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Why Gillespie Yunnie’s staircase won the AJ Small Projects Sustainability Award

Sustainability cannot be the sole driver for a design and must be balanced with other considerations, says Hattie Hartman

The AJ Small Projects live crit, initiated three years ago, is always a compelling and fast-paced afternoon. The 24 shortlisted practices have two minutes to present their scheme, followed by three minutes of questions from the jury. At the end of the marathon afternoon, the jurors have an hour to deliberate and make two awards: one overall winner and one for outstanding sustainable design.

This year I had shortlisted three small projects with overtly green credentials for the sustainability award. Fraher Architects’ Green Studio - a rear garden home office in for the practice - was an obvious contender for its thorough sustainable design approach: the massing of the rear garden studio for the practice was determined by the path of the sun. The small building is covered over by a metal mesh to encourage vegetation to clamber over the structure. Yet upon close examination, the jury concluded that the resulting spaces, both indoor and out, seem claustrophobic. Sustainability cannot be the sole driver for a design and must be balanced with other considerations.

The Volvo PV pavilion, presented by LA-based Synthesis Design + Architecture via Skype, remains an ingenious solution to Volvo’s competition brief, but it is very much a one-off. It was interesting to learn that of the 150 competition entries, Synthesis Design’s submission was the only one that was portable and could fit in the boot of a car. The third shortlisted project was Pad Studio’s charming Exbury Egg, a temporary live-work artist’s shelter - again a one-off.

Jury’s are all about consensus. Outstanding design is the number one criteria championed by the jury, and as we collectively narrowed the 24 projects to eight for further consideration, none of the three shortlisted sustainability projects made the cut. Hence the decision to consider sustainability in a broader sense.

Connectivity is a fundamental element of sustainable masterplanning. Gillespie Yunnie Architect’s staircase at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard shines in masterplanning terms because it creates a pedestrian link through the formerly isolated 15-acre site to the south-west coast path. The dramatic stair connects the stately early 19th-century military buildings currently being transformed into a mixed-use development by Urban Splash to the nearby path. For walkers on the coastal path, it provides an opportunity to pause and visit Royal William Yard’s listed building complex with its numerous restaurants, delis and shops.

One aspect of AJ awards is the overall ambition and message that the winning project represents. The bold design of the stair, with its projecting angle from the wall, its glass balustrade at the landing which frames plunging views of Plymouth Sound, and its colourful LED light show, has already made it a local attraction. Gillespie Yunnie’s stair is more than the sum of its parts. Despite budget constraints which meant that timber was used in place of the Cor-ten originally proposed, the architects have interpreted their brief with flair, transforming a simple stair into much more through good design. This is what AJ Small Projects seeks to promote.

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