Recently Clare Nash Architecture Ltd. (CNA) visited the famous Straw Bale House in North London designed by Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till. With sustainability and eco design at the centre of CNA’s design approach, we were excited to be given a tour by Jeremy himself who explained how their pioneering project came about.
The team met outside the house-come- office’s tall wicker gates at the very end of Stock Orchard Street in London. With the railway on one side and Victorian terraces on the other, a building on gabion stilts with sand bags on one elevation is not quite what you would expect to find at the end of the road!
Luckily it was a dry (if a little chilly!) day as the tour started outside, with Jeremy explaining how the design concept for the Straw Bale House was developed through Sarah and him sharing stories, before any drawings were even started. Once the design was established through drawings the next challenge was getting it through planning, which was perhaps aided by one of Jeremy’s anecdotes involving a party for local residents. The building is well known for being the first straw bale house to be granted planning permission in the UK, however there are many other materials at play here including sandbags and stone gabions which certainly challenged ideas on conventional building materials at the time. The talk outside lasted for about an hour discussing structure and sustainability.
Turning the corner around the house it was a pleasant surprise to find their garden, a surprisingly green and spacious area for central London. As lovers of fresh vegetables, it was great to see what crops they were growing in their garden and to hear the clucking of chickens too! Mid-construction decisions led to only having a back door which is now the front door and works well as it encourages you to walk through the garden before entering the house.
Walking inside and up the stairs I was not sure what to expect of a space which is both living and office, shared and private. However, the top of the stairs greeted us with a warm open plan living space that was cleverly divided into functional spaces; making sense of the unusual floor layout which was organised around an organically shaped larder inspired by Malawi cooking ovens. The use of natural wood and exposed white painted steelwork could have had a cool industrial feel to it but was complimented by splashes of warm orange furnishings and large amounts of glass allowing natural light to flood the space enhancing the feeling of homeliness. One of my favourite areas was the kitchen which was again homely and quirky too as each item seemed carefully considered, perhaps handcrafted, all the way down to the papier mache lampshade suspended over the table.
A fairly large group were on the tour with us but after admiring the first floor, we ascended the (perhaps not quite building regs approved!) staircase into the tower. Lining the stairs were shelves and shelves of books which seemed to change in levels of architectural relevance the further up you went. So at the bottom were architectural text books while at the top, nearing Jeremy’s office, were fiction books and novels. Having a library like this might get tiring in reality but as a visitor it was a very charming idea!
On our way out we popped into Sarah Wigglesworth’s attached (Quilted) office where she was working. It was an impressive space, both organised and bright and surprisingly quiet despite being on the railway track side- the sandbags must be doing their job!
Although the project is known for having challenged ideas of structure and materials in terms of sustainability, it was very interesting to hear Jeremey Till say that the construction methods and material composition are actually not that sustainable in the context of what is possible today. Technology has moved on since the house was originally built; even the double glazing is no longer as efficient as it could be! Nonetheless, the choice and composition of the interior materials and spaces has a certain quality to it that, while you could probably Google ‘Sarah Wigglesworth House’ or something similar; would just not be the same as experiencing in reality.