Straw Bale house from Grand Designs
straw bale house from grand designs

The Straw Bale house in north London

Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till built their unusual home 20 years ago

By Karen Stylianides |

When architects Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till built their Grand Designs Straw Bale house in Islington, north London, they took the unusual step of leaving their eco-friendly choice of insulation on show.

Straw bale has a long history as a construction material. Not only does it insulate much in the same way as sheep’s wool, with air pockets that create a thermal break, it’s also load bearing.

Here, Sarah shares the secrets behind the Straw Bale house build, which aired on Grand Designs back in 2003.

straw bale house from grand designs

Photo: Jefferson Smith

Your walls are made from straw bales. How are they working?

The straw bale walls have been great. Various people have tested them, and found their humidity is similar to that of timber, which means we won’t get mould growing inside the house. They’re energy efficient and very cost effective to build with.

Are there any technologies or materials around now that you wish had been available for your project?

Photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity, are improving all the time, and crop-based materials such as Hempcrete – made from hemp and lime – are now easy to get, so I’d love to use those in a future design.

sarah and jeremy straw bale house

Sarah and Jeremy beneath the Grand Designs Straw Bale house. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Is there anything you would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?

The building is elevated above the ground so it loses heat through its floor. Then again, the space beneath the raised house makes it exciting and unique. Sometimes I think you have to compromise between the performance of a building and the joy of the design.

You lived in the house for several years before it was finished. Would you advise others to do the same?

Definitely. Buildings have quirks, just like people, and you have to take time to get to know them. You gradually learn where the light falls in the afternoon, or where’s nice to have breakfast, and we shape our rituals around these things. It’s good to leave some decisions until you really know the space, so that you can enjoy finding out about the building.

inside the grand designs straw bale house

Inside the Grand Designs Straw Bale house. Photo: Jefferson Smith

As an architect, what’s the most common mistake you see clients make?

People are always in a rush to complete their projects, but it’s really important to take the time early on to work out what you want and to try out different options. Also, you have to be able to communicate with your architect. A lot of people don’t understand the architect’s drawings, which is where problems can arise. If you’re not sure, always ask them to do a different kind of drawing or build a model.

You’re an advocate for women playing a bigger role in architecture. How does this translate to the grand designer?

It’s a complex dynamic when you have two people building a house. Often, regardless of gender, one has the vision while the other tags along, but I would encourage anybody who is going to live in the house to step up and have a role. If you’re going to share in the cleaning, for example, you might question the importance of that glass handrail.

Do you have one key piece of advice for future self-builders?

Hire an architect and be ambitious. If you’re going to go through the hell of self-building you should aim high. Never settle for a boring design – create the home that will truly make you happy.

Watch the 2003 Grand Designs Islington revisit on All4