Profile: Sarah Featherstone of Featherstone Young

Veronica Simpson speaks to Featherstone Young co-founder Sarah Featherstone about her award-winning work and her plans to radically reinvent rural transport and housing

Words by Veronica Simpson

I have had the good fortune to engage with several of Featherstone Young’s unusual buildings in the past decade. From the award-winning extension and refurbishment in 2007 of South Essex Rape & Incest Crisis Centre (SERICC), with its cedar shingle-clad bay windows adorning the building like a pair of ‘listening ears’, to the even more award-festooned Ty Pawb, completed in 2018, a community and arts centre inserted into an unlovely 1980s concrete car park and covered market in Wrexham, North Wales. Most recently, I toured the two vibrant structures – Bay 20 Community Centre and Dale Youth Boxing Club – she has facilitated, for next to nothing, under a concrete flyover in West London for the community most affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Ty Hedfan (Welsh for ‘the hovering house’) is perched above the River Ysgir in Wales. Image credit: Tim Brotherton.Ty Hedfan (Welsh for ‘the hovering house’) is perched above the River Ysgir in Wales. Image credit: Tim Brotherton

With Featherstone Young’s buildings there is always a sense of playfulness and openness to the client community combined with a scrupulous attention to materials and form; the buildings express aspiration along with adaptability. I suggest this to co-director Sarah Featherstone. She agrees there is always a question of ‘how little do you need to do for others to take ownership of it and fill those gaps?’ In my view, that is unusual for architects, who can seem far more ambitious to impress their peers than their clients. ‘I think it probably is,’ she acknowledges. ‘But I think people are now exploring that more. The classic approach is to overdesign everything. We all used to do it; we all used to design every fixture and fitting, which ends up being so over-prescriptive as to how you use that space. If we’re talking about reusing buildings, you need to know that your building is not a finite building – it’s going to morph, times are going to change, and you need that flexibility.’

So where does her obvious enjoyment of the whole collaborative process come from? The seeds may well have been sown during her undergraduate architecture studies at Kingston, when architects rubbed shoulders with fine arts and graphics students in the same building. ‘It was an amazing place,’ she says. ‘Some crazy first-year tutor introduced us to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films and Fellini films, and we were doing performances for our first and second projects. We were dipping into all sorts of things. We had Kath Shonfield and Jeremy Till (now head of Central Saint Martins) as tutors on their first-year teaching. We had a really interesting bunch of the old, very typical professors who were real characters, really into modernism, Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright specialists, and then this younger bunch of tutors coming in. We had a really good time – the first year was like doing the art foundation course I never did.’

The Architecture Association followed, and then the Bartlett, where she remembers a particular project: ‘Moving Granny, about my grandmother, who I was helping to move house at one point. I was observing all the things that made up her daily patterns and behaviours. I was interested in those everyday habits, the ad hoc, unpredictable way people respond to what’s around them. I thought these social patterns and rituals could inform larger-scale designs for cities. I liked that shift of different scales.’

Sarah Featherstone. Image credit: Tim Brotherton.Sarah Featherstone. Image credit: Tim Brotherton

After completing her studies she set up a shared studio space in Shoreditch, in a reclaimed warehouse (there were many to be found in the 1980s) with fellow graduate architects, artists and photographers. Together with her friend Andrew Waugh they landed the job of transforming a neighbouring music venue, the Bass Clef, into the Blue Note jazz club, a legendary 1990s nightclub for the acid jazz scene. That helped put both of them on the map as they continued to juggle their college studies around work in the Shoreditch area. After completing her studies Featherstone met Anthony Hudson, who brought her in to work on Baggy House, a landmark private house project in Devon, completing in 1994: ‘It received a lot of publicity and won the Royal Fine Art Commission and Sunday Times Building of the Year Award. It was a fantastic project for us, and kick-started our working partnership as Hudson Featherstone.’ A slew of private house projects ensued, which she enjoyed: ‘You can have free rein and really explore spatial and material opportunities. What I was beginning to feel, however, was there wasn’t a strong social agenda. We were really just addressing people’s personal needs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the practice took a shift and we felt it important to start pursuing work in the housing sector. We felt there were ideas in our one-off houses that could be brought to mass housing, which, as always, was a bit depressing and needed help.’ There were lots of conversations with house builders, she recalls, but they didn’t materialise into very much, and then Hudson moved to Norwich where his family had relocated, so the pair dissolved the practice and shortly after Featherstone landed the SERICC project: ‘For me, this work was so much more interesting, and I concentrated on pursuing more community-driven projects rather than residential, which was coming naturally through referrals.’

