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Greenest in show

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If you want to win the Stirling Prize, your building had better be sustainable. Hattie Hartman picks the low-energy contenders

The very notion of a ‘sustainability award’ is a subject of ongoing debate within the RIBA. Is it appropriate to single out one project each year as the UK’s greenest building? The RIBA had a brief flirtation with just such an award from 2007-08, but suspended it in 2009, ceding to the view that every building honoured by an RIBA accolade should have a strong sustainability agenda.

This laudable aspiration befits increased global concern with the future of the planet, but in this year of the Rio+20 conference, buildings notable for outstanding environmental performance have yet to dominate the profession’s most respected peer-judged awards. Interestingly, the RIBA regions, which organise their own awards independently of RIBA HQ, have all opted in favour of nominating ‘most sustainable building’ this year.

In my view, the regions have got it right: we need to single out outstanding exemplars to drive change. The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE), has recognised 10 buildings annually across the country as sustainability exemplars since 1997. ‘The COTE Awards were intended to be temporary – in place only until sustainability became a key driver for all buildings,’ Bob Berkebile of Kansas City-based practice BNIM, one of the founders of the awards, told me recently at the AIA convention.

Back in the UK, a timely overhaul of the RIBA Awards process shows that environmental responsibility is starting to percolate through this annual snapshot of the profession. DSDHA’s Deborah Saunt – now in her second year as chair of the RIBA Awards Group – has said that in order to be considered for the Stirling Prize, a project will now need to be sustainable. ‘A building can be a really amazing piece of architecture without being green, but to make it’s way up the [awards] ladder, it must demonstrate a high degree of sustainability,’ says Saunt.

This means the sacrosanct Stirling Prize ‘mid-list’, from which the shortlist and eventual winner is selected, will be vetted for environmental performance by a new regime, formed at the instigation of the Sustainable Futures Group chaired by Alan Shingler. Two members of the awards group, Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Atelier Ten’s Patrick Bellew (new to the group this year), were asked to review the mid-list, drilling down into each project’s environmental data as well as its overall approach to sustainability. I can’t help but wonder if Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy would have made it through to the shortlist last year had this process been in place.

Another promising development is the refinement of the Sustainability Statement required as part of the awards submission process. In addition to key energy metrics, which have to be predicted as the buildings are too new to have measured data, the submission form now requires information on RIBA Stages L2 and L3 – building handover and client feedback. This simple but important gesture points the way to how the profession can begin to address the critical gap between predicted and actual performance.

A quick look back in time at the history of the Stirling Prize shows just how far we’ve come in recognising green buildings. This is the 10th award cycle since Bill Dunster Architects’ BedZED made the Stirling shortlist in 2004. Three of the four buildings shortlisted for the RIBA 2007 Sustainability Award – Architype’s refurbished barn at Upper Twyford, van Heyningen and Haward’s RSPB Environment and Education Centre, and Bucholz McEvoy’s Environmental Research Institute for University College Cork – were one-off responses to a strong environmental brief.

By 2010, Hopkins’ Kroon Hall at Yale with its PV-clad roof won AJ100 Building of the Year, though that year’s Stirling shortlist was still dominated by buildings notable primarily for their architectural quality regardless of environmental credentials. But last year, the UK green building landscape took a significant stride forward with two shortlisted projects where sustainability was embedded in the design brief from the outset: Hopkins’ Velodrome and AHMM’s Angel Building.

Pat Borer and David Lea’s WISE Building at the Centre for Alternative Technology’s, an RIBA Award-winner last year, marked the maturation of that institution’s commitment to educating a diverse body of students in green building design and technologies, also evident in the recent proliferation of postgraduate courses in sustainable design across the UK.

And so what of 2012? The following three projects are what I consider the most notable green buildings in the awards. For the first time, there is a multiplicity of choice. In keeping with this Olympic year, there are enough contenders to name a gold, silver and bronze.

