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The greenest buildings

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The AJ convened a panel of experts – an architect, a building services engineer and an academic – to assess this year’s 11 RIBA regional sustainability award winning buildings

These 11 buildings, recognised by regional juries as exemplary sustainable buildings, should represent the state of the art in UK green design. Only two of them – WWF-UK and John McAslan’s Engineering Building at Lancaster University – went on to win national awards. What does that say about the architectural quality of the sustainability award winners? And how green are they really? How replicable are these buildings, and are there any examples of standout innovation? These are the questions the AJ posed to the panel.

First, a brief look at the numbers and the judging process. Of the 13 RIBA regions, nine awarded sustainability prizes this year. In an unusual move, RIBA South East awarded green accolades to three buildings.

To make their assessments, regional juries can, at their discretion, draw upon a sustainability expert. RIBA Midlands regional director Matt Dobson explains that ‘it’s up to each jury to decide whether they need specialist support’. Seven regions – just over half – chose to use sustainability advisers. These specialists review the sustainability statements that form part of the building’s submission and advise the jury on the projects’ green credentials.

These experts do not vote and – I was surprised to learn - in most cases do not visit the buildings. Sheppard Robson’s Alan Shingler, the sustainability expert responsible for reviewing 39 projects across the RIBA London region, believes building visits should be mandatory. ‘It’s only by visiting that you can be sure that a building has been holistically considered to perform well over time,’ he says.

Sometimes buildings are not constructed as originally designed. For example Heneghan Peng’s University of Greenwich Stockwell Street Building was designed around a series of courtyards for natural ventilation, but in the completed building, the courtyards are sealed and do not form part of the ventilation strategy.

But despite the lack of visits, Ian McKay of BBM-Sustainable Design, who served as sustainability expert for both RIBA South and South East, describes the regional judging process as ‘exceptional and extremely robust’.

Sustainability awards can also promote understanding and push best practice forward at a regional level. Since Sjolander da Cruz’ River Studio was announced as a sustainability award winner in the West Midlands a few weeks ago, Marco da Cruz has been approached by several regional architects asking to visit the building for their own personal CPD. Highlighting exemplars through awards provides a vehicle for knowledge-sharing and suggests ways forward that have been tried and tested.

Quality of architecture is not emphasised enough in criteria

As for the RIBA sustainability statements, Yeoryia Manolopoulou observed that ‘comfort and quality of architecture and space (air, light, aesthetics) are not emphasised enough in criteria and project descriptions. It is problematic to award a building for mainly quantitive sustainability credentials if its architectural design is not of the highest order.’ Fionn Stevenson reiterates that view, commenting that the statement should be expanded to encompass biodiversity, wellbeing, and water use.

Crucially, the AJ panel was unwilling to let sustainability credentials take complete precedence over design quality. The overall London winner, Bennetts Associates’ 5 Pancras Square at King’s Cross with its BREEAM Excellent certification, was recognised by the panel for its thoroughgoing environmental approach, but deemed soulless and lacking in civic grandeur. One panelist referred to it as ‘an example of a building designed to BREEAM. The result is not that attractive and I would be surprised if it is loved the same way as the Chichester Theatre in 50 years time.’

Manolopoulou concluded: ‘I was hungry to find younger, smaller practices doing work that stands out but this was not the case this year.’ Stay tuned for next year.

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