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RIBA’s greenest winners

What do this year’s RIBA Awards tell us about the state of sustainable design? Hattie Hartman picks out the top sustainable award-winners

Dramatic natural landscapes often elicit exemplar green buildings. Nature itself may be the source of inspiration, or an environmentally-minded client, or perhaps a passionate designer. When all three come together, the alchemy produces exceptional results. Such was the case in Adam Khan’s Brockholes Visitor Centre, my top pick of last year’s awards.

Such is also the case this year. If the RIBA were to select a Sustainable Building of the Year, it would surely be Heneghan Peng Architects’ striking Visitors’ Centre at Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage site in Northern Ireland owned by the National Trust. This project has been conceived with a design life of 100 years. When was the last time a client asked for that?

Aside from its robust approach to sustainable design, the project caught my eye because it included ‘in-use’ performance figures for the first nine months of occupation alongside predicted numbers. And, even more remarkably, the in-use numbers were lower than the predicted targets: no performance gap here.

The Giant’s Causeway in-use data speaks to the core of the AJ’s Bridge the Gap campaign. How long will it be before the RIBA requires this kind of data with all awards submissions? The pretext often given is that it takes a year to get all the bugs out of the system and ensure a building is operating smoothly. With a Soft Landings approach in place and quarterly seasonal commissioning, should it really take a whole year? And, if the meter readings exceed the predicted targets, can’t we benefit from knowing why? These experiences need to be shared to avoid reinventing the wheel each time.

Though sometimes dismissed as useless money-spinners, awards do have their place. Their prominent display on architects’ websites and even on the signature line of emails reveals their importance to the winners. They are also important to the profession, because they raise the bar of what’s possible, particularly when it comes to the poorly understood category of sustainable design.

So what do this year’s awards tell us about the state of sustainable design? The good news is that an increasing number of projects are taking an holistic, rather than a bolt-on approach to sustainability, embedding intelligent passive design in the project from the outset.

More retrofits are percolating through, as are projects which incorporate green infrastructure. Also apparent this year is a greater use of cross-laminated timber in projects ranging in scale from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Worcester Hive to AY Architects’ Montpelier Nursery. As ever, compelling exemplars of social sustainability are scarce.

For my pick of this year’s top sustainable buildings I sought out projects that are both beautiful and green, where sustainability strengthens, rather than undermines, good design. The Olympic Park masterplan, John McAslan’s Olympic Energy Centre and Wilkinson Eyre’s Gardens by the Bay in Singapore are all exemplar projects but didn’t make my shortlist, which follows overleaf. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the RIBA Awards’ greenest buildings.

Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre by Heneghan Peng Architects

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Located on a basalt outcrop on Northern Ireland’s north coast, this National Trust visitor centre melds building and landscape by folding the 1,900m² structure into the site. Buried into the land on the seaward north and west flanks, the building opens out to approaching visitors with a facade of irregularly spaced basalt columns and vertical glazing.

Due to planning restrictions which precluded the use of a conventional services strategy (no flues permitted), the building’s environmental performance relies on a highly insulated external envelope and inter-seasonal energy storage, comprised of ground source heat pumps for heating and 2.5 miles of underground earth ducts for cooling. Visitors can clamber over the building’s green roof, which is planted with indigenous grasses and wildflower seed collected from the surrounding area. Another clever fold in the landscape screens the car park, and the number of cars on the site is reduced by a ‘park and ride’ system in nearby Bushmills.

Particular attention has been paid to building handover and performance monitoring. Since the building was occupied in June 2012, two quarterly energy performance and seasonal commissioning reviews have been undertaken.

The Giant’s Causeway team is to be commended for submitting actual energy monitoring data for the first nine months of the visitors centre’s occupation - a rarity. The actual readings are below the targets, representing 89 per cent of predicted demand - an even greater rarity.

Three years of monitoring is being performed free of charge by services engineers Bennett Robertson Design, which remotely accesses the data via a weblink to the website BEMS Energy, a provision written into the specification. Why can’t more design teams do this?

