“Change needs to happen on every level”: Sarah Wigglesworth discusses sustainability

We speak to Sarah Wigglesworth, the founder of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, discussing her self-built office/home, sustainability, and why architects should be project guardians.

Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ office sits tucked into the end of a cul-de-sac on Stock Orchard Street in Islington, London. Created as a mixed-use complex, it draws the eye and directly contrasts the terraced housing beside it, working – for the last twenty years – as both the headquarters for an award-winning architecture practice and Sarah Wigglesworth’s home. Even without the credentials of the studio inside it, the building is an icon – when it was first built, it caused quite a stir, and was featured on the first series of Grand Designs.

It’s here, in the building’s conference-cum-dining room that I sit down with Wigglesworth herself, eager to find out more about her practice, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. As a young architect, Wigglesworth worked “at small firms, big firms and in America” but, she begins, “I realised that I wasn’t very good at being part of someone else’s outfit - I was a bit opinionated.”

As we sit down, she explains that after deciding to start her own firm in 1994, she “went into practice completely blind. In some ways I think that was good motivation for having confidence to do the things [I wanted] to do. I’ve always been a bit like that; I’ve seized opportunities as they arose and have gone with my gut instinct. I’ve always been focused on my abilities to achieve what I wanted.”

Wigglesworth suggests that – at least for her – not knowing the risks was “a good thing, because you’re prepared to take the risks and get going. You learn through doing. [I learned] all the things that you don’t get taught in school about how to raise an invoice, do book keeping, keep your clients happy, and how to keep out of trouble legally.”

Image: Becky Lane

At the same time, Wigglesworth started teaching at Kingston University – and would continue to teach here for the next twelve years while building up the practice’s portfolio. Teaching, she says, allowed her to have a steady income and explore ideas she could feed into the practice. “It was an incredibly fruitful period in my life where I got to meet lots of amazing young architects who were also exploring ideas.”

“In a way, it's like having a body of peers that you’re working with and who are eager to collaborate; you’re exploring your ideas through the programs you’re setting and the conversations you’re having,” she continues. However, as time went on Wigglesworth realised that “the promise of architecture school and all the conversations you have with students about the possibilities of architecture – its redemptive qualities and all the rest of it – are so unfulfilled in reality, because of the compromises that get made all the way through a project.”

Image: Paul Smoothy

It was this gap that opened up between reality and the possibility of architecture that was a motivating feature for Wigglesworth to start work on the Stock Orchard Street build. “[We were] trying to build something that could show what is achievable if we were bolder,” she explains. “We didn't quite appreciate how it would hit the headlines in such a comprehensive way.”

It was a particularly interesting project, she explains, because “the public seemed to really love it, but the architectural fraternity had a lot of problems with it. It mixes high-tech and low-tech and is highly crafted as opposed to being something that looks machine made… and it was built by five people. It was a tiny workforce who were doing everything.”

Image: Becky Lane

Wigglesworth says that one of the ambitions of the Stock Orchard project was to position her studio as “opinion formers and people who had something to say about sustainability”. Though it may have changed a lot since she set up the practice, Wigglesworth has built up a portfolio of a wide range of buildings with sustainability at their heart, working with a focus on public sector architecture.

Interestingly, she admits that during her time at university, sustainability didn’t hold a particular interest for her. So where did this drive to champion sustainable design come from? Things changed for her when she and her partner (Jeremy Till) received Fulbright scholarships to go to America. “We were really shocked by what we saw,” she says. “The profligacy of everything, the throwaway society. It could not function if the car didn't exist.”

Image: MH

“Even in the 30s, Frank Lloyd Wright was designing incredibly unsustainable new homes in his concept for Broadacre City; each house in an acre of plots around winding roads,” Wigglesworth continues. “They were so hungry for space and so dependent on motorised transport for moving around… We said to each other ‘It's appalling things are moving this way - the planet won't last. We have to take this on and do something about it’. We came back and bought the [Stock Orchard] site… It was complete circumstantial luck that it all came together.”

Over the years, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects has moved from strength to strength, and though it seems that the rest of the architecture world is beginning to catch up, Wigglesworth reckons there’s still a way to go. “It would be nice to see really substantial change and have people be more embracing of these ideas,” she says. “I think the construction industry is [still] pretty conservative, it likes what it knows how to do. It comes down to risk and risk management essentially; anything that is seen as new or unknown or difficult is risky and has a price premium on it, but I think that is a tremendous brake on the development of our industry.”

Image: Rachel E Joy Stanley

“Sustainability is about trying to innovate. It can emerge in different ways in different sectors depending on what is you’re trying to do,” Wigglesworth continues. Having previously worked with Sandal Magna School, Mossbrook School and Mellor Primary School, one of the places she’s seen sustainability work most fluidly is within education. “The agenda might be using sustainability as a tool to teach children about environmental issues and embed them into the curriculum,” she says. “[It requires] making the building an exemplar of [sustainability] – the life of the school is a living example of how sustainability might work. Kids get it very quickly and often teach the parents.”

As well as working with individual buildings, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects have also been involved in infrastructure projects, including being commissioned by Ebbsfleet Development Corporation to develop an infrastructure strategy for the Healthy Garden city. “I think what you can do at an infrastructure level is more promising than what you can do in a single building,” Wigglesworth says of the project. “All the principles – transport, planning, drainage, green space – need to work together. Give people opportunities to get outdoors and move around by their own volition so they’re not car based all the time. Try to cut energy and use energy well, or generate it on-site.”

Image: Paul Smoothy

“I think people have begun to realise that a good urban environment doesn't involve the car,” she continues. “Pedestrianising areas is actually better for our health, our social life and for our high streets, because you get more footfall that way. There is a lot of unlearning we need to do… Change needs to happen on every level, [and] if architects are not the guardians of the projects the whole way through, problems will arise. If nobody oversees the process from intent to delivery, contractors can cut corners and use cheaper alternative products.”

Even with these daring ideas and a plethora of building designs under her belt, Wigglesworth insists that she is not a pioneer. “I stand on the shoulders of people who have been really pioneering – back 50 years or so,” she shrugs. “What's interesting about this moment is the result of Extinction Rebellion and the current way that climate change is really on everyone's mind. Suddenly everyone's waking up to it all.”

As the tide begins to turn and more people embrace sustainable design, I wonder what this will mean for Wigglesworth and her practice. 2019, at least, is set to be a big year – the studio is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a range of events, including two taking place during London Festival of Architecture. The first, a guided cycle tour, will highlight Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ London projects; the second, called Shared Practice, provides a rare opportunity for guests to experience ‘the daily life’ of the studio’s office.

So what about future projects? Wigglesworth says that she will always embrace working on a range of schemes. “Working in different sectors and with different people… you're never sure how it will work out,” she says with a smile. “It’s always a voyage of discovery and that's really fun. I don’t want to practice architecture if I'm not trying to learn something new, or trying to find a way of achieving something for a client which is unique to them. That's what's exciting.”

Feature image: Tim Smyth

Compelo Ltd Registered Office: John Carpenter House, John Carpenter Street, EC4Y 0AN, England. No: 06339167.Copyright 2020 Compelo. All rights reserved.