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Architects own homes revisited

Aside from clear sustainability benefits, the imaginative adaptation and reuse of existing buildings, whether they are of great historic significance or not, can be a catalyst for urban regeneration with huge benefits for the surrounding community and may even help define an area's cultural identity.


Transforming an existing building successfully requires skill and imagination. The Schüco/Architecture Today webinar, The Rise of Reuse, showcased three leading architectural proponents of reuse to explain how the schemes they have designed respond to the challenges of reconfiguring a building.

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Sarah Wigglesworth's Straw bale house on Stock Orchard Street, North London

Sarah Wigglesworth's Straw bale house on Stock Orchard Street, North London

Sarah Wigglesworth's Straw bale house on Stock Orchard Street, north London, represented the cutting-edge of sustainable design when it was completed in 1997; a time when green issues were first starting to appear on many architects' radars.


While the scheme embodied the prevailing green doctrine at the time with its considered orientation, green roof, wind tower and commitment to daylighting, it also pioneered the use of recycled materials, including straw bales in its construction.


After living "happily" in her home for 20 years Wigglesworth decided that it was where she wanted to remain as she got older and so set about adapting the building to make it suitable for the next 20 years of her life. "Living here has given us 20 years of Post Occupancy Evaluation, which has meant that we've been able to work out what works well and what doesn't work so well," she said.


In addition, after two decades in use some elements of the building were coming to the end of their natural life. "I'm surprised by how much worked in this building, for example the straw bale wall," she said.


Wigglesworth describes the adaptation of her home as two projects coming together: the need to upgrade the building's energy performance and her wish to incorporate adaptations for old age.


The scheme was designed to comply with the 1996 Building Regulations. Since then, there have been significant regulatory increases in both fabric energy performance and energy in use. Taking advantage of advances in energy modelling software, Wigglesworth commissioned a full energy analysis of the building including an assessment of its airtightness, U-value assessments, thermal imaging, a review of the ventilation strategy and even modelling the predicted energy consumption to compare with the actual, measured consumption.


The energy analysis informed a series of fabric and servicing upgrades including:

  • The addition of insulation to the building's exposed undercroft to reduce heat losses and to minimise thermal bridging
  • Replacement of failed windows and roof lights with more thermally efficient models
  • Adding weatherstrips to windows and doors and taping gaps to improve airtightness
  • And upgrading the MVHR system


Age related improvements included replacement of the kitchen with one with contrasting surfaces, eye-level ovens and an induction hob "so that we cannot leave the gas on". Other modifications included:

  • Installation of grab rails on the staircase and in the bathroom
  • Implementation of level thresholds in shower and bathroom
  • Conversion of the composting toilet and utility room into self-contained accommodation for a future carer
  • And making provision for a future lift to ensure continued access to her first floor home


Wigglesworth describes as "extraordinary" the difference made by the changes. "It's made a slightly rattly home now feel cosy, solid and comfortable," she said. Nevertheless, 20 years on from the original scheme Wigglesworth admits that if she were to start this project now it would be totally different because she has "completely different things on my radar".


Piers Taylor's home, Moonshine

Piers Taylor's home, Moonshine

Built almost exactly 20 years ago as an extension to a run-down former-school house in a wood on the outskirts of Bath. At the time he says he had "next to no money" and so had to build as frugally as possible.  An additional constraint was that the plot was only accessible on foot, so the scheme had to be designed to enable all construction materials and waste to be carried by hand down a track.


The home Taylor built is a transparent, rectilinear extension to the existing castellated school house. The building is supported on a simple, exposed green oak frame into which he slotted the predominantly glazed elements that formed a large proportion of the building's envelope.


He readily admits that his relative inexperience, particularly in working with green timber, resulted in him building a house that "didn't really work in the way that I wanted it to". He says the timber ring beams that wrap around the house at ground-, first- and eves-level were exposed to the elements so that as the green timber aged and shrank, weather began to enter the home through gaps between it and the different elements.


In addition, he says that there was far too much glass, so when the big ash tree adjacent to the house died it was a "disaster in terms of solar gain"; and that he focused too much on ventilation and not enough on insulation and the prevention of thermal bridges. He was reminded of the home's failings daily through the endless quantity of wood needed to heat the house. Over time he says he came to "hate" the house.


Unsurprisingly, his priority in retrofitting the house was in adapting it to deal with the weather. His scheme retains the building's timber frame, which is now over-clad in a blanket of insulation, which he describes as "wrapping the building in a duvet".


Taylor explained: "What we ended up doing was taking out the glazing and wrapping everything in another 150mm, or in some cases 450mm of insulation, including the ring beam which is now sheathed in insulation".


To reduce heat losses further, on the north side of the building glazing has "only been installed where needed". Similarly, the upstairs windows have also been reduced in size.


The building's reduced heat loss has enabled Taylor to install a more efficient heating solution: photovoltaic panels have been added to the roof to power a new electric underfloor heating system, complete with battery back-up.


Renewing the house has allowed Taylor to once again enjoy his home and the wider landscape in which it nestles. "As I got older seeing my own naive and youthful architectural moves and preoccupations on a daily basis came to torment me as a constant reminder of how little I knew, how naive I was," he said. "It's a joy to know that the house is well-built now and works, finally". 

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