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How is sustainability judged in the RIBA Awards?

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Sustainable design plays an increasing role in all RIBA Awards submissions, writes Peter Clegg

As part of the RIBA’s commitment to sustainable design, the RIBA Awards programme requires a sustainability statement for every building submitted for an award. In this statement, we ask for energy metrics, as well as a narrative text explaining the project’s overall approach to sustainability. Because the buildings are generally less than a year old, they rarely have actual performance metrics, so we must rely on predicted design data.

The metrics required for RIBA Awards are broken down into heating and electrical demand, because this reveals where the real hunger of the building lies.
Any on-site renewable energy contribution must be reported separately alongside overall demand. These metrics provide critical clues to a building’s likely carbon performance.

Cynics will say that it’s people that use energy, not buildings. This is true, but it is not a reason for us to throw up our hands and ditch the metrics. Rather, it’s an invitation for us to learn more about how our buildings – and their occupants – behave.

For the narrative text, we ask architects to address the wider aspects of sustainability on no more than one side of an A4 page. This text often describes a project’s myriad sustainability features (such as supposedly green roofs) but, more interestingly, it often also describes efforts to reduce embodied energy, improve social sustainability and put in place long-term energy monitoring.

How this information is used in the judging process varies from region to region and depends on the expertise of regional juries.

If this is lacking, the national panel can provide specialist opinions. Each region now has its own sustainability award, and we are trying to reinstate one nationally. The sustainability statements form part of the information available to the national awards panel, though we also rely on the eyes and ears of regional panel chairs.

For the Stirling Prize shortlist, Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten and I study the statements of each project under consideration to ensure that sustainability is part of the discussion. Without anyone holding the flag for green design, it is easily overlooked. Year on year we find more sophisticated sets of figures and written statements. It is also becoming easier to distinguish the greenwash from those submissions that have a serious grasp of the issues.

One of the delights of the awards is that they highlight the advancement of environmental design. Noteworthy among this year’s regional award winners is Architecture 00/:’s Soar Works in Sheffield. A simple workspace building, it has very low energy consumption that comes from exceptionally low U-values, airtightness and a clever system of security shutters (a client requirement) that double as external solar shading. Yes, it’s got solar thermal and a biomass heating system and predicted annual emissions of 16.4kg CO/m², but it’s the underlying design decisions that are responsible for its excellent performance – and it has been delivered at £1,038/m².

Of course, what really counts is performance in use. The RIBA is discussing a ‘test of time’ award, which will look at award-winning buildings, say, 10 years later – not only in light of whether they have survived functionally and aesthetically but how they have performed against a range of sustainability criteria.

Details of the award have yet to be refined and sponsorship secured, but this will be one more way in which the RIBA Awards can promote lasting quality and long-term sustainability.

  • Peter Clegg is a founding partner of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and chair of the RIBA Awards panel
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