RIBA award and 2002 Civic trust award.

Wigglesworth is clearly aware of the gulf between the type of work completed in schools of architecture and that, which is produced commercially. She questions why this gap should exist in our current culture. Stock Orchard Street reflected her belief that architecture is about the construction of ideas, about innovation and fun, working in collaboration, dealing with the pragmatics and then aiming higher, creating spaces that have a life over time, that are spaces for occupation.

The architect described how the form and function of each part of her design responded to the constraints of the 20 x 40m site. She described the very original composition, made from a variety of low-cost materials: straw bales creating a new system of walling, gabions of concrete rubble using the site demolition materials, corrugated clear plastic and sandbags (which contained a dry cement mix).

The straw house is a design for a house and associated studio office for the architect. The building uses a number of innovative technologies based around principles of sustainable design, many of which were being used in an urban context for the first time. The intention was to provide a model of sustainable living in an urban context.


A series of slides showed that the building achieves an inspirational sequence of interior spaces based around the concept of a live work unit. The architect’s first inspiration for the project was her dining table, originally used for work, socialising and relaxing and this ethos is reflected in the final building. Stock Orchard Street, combines a wing of offices with a home, through which pokes by a five-storey tower, which houses a library. The architect has also designed in a garden where she grows her own food.

At the same time as producing functional and aesthetically pleasing spaces, the building achieves low overall carbon emissions, which are unusual for buildings of this size and complexity. Wigglesworth explained that

“We know about global warming and take it seriously (buildings contribute to 50% of CO2 production). We think about sustainable design in our choice of materials, in low energy design and the use of resources.”

Stock Orchard Street uses recycled materials, considers daylight, ventilation, orientation and thermal massing. Old techniques, such as the use of natural shade and ventilation in a larder, add to the idea that the building is not high or low tech and cannot be given a label.

RIBA described the building as “ raising the level of the debate about sustainability”.

“I absolutely loved the house/office project incorporating new and old technology and eco-friendly techniques. I had no idea I was passing such a fabulous building each time I travelled to London.” Sixth Former

Wigglesworth then talked about her interest in the individual’s inspiration for architecture and where it comes from. She described her thoughts behind an exhibition piece made for the House and Garden Exhibition ‘A Place for Eating’. She became interested in the connection between food and building. Could an architect write a recipe for a building? Her final design was focused on flour. Bags of flour were used like bricks to create a space; filo pastry like ruched material and French sticks represented lighting batons.

“We prefer too many ideas – to no ideas at all”. Sarah WigglesworthLecture

Wigglesworth described Mossbrook Special School, Sheffield where she was commissioned to provide a prototype for the future of classroom design and take on board the theme of technology in the 21st century classroom. She was awarded an RSA Art for Architecture award to work collaboratively with artist Susan Collins on integrating an interactive visual arts element into the infrastructure of the building.

The new classroom is a science teaching space designed for learning about the natural environment through direct interaction with it. The school wanted the children to learn in a demonstrative and experiential way. This approach has been found to be so successful that the new classroom has become a resource for pupils from schools throughout the Sheffield area. In this context technological gadgetry and tactile and sensory experience are both used as ways of experiencing and interpreting the world.

The building provides two spaces; a soft play area and class room. It is a simple barn shape, drawing on the iconography of farm buildings and using wrappings of polycarbonate, timber and wrinkly tin shield. Wigglesworth’s brief was to make a rich and exciting experience in everyday life. The building responds to this by providing a learning environment in its own right, using light and materials to stimulate the senses and enable children to learn about them close at hand.

The Classroom also forms a link between the school and its neighbouring conservation, wildlife area and lake. The building is intended to attract animals and other wildlife to inhabit it, badger sets run beneath the floor which has windows inserted into it in order that the children can observe the runs. Plasma screens magnify underwater images of the lake from a small toy boat adapted with a camera that can be operated from the classroom.


The Siobhan Davies Dance Studio, Southwark

This project involved a major refurbishment and extension of a redundant three-storey building dated 1898, which was located in the playground of a primary school. The brief was to provide dance rehearsal spaces, changing and therapy rooms, a large foyer, function and administration rooms. The space needed to be flexible. This was the third design that the architect has produced for the Siobhan Dance Studio - she knows them well and her design reflects her understanding of how the dancers use a building on a daily basis, what they do and what they enjoy.

‘The new building has grown out of a collaboration with Siobhan Davies Dance that has lasted ten years. Our approach was to use the robustness of the old school building as a ‘ground’ for making radical changes and adding new elements that contrast with it. The existing structure dictated the main studio should be on the roof and we were excited by the notion of how it would feel to dance high above the city. The billowing ribbons of the studio’s shells are gravity defying forms that seem to swell and float above the plane the dancers work on’. Sarah Wigglesworth

Wigglesworth’s work celebrates the existing structure, leaving the original glazing tiles and patches of old paint.

‘We cleared out the original staircase which was sandwiched between the two parts of the building, but we played with the traces – the memory of it – and the changes in the brick remain as part of the foyer’ Sarah Wigglesworth

The practice has provided a building, with a history but which meets the brief with style and vibrancy. Rooms have sprung floors and a steel column in the foyer leans gently like a dancer, whilst supporting the roof. The space is filled with light. It’s twisting ribbon like structure reflecting a brief to let in the light and the view of the city below. The structure is based on the concept of flowing water providing a changing but repetitive rhythm. It stands huge, organic and blue against the skyline.

An extension at the back of the building looks like a box and provides a sharp contrast to the Victorian school. The Mondrian style screening provides privacy for the school, using screens to reflect the sky, like a performance.

There is a real awareness of human scale. Wigglesworth commented that the size of a brick is the size of a hand. The staircase is a measure of a building, providing a comfortable pace to walk up and down. ‘There is an analogy between bodies and buildings and this is played out.’ This final example shows that the practice provides individual ideas for individual buildings, learning and experimenting with each development.

Wigglesworth concluded the lecture by emphasising the need for original thinking within our culture, the need to take some risks in order to provide inspirational architecture and address such issues as sustainability. She suggestd that whilst the requirement to recoup the capital costs of a building within its lifetime is seen as a priority and there is no legislation to force a real improvement in performance of new buildings, designs such as we have seen will remain outside the norm. A sobering thought.