Architect known for low impact design and pioneering use and development of sustainable materials, whose philosophies were exemplified in his WISE building
David Lea, who has died aged 82, practised for most of his 50-plus-year career with a deep care for our fragile planet and a need to give people a closer relationship with the natural world. When he knew his time here was coming to an end, he wrote: ‘I see that I have always been amazed by the beauty of nature and the human response to it’. He was also concerned by the advances of capitalism and its impact on vernacular architecture and traditional building techniques, and worried by the increasing lack of creativity and knowledge in architecture.
These ideas were founded in a childhood love of the natural world and education at the University of Cambridge. Enrolling in 1958, he was taught by Leslie Martin, Colin Rowe and Colin St John Wilson, with whom he worked after completing his studies. He joined a London local authority for a short time in the late 1960s but was increasingly unhappy with the lifestyle the city offered, and after six months learning about self-sufficiency with John Seymour in Pembrokeshire, made the move to Wales. In 1976, he set up his home and studio at Ogoronwy, a smallholding in the Snowdonia National Park.
The first work to really bring Lea to public attention was a sheltered housing scheme in Churt, Surrey, begun in 1968. He would be involved with this project for more than 20 years and it reflects a development in his architectural style, from the easy-to-build timber details devised by Walter Segal to more complicated joinery influenced by a visit to Japan in 1975. Student accommodation built for the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, in 1982 was inspired by Cotswold vernacular architecture and saw the reopening of a local quarry to provide stone tiles for its roof.
In a collaboration with Pat Borer, Lea worked on many buildings at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales. At the AtEIC building (2000) they explored natural materials: sheep’s wool insulation, rammed earth walls, and limecrete floors. But it was his largest commission at CAT, for the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, in the WISE Building, that became a true manifestation of Lea’s philosophies about low-impact building.
Completed in 2010, it was designed to house a growing graduate school and featured monastic study bedrooms alongside classrooms, meeting spaces, studios, a dining hall, and a 7m-tall circular rammed earth lecture theatre. The spaces are all arranged around landscaped courtyards with an almost Japanese feel. Wherever you are in the building there is always a connection to outside; classrooms look out to the piles of slate that surround the complex while in the auditorium a revolving oculus opens up to the sky. I studied there myself, and it was a beautiful, simple and inspiring environment in which to learn.
It was at WISE that Borer and Lea began using hempcrete – a mix of hemp and lime – as a sustainable alternative to concrete, and experiments with the material continued with students at the Welsh School of Architecture.
Lea was an activist at heart. He instilled in students a need to think about the future we were building – and an appreciation of the changing light, of simplicity and of taking inspiration from a site. At a time of environmental crisis, when the way we build has a critical impact on our planet, we need more architects that think and act with his combination of responsibility and creativity.
He is survived by his partner Sylvia Harris and his children Tystan and Teleri from his previous marriage to Awel Irene.
Laura Mark is an architect, critic and keeper of Walmer Yard