Brockholes Visitor Centre by Adam Khan Architects

Brockholes Visitor Centre by Adam Khan Architects

Brockholes Visitor Centre by Adam Khan Architects

Footprint’s gold goes to Adam Khan Architects’ eerily sublime floating Brockholes Visitor Centre in Samlesbury, near Preston. An environmental client makes it easier to respond with a sustainable building: achieving BREEAM Outstanding was part of the brief. Yet Brockholes is much more than a one-off environmental prototype. The form and orientation of its floating pavilions are an inspired response to the ecology and climate of the site.

The use of SIPs with polyurethane insulation and FSC-certified sheet timber achieves a U-value of 0.1W/m2/K for the walls, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction in heat loss compared to a notional Part L building. A ‘common sense’ approach to sustainability pervades the project, from the involvement of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s own ecologist throughout design and construction to ensuring implementation of a low-carbon travel plan for visitors with local transport information and cycle facilities.

Wexford County Council by Robin Lee Architecture

Wexford County Council by Robin Lee Architecture

Wexford County Council by Robin Lee Architecture

Robin Lee Architecture’s Wexford County Council Building in south-eastern Ireland, Footprint’s silver pick from this year’s awards, contrasts markedly with Brockholes in its high-tech approach to an environmental building. A shimmering double-skin insulating facade wraps the civic government building’s six individual office blocks that house different government departments, along with four landscaped courtyards and a central atrium.

An exquisite handling of light – from the atrium and courtyards, to rooflights and perimeter windows – creates a subtle variety of internal spaces despite the deep plan. The exposed concrete soffits, which help even out summer temperatures, are a study in elegance and should convince any sceptical client of the virtues of this approach. Another high-tech green government building in the pipeline, Kieran Timberlake’s new US Embassy in Nine Elms, south London will provide an interesting point of comparison when it completes in 2017.

BSKYB, Harlequin1 by Arup Associates

BSKYB, Harlequin1 by Arup Associates

BSKYB, Harlequin1 by Arup Associates

Footprint’s bronze goes to Arup Associates’ west London Harlequin 1 building, which houses recording and transmission facilities and office space for almost 1400 BSkyB employees and visitors. The 100 metre-long by 50 metre-wide building is distinguished by enormous chimneys that provide natural ventilation driven by waste heat from the recording studio lights. The building’s final design resulted from detailed study of 10 different approaches to servicing the building, each with multiple sub-options. A compact, well-insulated envelope and a combined cooling, heat and power plant fueled by biomass mean that the building has no boilers. This building may not correspond to prevailing notions of architectural beauty, but it’s time we think again.

Best of the rest

Many more quality environmental buildings are among the ‘best of the rest’ in this year’s awards. Glenn Howells’ Swindon Triangle has been previously lauded in these pages and Bennetts Associates’ Tower of London Mint Hotel pushes environmental performance in a challenging building type. AHMM’s Tea Building in Shoreditch points the way forward for retrofitted workplaces and demonstrates practical ways to engage with occupiers.

Another retrofit, PJ Carroll’s Factory in Dundalk, Ireland makes clever use of an existing frame that was jacked by more than one metre while subtly introducing perimeter glazing. Architype’s Bushbury Hill Primary School in Wolverhamption and Gokay Deveci’s Model-D House are both important examples of replicable approaches to affordable environmental buildings for their type. Finally, it is worth noting that the ODA and Populous took a bold move when they removed most of the hospitality concessions from the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, enabling a much leaner design. It is now up to the London Legacy Development Corporation to deliver a solution for the stadium’s future that respects the intent of its original design.

There are many others worthy of mention and this is why it’s important to highlight those that are paving the way towards a greener future. We can all learn from the best examples.

Regional sustainablity winners

East Midlands Loughborough Design School, Burwell Deakins Architects

West Midlands Bushbury Hill Primary School, Architype

East Private House, Mole Architects

North East Toffee Factory, Xsite Architecture

North West Brockholes, Adam Khan Architects

Yorkshire Saxton Leeds, Union North

South West The Triangle, Glenn Howells Architects

South Shulman Lecture Theatre, BGS Architects

South East Brighton Aldridge Community Academy, Feilden Clegg Bradley

London BSkyB Harlequin 1, Arup Associates

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