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How we choose a shortlist: AJ Small Projects 2013 part 1

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The high quality of submissions has made it a tough call but this year’s shortlist is perhaps the strongest ever, writes Rory Olcayto

It’s never easy for the AJ’s editors to agree on a definitive shortlist for the best Small Projects submitted by our readers. Yet this year we think we’ve picked the strongest line-up in years. Perhaps ever.

There were inevitable last-minute changes. One question we ask, as we double and triple-check, is: ‘It’s beautifully detailed. It photographs well. We know the architects – they have a good track record. But, while it’s under the quarter million pound mark, it works out to be over five grand per square metre – is that still good design?’ (Yes, it is. Stanton William’s Sainsbury’s Lab, the 2012 Stirling Prize winner, wasn’t cheap per square metre, either.)

Another one is: ‘This practice submits a project every year. This project is of their usual high standard. We’ve got 229 entries this year and only 24 slots on the shortlist. Shouldn’t we give someone else a chance?’  (No. If its one of the best, it goes in, no matter who has designed it.)

And, despite clearly stating in the rules, that projects should not have received significant press coverage elsewhere, we often have to ask ourselves: ‘Should we bend the rules for this one?’  (We never do, although we always phone the architect to explain why they’ve been disqualified.)

We also consider a project’s location and typology. We want to cover a wide range of work from across the country, but we can’t shortlist a Scottish house extension just because the Scottish quota needs a top-up. If it’s not as good as, or better than, the equivalent in London, Belfast or Cardiff, forget it. And, while we’d rather have a broad range of building types to shortlist, if all the best works are house extensions, then we’ll shortlist the 24 best ones. Luckily it never works out that way. We try for a mix of rural and urban, too, but once again the first pass is a check for quality.

It works like this: The deputy editor, together with AJ Buildings Library editor Tom Ravenscroft, filter all the entries down to the best one hundred. There are some obvious warning signs to look out for: obscurely angled photographs. Too much focus on mundane details. No clear view of the project. A really quite big project coming in at bang-on £250,000. These ones rarely make it through.

Then Felix Mara, technical editor, works with the deputy to pick the 48 strongest projects, essentially halving the pile. This is then passed to the editor, Christine Murray, with a recommendation of the best 24.

It’s around this time that we end up asking those difficult questions listed above, to define the final list. News editor Richard Waite, a Small Projects stalwart with eight years’ experience, lends his perspective, too.

The result, this year signed off by the editor, is a shortlist of contrasting works, including a sculpture gallery in Uganda, a diving platform in Croatia, an Olympic-related pop-up café in East London alongside office conversions, home extensions and art projects as far-flung as Norfolk and Venice. Coverage of the first 12 begins in this week’s AJ magazine, with 12 more to come next week.

In no particular order, the shortlist includes:

The Great Eye by Hudson Architects
Court House by Coffey Architects
Cambridge Cat Clinic by Gort Scott
115 Golden Lane by Amin Taha Architects
Shoffice by Platform 5 Architects
The Cube by Rundell Associates
Box House by Laura Dewe Matthews
Roominaroom by Atmos Studio (pictured above)
Hawthbush by Mole Architects
House V-C by Graux & Baeyens Architecten
Stahlwerk Anbau by Finkernagel Ross Architects
Transient Gallery by Gras

See the first half of the shortlist now by downloading the AJ iPad app - access is free for subscribers until April - or by reading the AJ digital edition.

All 229 entries to the awards can be seen now in the AJ Buildings Library, complete with photographs, drawings and details.

Top five most-viewed small projects on AJBuildingsLibrary.co.uk

1. Squitchey Lane by Matthew Clay Architects

2. Chelsea Workspace by Synthesis Design + Architecture

3. Conversion of the Crystal Palace Underground Public Toilets by Lamp Architects

4. The Orchard Room by Matthew Clay Architects

5. The Greenhouse by Design ACB

AJ Small Projects is sponsored by Marley Eternit. The winners of the AJ Small Project awards, including the sustainability prize, will be announced on 30 January, when a prize fund of £2,500 will be shared at the jury’s discretion.

An exhibition of shortlisted projects will run at New London Architecture at the Building Centre in Store Street, London WC1, from 31 January.

Paul Reed, sales and marketing director at Marley Eternit, comments:

‘Marley Eternit is proud to support the AJ Small Project Awards for the third year. These awards allow practices to demonstrate their creativity and be rewarded for their originality. We have all faced budget constraints in recent times but these awards show the wealth of creative talent out there that’s bringing design excellence to projects, regardless of their size and scope.’

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