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The new Manser Medal rules undermine the RIBA's message on architectural quality

Houses that were not good enough for a full-blown RIBA Award are good enough for the top house award. Confused?

It used to be simple. If you designed a house and it won a RIBA Award, it was longlisted for the Manser Medal, AKA the UK’s most prestigious one-off house design award. Then, after another round of deliberation, a jury led by Michael Manser would pick the best of them for a shortlist. From this reduced list, a winner would emerge, and the lucky practice behind the design would walk away with the gong - and, for the past two years, a £10,000 cheque courtesy of sponsor HSBC.

This year, however, it’s all change. There’s no sponsor, and therefore no cash prize. That’s probably a sign of the times. More significantly, as we report on page 14, the shortlist for 2012 has been drawn from both the ‘national’ RIBA Award winners and Regional RIBA Regional Award winners too. On this year’s Manser shortlist, two of the projects, Simon Conder’s Cornish twin ensemble (right) and a Duggan Morris house in Sussex, are both regional winners. So, while these houses were judged not good enough for a full-blown RIBA Award, they are considered good enough for the top house award - at the expense of six national winners. Confused? Of course you are. And if you’re the architect behind a national winner, you’re probably angry too.

It really doesn’t make sense. RIBA itself, seems puzzled too. When we asked the awards team to clarify the selection process, the answer was fuzzy. ‘When it comes down to looking at each scheme individually for this prize,’ a spokesperson said, ‘it can become apparent that some stand out more as good houses as well as worthy regional or RIBA Award winners, as opposed to good smaller schemes.’ We followed this up with a simple question, asking if this meant the schemes were judged more on whether they are good homes rather than good architecture.

Over to RIBA: ‘The answer is both - they have to have considerable architectural merit to win any award, but, yes, we do look at them as working homes as well.’ But wouldn’t that rule out Dune House by Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects & Mole Architects - it’s a rental villa for Alan de Botton’s Living Architecture programme: it’s not what you’d call a ‘working home’.

The bigger problem however is what it means in terms of architectural quality. RIBA has muddied the waters here. The reason for introducing the two-tier RIBA Award system was to distinguish the excellent from the very good. As the official guidelines for the 2012 RIBA Awards states, the regional winners this year, of which there were 96, ‘will include some schemes which would have previously merited an RIBA Award, when we were giving up to 100 RIBA Awards, rather than the likely 50 or so’. (59 RIBAs this year, for the record). The new rules for the Manser Medal however, has rendered this distinction meaningless.

AJ Writing Prize

Congratulations to Alan Miller, winner of last year’s AJ Writing Prize. He bagged the cash prize last October for his study of Sydney’s Westfield shopping centre, and now follows up with a building study on another Sydney project, the newly extended MCA. The AJ is committed to finding the best new writers in the field - we hope Miller’s success inspires you. To enter this year’s prize, visit TheAJ.co.uk/writingprize. Good Luck!

Christine Murray is away

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