Mellor Primary School Habitat Wall. Image: SWA

As architects we need to become the guardians of the environment

Sarah Wigglesworth is an award-winning architect from UK and the Director and Founder of the architecture studio Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. Sarah is one of the keynotes at Building Green Copenhagen 2-3 November 2022, where she will talk about ecological humanism and SWA’s recipe for successful low impact living. She will also discuss her company’s ethos behind its mission to ‘build green’.

In this article, you can read an interview with Sarah Wigglesworth.

What is your background and how do you work with sustainability?

I ‘turned green’ in 1991, when on a fellowship in the USA. Experiencing an environment so reliant on petrochemicals and that was so profligate with resources really struck a chord with me. I returned to the UK determined to find ways in which architecture can address these issues and take ownership of the solutions. We began to formulate an agenda that looked at simple construction, using waste streams and materials with low embodied carbon, appropriate to an urban setting. We combined high and low technologies and reinvented vernacular techniques. We designed and built a building (my studio and home) close to central London which was a kind of manifesto for this thinking. The architectural world greeted it largely with incomprehension, but the public were fascinated and it was featured on tv. Since then, we have built up our knowledge of materials and their extraction, manufacture and end of life, and the social aspects behind these processes.

We always design passive solar buildings and work with environmental consultants to better understand building physics. Working closely with communities is essential to ensure what we design suits their level of understanding and appetite for green systems, and we pay attention to running costs, ease of repair and maintenance as well as joyfulness. These things are more important than any other aspect. We advocate for clients to become more informed about their choices and their role in making environments work for the long term. In general, this means simple systems and fail-safe, low technology. 

Sarah Wigglesworth. Image: Jim Stephenson

Which challenges and opportunities do you see within sustainable construction and architecture?

We have the technical knowledge to do many things. What is lacking is willingness to change, with the inevitable risks and uncertainties that are involved. In the UK, we also need ambitious regulatory standards and policies that will provide a clear set of expectations across every aspect of the built environment, from green transport planning to infrastructure and buildings. Clients, financiers, planning personnel and our building industry must skill up to meet these challenges. Retrofit is a huge issue in the UK, as it has a large existing building stock and a high percentage of people living in fuel poverty. As architects we also need to reset our ambitions and self-image so that we become the guardians of the environment rather than people that destroy it.

How and where can the building industry raise the sustainable ambitions according to you?

Policy and Regulation: set ambitious targets that we have to meet across all building types.

Manufacturing: Regulate for a circular economy. Agree an industry-wide metric for the comparative assessment of all the environmental aspects of material processing.

Construction: train constructors and provide skills in green building techniques, both new and retrofit. Re-learn traditional building skills and materials performance.

Specification: I long for the day when we have within easy reach unbiassed, comparative data that will enable us to assess our choices with accuracy, so we can act ethically and honestly.

Procurement and insurance: reform these processes so that risk is shared and collaboration is genuinely encouraged. Help create an eco-system of skills and size of practice, encouraging small firms to gain opportunities and large firms to learn from small ones.

Advocate with clients to be ambitious, gain knowledge and work with us to show the way.

Learning: experiment and learn. Do the post-occupancy evaluation. Understand the tools at your disposal but be critical and find your own way that works for you, your collaborators and client base.

The theme at this year’s Building Green is ‘the way to absolute sustainability’. What does it take to get as close as possible to absolute sustainability? 

I’m not sure I entirely understand this phrase, which is new to my vocabulary. However, I assume it signifies genuinely living within the planet’s means. It goes without saying that the developed countries are not doing this, and the situation is urgent. If we are to bring our planetary systems back to a viable state those that have squandered the majority of the planet’s resources have to take the toughest path to ensure social equity and a liveable world.

We badly need new narratives that express the benefit of a future after fossil-fuels. People-focussed spaces, car-free cities, local shopping, a viable, healthy food economy, natural habitats that thrive, recycling and reuse need to be centre-stage in the built environment. People need to be treated fairly, with equitable access to education, skills and employment opportunities. Systems of governance need to be inclusive so that power is held to account effectively, and people have a meaningful stake in their own futures. An economy that works within the constraints of our material systems is urgently needed.

To what extent should we address the planetary boundaries in each building project?

Of course we need to do this. What other planet do we have?

Which sustainable projects do you find interesting and innovative?

I admire the work of Lacaton & Vassell Architects. They believe the first task of the architect is to think, and to decide whether to build or not. They see their role as extending far beyond just building, creatively engaging with the economic and regulatory aspects of each project. They demonstrate a rigorous pursuit of and ambition for adapting existing structures, using the challenges in each situation to create imaginative solutions to retrofit. This is a thrilling example of how the future could look and how the role of the architect can be redefined.

What do you talk about at Building Green Copenhagen?

I am going to explain our practice’s approach to human-centred sustainability. I’m going to show how research and risk-taking has led to learning from which we have formed a sense that people need to be at the heart of the design equation if we are going to deliver long-lasting, resilient projects. This involves:

1. Passive solar design with good levels of insulation & air-tightness; 2. simple mechanical systems that put the user in control; 3. avoidance of high tech plant and computer technology that is likely to become obsolete; 4. The contribution that natural systems (landscapes) can play to mitigating the worst effects of climate change; human-powered transit options.  

Do you conclusively have an appeal to the industry that you would like to share?

The processes that got us here will not get us out again, so we need to rethink how we do everything. Stop the green-wash! Be honest. Admit it if you don’t know/haven’t made enough progress/made mistakes. We are all learning. There are no ‘solutions’, only research and learning. We must share our problems as well as our successes. But hurry because we have no time to waste.

Do you want to hear more to Sarah Wigglesworth and her thoughts and practice?

Join us at Building Green Copenhagen 2-3 November. Read more and sign up for free here.

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