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Will the public get excited about this year's Stirling Prize shortlist?

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The Stirling Prize shortlist addresses real issues, but will the public get the message? asks Christine Murray

There is a crisis facing architecture and the built environment. How do we build better homes quickly, re-invigorate high streets, revitalise unpopular housing estates, cope with crumbling heritage buildings, and build for the UK’s aging population?

This year’s RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist has got some of the answers. It’s a fine thing to see the jury looking beyond cultural showpieces and starchitects to promote projects that tackle real issues facing UK towns and cities.

Alison Brooks’ be:Newhall shows high-quality new-build homes are achievable. Park Hill by Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West brings a divisive 1960s housing estate back to life in the centre of Sheffield. Astley Castle is a sensitive reworking of a heritage building, bringing it into reuse as a holiday home. Heneghan Peng’s Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, Grafton Architects’ University of Limerick medical school and Niall McLaughlin Architects’ chapel are solid, well-built projects designed with a timeless longevity – buildings for the future.

Will the public get excited about this list? They should do. But, compared with the showstoppers of previous years, from the Olympic Stadium to Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, it may be harder for these buildings to grab the public’s attention – even if they are more worthy of it. The two housing projects on the list – Park Hill and be:Newhall – are the RIBA’s best bet for high-profile publicity. Be:Newhall’s light-filled, highly insulated modern houses create a desirable neighbourhood and are a huge success story in the context of homeowners being told they can expect energy prices to rise by 20 per cent by 2020. Fuel poverty already costs the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year. And Park Hill’s successful regeneration is a model for Brutalist housing estates across the UK.

The design of homes, past and future, directly affects the nation’s wealth and health. In winter, the poor thermal efficiency of UK homes causes an 18 per cent increase in deaths – approximately 30,000 people. New homes are better insulated but, during heatwaves (like the one we’re having) cause more deaths by overheating than traditional stock, according to the NHBC Foundation. New-built, single-aspect flats are the worst culprits. During the 1995 heatwave, there was an 8.9 per cent increase in deaths in England and Wales.

Both overheating and cold snap deaths are most prevalent in adults aged 65 years and over. And the UK population is rapidly aging; by 2050, the number aged 65-plus will have nearly doubled to 19 million.

The cost of supporting the pensioner boom will cripple the NHS, so the ability for elderly residents to live independently in suitable, centrally-located housing with easy access to shops, social and health support is essential. According to the ILC Alliance, unsuitable housing has a direct link with pneumonia, asthma, mental degeneration, falls and hip fractures – falls alone have been estimated to cost the state £1 billion a year, with one in four falls caused by stairs, the majority taking place in the home.

There is every indication that we are on the brink of a renewed house building boom. The HCA is preparing to free up land, the government has freed up capital through its Help to Buy scheme for new-build homes, and housebuilders are getting shovel-ready schemes going. But what kind of housing are we building, and where? Is it fit for purpose? One of the reasons we started the AJ’s More Homes, Better Homes campaign was to raise awareness about how we need not just more, but better-quality housing. It is my hope that the added boost of having Park Hill and be:Newhall on this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist will help us do just that.

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