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Architects slated for cliches and sustainable 'gimmicks'

A government-backed ideas competition to design a sustainable school prototype has revealed architects showing an alarming lack of awareness of client needs, too many 'gimmicks' and 'cliches', too much glazing, and an inability to handle natural light.

The competition, promoted by the Building Research Energy Conservation Support Unit (BRECSU) on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and organised by the RIBA's competition office, resulted in three joint first prizes, each netting £2,500.

Professor Sir Colin Stansfield Smith and John Pardey Architects; Walters and Cohen; and BakerBrown McKay Architects with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers & Studio Engleback Landscape Architects clinched the top spots and won praise for, respectively, their environmental strategy, intricacy and coherence.

But senior RIBA assessor Professor Alan Short criticised the general standard of the 43 entries to the open ideas competition for a real site near Canterbury - no advances had been made on St George's School in Wallasey by Emslie Morgan, built 40 years ago and one of the most successful passive solar energy buildings in the world.

'We had seen almost every conceivable cliched architectural device connected to some notion of sustainable architectural form, ' concluded the assessors' report. 'The assembly of the various tactical devices to make a coherent strategy seemed to defeat many of the competitors.'

The panel, made up of educators and architects, hoped that in the future it would not be necessary to qualify a competition for school design as being orientated to sustainable ideas, but the technical assessors pointed out that 'one still can't take it for granted that architects can design comfortable environments'.

Many of the entries attempted to 'pile accommodation upwards' without imagining the prospects for congestion, while the assessors were 'dismayed' and 'baffled' by the handling of natural light. 'It is entirely possible to adequately daylight a classroom without resorting to glazing the room in its entirety, ' said the assessors. 'We were a little disappointed that we didn't see a more strategic, calculated and judicious design in the distribution of glass.'

And they added: 'There is clearly a great deal more work to be done to evolve a rich and convincing sustainable architecture. But with respect to school design one might listen more intently to contemporary educationalists rather than try to guess what is required to make an excellent set of learning and teaching spaces for young children.'

The competition was intended to look at how energy efficiency could be designed into school buildings, both new build and refurbishment, in the light of extra government spending on education buildings.

Stansfield Smith and Pardey's scheme showed an 'economical and elegant' section with monopitch roof planes lifting to accommodate a clerestory shaded by vertical timber slats. Duncan Baker Brown's was 'an intricate proposal crammed with detail' and 'a very solid piece of work'.

Walters and Cohen's idea was popular with both architects and educators but the assessors felt that teachers might quickly be pasting up posters on the glazing to reduce solar gain and glare.

Two schemes were highly commended and won £750 each: Byroom Clark Roberts Architects with Graham Lees Partnership and Casella Landscape Architects; and 3W with Arup. Commendations - and £500 - went to Peter Fisher of London; and Mark Pellant & Abi Torr from East Sussex.

An exhibition of the winning designs is at Ace@Cube in Manchester until 19 April.

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