In 2009 Sarah joined forces with Jeremy Young, her work and life partner, to form Featherstone Young. Further awards followed in 2011 for a gently modernist timber and glass house, highly sympathetic to its rural setting, which she and Young built for their family in Wales, Ty Hedfan, as well as for The Dellow, a striking building with a sawtooth window profile set into a facade of green and yellow, which flagged up the work of a charity giving training and support to homeless people. It won multiple awards and was shortlisted for the Stephen Lawrence prize in 2012. Over the years, the firm has made some headway with competition wins for house builders, both volume (a scheme for Igloo is awaiting the green light in Newcastle) and more niche developers, including a new, turf-roofed eco house, Habitat House, 15 of which have now been built into a nature reserve in the Cotswolds (a Sunday Times British Homes Award Winner in 2016).

The Dellow features a sawtooth window profile. Image credit: Tim Brotherton.The Dellow features a sawtooth window profile. Image credit: Tim Brotherton

All this time, the practice has never expanded beyond around a dozen staff, yet it is the one people go to when they have a difficult or controversial scheme – such as Ty Pawb, which met with a lot of local opposition initially – or when they don’t know what to do with interesting but quirky buildings. That is true of Jack Windmill house, a mid-century detached home next to an ancient barn and windmill in the Sussex countryside. Featherstone Young’s response was to reprogramme and enrich the home with a few decisive gestures, restore then insert a sculptural, habitable framework into the barn, and leave the windmill as it is. The firm is the kind of practice the BBC’s DIY SOS team would approach when it has a socially sensitive project to realise, which is how Featherstone Young landed the Bay 20 Community Centre and Dale Youth Boxing Club.

Featherstone isn’t sure why the practice never tried to get bigger – she feels contemporaries such as AHMM represent a good model of how a small practice can expand hugely and remain critically engaged and interesting. She says: ‘Maybe we didn’t want it enough – that it isn’t the most important thing.’ However, I wonder if the recent profession-wide acknowledgement of decades of embedded chauvinism – from pay structures to who gets credited for which buildings – also put her off.

She hesitates, then suggests: ‘I realise we are in a male-dominated industry, which inevitably brings with it prejudices and attitudes. We have had an audience with several house builders and developers but if they are considering a range of architects who are all good, then they are likely to employ someone who talks their talk and who they feel is more like them. We have probably been a bit edgy for some of them, pushing boundaries that may appear a little risky.’ She adds, almost as an afterthought: ‘Interestingly, some of those organisations we have ended up working with have been headed by women.’

Either way, Featherstone seems happy the practice has landed where it is. Whilst their collaborative, participatory approach is shared with many of the new emerging generation of architects, she feels there are still misperceptions about what that might mean: ‘It’s not about sitting down and handing over pens to people and letting them design their own homes, it’s about a dialogue and inviting people to tell you what they know and what they care and are concerned about before any proposals are put on the table. It’s also about raising aspirations so conversations are not about the mundane but about anything being possible. It’s finding out what people know, sharing that, and letting it take you places or take them places that neither thought they would go.’ And it is not about relinquishing control: ‘There does need to be some form of control. There needs to be a loose framework or structure, something set up that people recognise and identify with, that invites them in – at Ty Pawb, for example, it was tapping into everyday shortcuts used by locals and making this more convenient and explicit by extending the streetscape into the building.’

Cedar shingle-clad bay windows are a highlight of the award-winning South Essex Rape & Incest Crisis Centre. Image credit: Tim Brotherton.Cedar shingle-clad bay windows are a highlight of the award-winning South Essex Rape & Incest Crisis Centre. Image credit: Tim Brotherton

Featherstone’s openness to broader perspectives is something she has honed as a teacher on Central Saint Martins’ MA Narrative Environment (NE) course, where she has tutored almost from its inception over 15 years ago. ‘One of the reasons I didn’t go and teach on an architecture course is because I didn’t want to be just wholly in that world of architecture,’ she says. ‘On the NE course we’ve got graphic designers, writers, filmmakers, exhibition and spatial designers. For me, one of the important things is collaboration – working with different people you might not normally work with.’

The broader, problem-solving potential of a multidisciplinary team is exactly what gives an edge to her latest project – a sustainable transport and placemaking initiative, VeloCity, devised with an all-female team of practitioners – engineers, architects, planners. Their vision is to expand and enrich rural villages with dense, highly social housing typologies and ditch the reliance on the car for bikes and walking routes. It was featured at the Oslo Triennale, with a manifesto, Growing Villages Differently, and has just secured a client and a site that will hopefully serve as a pilot project. If she has a dream project, she says, VeloCity is it: ‘I’m loving it, I think it’s so important. Working with a group of people who have got such a shared ambition and are so passionate about it. That’s what makes a successful project: when you passionately believe in it.’

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