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Is this the most influential house in a generation?

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Now in its 15th year, how has Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s radical home/office in north London, a test bed for green design, fared?

Architects’ own homes have a formidable lineage. As Charles Jencks has observed, they can be both ‘extreme and obsessive’. Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s straw bale house and associated office at 9-10 Stock Orchard Street in Islington, London, is no exception. When he put the house’s straw bales on the cover of the Architectural Review in January 2002, former editor Peter Davey called it ‘the most sexy and witty building I have seen for years.’ Yet, to this day, Wigglesworth has not built another private house.

Stock Orchard House coincided with the surge of interest in architecture as lifestyle. It was featured in Channel 4’s inaugural Grand Designs series in 1999 and again shortly after completion in early 2001, with frequent repeats, including one earlier this month. Wigglesworth and Till set out to forge not only a new lifestyle but a new aesthetic for sustainability, which would distinguish itself from the worthy but dull tropes too often associated with green design.

Six years after acquiring the site in 1994 and after more than two years of construction (Wigglesworth lived in a trailer on the site for six months while Till commuted to Sheffield), the couple occupied the house just in time for a celebratory Christmas lunch with their contractor in 2000. Stock Orchard Street witnessed its 15th Christmas last month, an apt moment to consider how it has weathered its first decade and a half. In 2011, Wigglesworth edited an excellent monograph of essays on the house. Approaching from the Caledonian Road, I wondered what was so special about this house, whether it deserved all the hype and how it had fared over the ensuing years.

Peter Blundell Jones: It was a brave thing to do and was a piece of architecture with a clear ideological stance, which are quite rare these days, and there’s a lot more to it than the visual image, again a plus

Fifteen years on, Stock Orchard Street can be seen to have spawned a new green aesthetic. Wigglesworth adheres to an architectural language that is transparent and ‘absolutely legible’, citing the influence of vernacular architecture of the Iranian plateau as she pulls Beazely and Harbison’s Living with the Desert off the bookshelf behind her desk. Restrained architectural interpretations of shaft ventilation, made manifest in Stock Orchard Street’s beehive-like larder and Till’s periscopic rooftop library, now recur frequently. Wigglesworth explored these ideas further at Sandal Magna School (2010). Haworth Tompkins’ Stirling Prize-winning Everyman Theatre is a recent example.

Straw has made a number of appearances, from a university building in Nottingham to a co-housing scheme in Leeds and a London park café. According to Wigglesworth, straw bales are ‘absolutely fantastic’. She attributes the fact that they are not more widely used to the fears of the industry and a general misperception that they are wasteful of space. ‘If you’re trying to reach Code for Sustainable Homes Level 5, you’re going to be nudging a 450-500mm wall thickness anyway,’ she says. Gabion walls, widely used throughout the Olympic Park development and a distinctive feature in Kevin McCloud’s Swindon housing scheme as bin surrounds, are by now an accepted architectural feature in sustainability’s canon.

Inside, I am struck by the sheer number of ideas in this house, which was documented in more than 350 drawings. The linearity of the office block interior is serene and ordered, while its cheeky sandbag wall overlooking the railway has weathered as the architects anticipated, the bags disintegrating to leave ‘tails’ in the rusticated wall. When I enquire about the large expanse of south-facing glazing, today softened by floor-to-ceiling linen curtains, Wigglesworth acknowledges there is a bit too much, both here and in the dining room, which doubles as a conference room and where glare is a problem. Though they consulted service engineers at the time, the architects received conflicting advice and ignored much of it. Environmental modeling was in its infancy – too clunky and expensive.

Meredith Bowles: I love the apparent ad-hoc quality, the exuberant celebration of expediency and the magpie approach to materials. I love the idealism and the fact that it feels as if all the things that were dreamt of were actually built; the tower of books, the free plan, the scavenger aesthetic.

A bank of PVs on the office roof is a recent addition, made possible by the Feed-in Tariff. A 12m² array provides enough electricity for both the house and the six-person office, including all plugloads and IT. Wigglesworth and Till are now contemplating a 20-year retrofit. ‘We missed a trick on the thermal mass in the house,’ she explains, ‘and we were building when breathing walls were the rage. It’s quite leaky.’

To address this thermal leakage will involve major works, removing interior plaster and taping joints. Also under consideration are ways to equip the house for the couple’s later years: level thresholds throughout and a stair lift, as well as the future of the composting toilet. ‘We love it, but it needs turning twice a year and it’s hard work; it’s not really something you would want to get someone else to do for you,’ says Wigglesworth.

Duncan Baker-Brown: The house has too many messages to be that influential in the world of sustainable design although it did help pioneer the use of straw. I don’t want to knock it but the house is too dense with messages. It’s a great example of a live test bed though … all power to the both of them.

She bemoans the state of sustainable design today. ‘When we designed this house, the sustainability debate was quite live and open. Today it’s really closed down because of schemes like BREEAM, which mean people just go through a checklist.  They don’t understand that their lives and their maintenance regimes have to change, too. It’s driven from the top down, rather than as systemic change bubbling up.’

On my way out, I pass by the chicken coop and the bicycle rack, both in active use even on a cold January day, and am witness to the fact that Stock Orchard House is more than a demonstration; it is proof that a greener way of living in the city is within our reach.

The verdict

The influence of 9-10 Stock Orchard Street goes well beyond its unorthodox materials and appearance. Granted it is a bourgeois house, termed by Ellis Woodman ‘a north London liberal Petit Hameau.’ But so are most architects’ houses.

Stock Orchard Street enables an urban lifestyle where one can live and work – and grow food – on the same site. But so do Bill Dunster’s BedZed and numerous other pioneering schemes.  That alone is not enough to signal it as a precursor, though it remains radical today.

The surfeit of its architectural moves borders on the overwhelming, but mostly this is a house to engage with and live with. Windows and vents can be easily adjusted with the seasons. Views are carefully framed on a highly constricted site. Light falls mostly in the right places, though sometimes there’s too much of it. As Till observes: ‘What we knew then about green design was primitive compared with what we know now.’ 

What’s most remarkable is that this test bed for sustainability is approached through passive design and finessed with sensitivity and obsessive attention to spatiality, light and materials. It’s a manifesto with a heart.  


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Any architect who puts their own money and reputation on the line deserve massive praise, this house was a great endeavour and a huge learning experience. I think it wonderful that there is an opportunity to re-assess a project 15 years after completion. Perhaps we should only give awards for buildings that are 10 years and older!

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