Montpelier Nursery by AY Architects

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At Montpelier Nursery in Camden, north London, AY Architects has deftly created a delightful array of seamlessly connected indoor and outdoor spaces for young children while incorporating both operational energy efficiency and low-carbon construction.

A limited budget precluded the inclusion of any renewable energy technologies.

A butterfly roof with clerestory windows and deep overhangs creates a variety of interior volumes, which are flooded with daylight, protected from glare and naturally ventilated. Constructed of cross-laminated timber panels (with a white-washed factory finish on the interior) imported from Austria, the superstructure of the 136m² nursery was erected in just one week.

Through careful detailing, the external envelope is designed to achieve an air permeability of 5m³/hour@50pa.

The exterior is clad in FSC-certified Siberian larch and a sedum roof helps to integrate the nursery with the surrounding community gardens.

Soar Works by 00:/

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00:/’s Soar Works in Sheffield provides affordable workspace for community enterprises, including a café, a job centre and healthy living workshops.

A compact building form minimises the exterior envelope, reducing both heat loss and material costs. The majority of windows are south-facing and shaded by user-operated perforated panels, which double as security screens. East and west-facing windows were deliberately avoided to avoid overheating.

Exposed concrete floors are durable and provide thermal mass to even out variations of external temperature. Recycled glass cast panels in the atrium form part of what the architects describe as an ‘opportunistic’ approach to recycling.

All the services are individually metered so that utility costs can be charged to tenants.

The design allows for tenants to control their own spaces and monthly energy monitoring results are shared to raise awareness and encourage behavioural change.

Ironmonger Row Baths by Tim Ronalds Architects

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Intelligent retrofit is hard to beat when it comes to sustainable design. Tim Ronalds Architects’ Ironmonger Row Baths in Islington, north London, exemplifies a thorough approach to improving environmental performance during its refurbishment, including a full upgrade of the 1930s building’s external fabric.

Particular attention was paid to achieving airtight construction, with targets of 5m3/hr/m² for the pool hall and 7m³/hr/m² for the overall building.

New double-glazed rooflights bring natural light into the building and reduce lighting loads. Existing single-glazed windows were secondary‑glazed.

Waste heat from the saunas and steam room is captured to control condensation in the pool ceiling void. Extensive metering has been installed throughout to facilitate future monitoring, including separate meters for pool heaters, boilers, laundry equipment, lighting and power loads.

The building is connected to Islington’s new district heating system.

The best of the rest. Further outstanding sustainable designs from among this year’s RIBA Award winners

There are many ‘best of the rest’ among this year’s RIBA Award winners. The intriguing roof of Simpson & Brown’s Chapel of Saint Albert the Great in Edinburgh masterfully modulates light and enables natural ventilation, while its deep overhangs screens out unwanted solar gain.

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s Manchester Metropolitan University Business School skilfully resolves a tricky site and boasts impressive operational energy figures for a mechanically ventilated building.

Primary schools as a building type lend themselves to sustainable design due to their scale and programmatic requirements.

Several stand out this year: Meadowcroft Griffin Architects’ Lauriston School (AJ 26.05.11), Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Westborough Primary School (AJ 14.07.12) and ADP’s Jesmond Gardens Primary School. Sheppard Robson’s Waingels College (AJ 24.05.10) exploits cross-laminated timber to create a campus of secondary school buildings around a central outdoor square.

Across the Atlantic, Grimshaw’s Green Way affordable housing in the south Bronx with its cascading promenade of planted terraces does not resemble any housing in the UK. Well worth a look if you are going to New York.

Regional Sustainability Awards

North east Jesmond Gardens Primary School, ADP
Yorkshire Soar Works, 00:/
London east Olympic Energy Centre, John McAslan + Partners
North west N&S Cheshire Oaks, Aukett Fitzroy Robinson
West midlands The Hive, Worcester, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
East Westborough Primary School, Cotterell & Vermeulen
South west & wessex St Peter’s Catholic Primary School, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
South east Runway End Outdoor Centre, Hampshire County Council

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