But instead of eco houses, an Essex structure of this type has for the past decade played host to a saleroom, and is proving a very successful venue, says Guy Schooling, the chairman of Sworders, the auction house in question.
The firm celebrates 10 years since its innovative headquarters was launched with a special anniversary sale on June 19, featuring fine furniture, British and European paintings, silver, clocks and works of art.
Back in 2007 Sworders directors worked together on the concept for the building and the late Robert Ward Booth, an architect and director at Sworders at the time, proposed an eco-building design. This was partly to help with planning permission for what was then a disused gravel works site outside Stansted Mountfitchet.
Schooling says the inspiration for the straw construction was his wife Pam’s idea – one that did indeed come from watching Grand Designs.
He admits to some some initial misgivings. “When my wife first came up with this and we started thinking about it, I thought ‘this can’t be serious, it must be a joke, you can’t do something on that scale’,” he says.
“But once the mechanics of exactly how it works were explained to me I thought, why not?”
Sworders had moved from Bishops Stortford into the middle of Stansted Mountfitchet about 20 years ago. “We signed a 21-year lease on that building, and I can remember standing with my former business partner saying, ‘well, this is going to see us out, isn’t it’,” adds Schooling.
“Within five years we were desperate to get out because we had just outgrown it – and it took another five years to get out. Moving here has been the single biggest driver of business we’ve ever had. It has been transformative.”
Schooling says there have been “next to no repairs of any sort, nothing even remotely major”, and it has been pretty much maintenance-free. Other features of the overall eco-design include harvesting rainwater from the cedar-shingle roof to flush the lavatories, and most of the hot water and heating being provided by a biofuel wood chip boiler and solar panels.
In fact, so happy has Sworders been with the straw bales method that the building’s square footage was extended by a further 50%. “Within about three years of moving in we realised that to expand, we needed a storage area completely separate from the working area. So, while sales are on view or taking place in the auction rooms, go into the back and there can be three or four more auctions under preparation. I just love that.
“We also have 12 containers out the back full of stuff and have just ordered two more. However much space you have got, it is never enough.”
While the usual benefits of straw bale construction such as thermal insulation have been realised, Schooling says one unexpected plus has been a major bonus. “Acoustically it’s brilliant,” he says. Otherwise, in an enormous building “sound can just bang around endlessly”.
When the saleroom was originally opened by Princess Michael of Kent, a big party and special auction took place. Schooling says that uncertainty over when the recent North Mymms Park country house auction would be – it had been intended for last year – meant no celebration was held for Sworders’ 235th anniversary which fell in 2017. “We then thought that as we’ve been in this building for 10 years, we ought to do something to celebrate that fact.”
The princess’ diary was full in June but she was able to revisit Sworders last month for the North Mymms Park sale preview (see ATG Nos 2339 and 2340 for coverage of the results from April 17-18).
Given the firm’s busy sale schedule (such as the inaugural auction of sporting art held on April 25), there’s plenty to be getting on with.
However, when pressed to reveal future developments, Schooling says Sworders is looking to expand its decorative art department into more specialised areas, albeit in the longer-term. He mentions a single-owner Mouseman collection around which Sworders is looking to build a sale, and another possible country house auction at an early stage.
Are more straw buildings on the way in Stansted Mountfitchet? “If I said I was going to expand this building again, my wife would either leave me or take me out and shoot me, so that’s a no,” says Schooling. “She asks me periodically how many containers we’ve got at the moment and obviously I lie… well, actually I don’t know, they just arrive… I think ‘God, where did those come from?’.”