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AJ Student Prize 2020: Sustainability Award shortlist

Eight student projects have been shortlisted for this year’s AJ Student Prize Sustainability Award

The second year of the AJ Student Prize’s Sustainability Award comes at a time of intense scrutiny of how climate literacy is taught in schools of architecture across the UK. This is much needed and overdue.

With the launch of its Climate Curriculum Campaign on 7 July, advocacy group Architects’ Climate Action Network (ACAN) added its voice to ongoing efforts by others including the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group and the Anthropocene Architecture School. Inciting students to ‘change the system’ by writing to their head of school, completing a survey, and starting or joining a climate action group, it is calling for action now. 

Meanwhile under the leadership of HOK principal Gary Clark, SOM associate Mina Hasman, a member of the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, is heading up a workstream to formulate a curriculum based on the UN Sustainable Development goals, with input from representatives of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, ACAN and the London Energy Transformation Initiative. This draft framework was recently shared with representatives from 10 universities, including UCL, Sheffield, Cambridge, Nottingham, and the University of the West of England, at an informal kick-off meeting. The intention is to crowdsource CPD content, which could be rolled out for the 2021-22 academic year.

Further afield, Sofie Pelsmakers, assistant professor of sustainable architecture at Tampere University (Finland) and author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook, has secured €300,000 with five other universities to develop and trial an online climate emergency curriculum across the five years (Parts 1 and 2) of architecture education, as well as a toolkit for teachers. She is also preparing a climate curriculum handbook with colleagues in Denmark and the UK.

Against this backdrop of initiatives, it is encouraging to see the quality of work submitted for this year’s award and where the profession might be heading. Many more submissions are investigating alternatives to conventional materials, inching towards regenerative design. Timber is well represented but other projects explore building with algae, kelp and mushrooms, and the morphological outcomes of Styrofoam-eating mealworms. The shortlisted schemes range from real-world proposals, such as a sophisticated tower-block retrofit and biodiverse landscaping, to pure speculation in the form of a provocative proposal to carbon-offset the city of Las Vegas.


Birmingham City University, Birmingham School of Architecture and Design

Byron ChanMArch, Extinction Rebellion Architecture

Byron chan1 0 crop

Project title Cultivating Communities

Project description The unit entitled Extinction Rebellion Architecture argues that, in a state of climate emergency, we cannot simply carry on designing ‘business-as-usual’ buildings. This scheme explores the potential of community-led urban agriculture in Birmingham, promoting local food production, habitat creation and closed-loop systems. Part of future regeneration plans for Digbeth, the proposed naturalisation of the River Rea supports a continuous productive urban landscape that translates into a network of productive gardens. Sited within this green framework, the intervention facilitates local and seasonal growing in the form of an experimental community allotment. It also supports residents of the newly regenerated area. To boost ecological restoration efforts along the river, ‘living’ brick walls feature within the allotment to provide habitats for flora and fauna. Special bricks for birds and succulents, as well as perforated bricks for bees and insects, are inserted into the garden wall. Along with large planters, these create a living backdrop for the range of gardening and social activities that are supported.


The Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh School of Architecture

Guro Vold, Diploma in Architecture, Stage 5

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Project description This project investigates the highly pertinent and topical issue of re-use within an architectural framework, and demonstrates how the process can be incredibly creative. Beginning with an investigation of the Den Dam district of Antwerp, the project develops a masterplan for the area and goes on to demonstrate how the components of buildings to be demolished can be re-used in the development. A catalogue of components is developed, which forms the material basis for a ‘remakery’ – a building that houses spaces where discarded products are transformed into something new.

Leeds Beckett University, Leeds School of Architecture

Kyle Crossley, BA (Hons) Architecture, Climate Futures

1 kyle crossley   section

Project title Damaged Earth: The Bio-regeneration Project

Project description The threats posed by climate change are existential and buildings are hugely complicit. Buildings consume 40 per cent of energy used in the UK and account for nearly half of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the chief agent of climate change, rendering buildings – and, by association, the architecture profession – profoundly responsible. As architects we are faced with a choice: we can remake our buildings or carry on, business as usual, and live with the consequences. The Damaged Earth research facility is designed to mitigate climate change by using natural air purifiers, renewable energy resources and sustainable food solutions. With three main facilities, research focuses on nutritional experimentation through algae, biofuel and kelp farms. The facility also enables investigations into innovative biomaterials, with the façades providing the specific growth conditions for vegetation. Several laboratories also cater to the needs of expert scientists who will work and teach, as well as looking for technologies to fight against the effects of global warming. 


Newcastle University, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

George Spendlove, BA (Hons) Architecture, Remedial Housing for Architects

03 cruddas park transformation george spendlove crop

Project title Reworking a Previous Future: The Restoration and Rejuvenation of Cruddas Park Tower Block

Project description The focus was the site of a 1960s tower block on the fringes between city and suburb: 160 single-aspect apartments, densely stacked but under-occupied. This proposal sought to retrofit the tower and imagine the development anew. It considers how the existing infrastructure could support diverse households and a strong community, as well as a sustainable future for the site itself. The existing low-rise podium is partially removed to improve connections to the wider neighbourhood and reveal the complexity of residential, working and educational spaces around a new urban square. For the residential spaces, the project proposes a careful reconfiguration of the tower’s interior, increasing the variety of housing types and offering adaptable homes that counter the rigid, inflexible layouts of much new housing. All apartments are dual-aspect with newly added balconies and sunrooms; the inhabitation of these spaces contributes to an animated, lively façade that speaks of the life of the building.


Queen’s University Belfast, The School of Natural and Built Environment

Riane Samir, MArch, Architettura Superleggera

04 riane samir movement of multiple people and families in an autonomous mo

Project title Smart Grid: Architecture in an Autonomous Landscape

Project description Smart Grid imagines the future of the Lake District by unlocking new forms of mobility, resources flows and material circularity. It proposes exploiting both the electric vehicle and the present road network to reimagine infrastructure provision and the spatial consequences on homes and villages. A fleet of autonomous electric vehicles creates a new, invisible connective tissue that moves people and commodities. This new system not only transfers energy, fresh water and food to and between properties in a smarter way, but also extracts unwanted by-products (unused food, grey water, waste, etc), which are then taken to distribution hubs for recycling or treatment. Inside each home, occupants can enjoy heritage without further modifications being needed to allow for comfort. Vernacular construction techniques (dry stone walls, single-glazed windows, etc) can remain untouched and celebrated, facilitated by a tensegrity structure of recycled electrical poles and pylons, which is wrapped in an ETFE skin that collects rainwater, produces solar power and connects with the vehicle. 


University College London, The Bartlett School of Architecture

Sharil Bin Tengku Abdul Kadir, BSc (Hons) Architecture, Unit 5 Risking Everything

10 tengkusharil isometric component configuration

Project title One Tree Manual: Towards a Better Timber Architecture

Project description With 81.6 per cent of a tree typically wasted during the conversion from tree to timber construction, this project advocates that increasing demand is not met with increased logging; instead, the potential of every tree that is harnessed for construction should be maximised. A timber institute is proposed in suburban Stockholm as an immersive and experiential environment to impart knowledge about the tree and timber construction. Its architecture critically revisits timber construction through the lens of a single tree, as a resource that is simultaneously abundant and sacred. A tailored architecture is derived using the specific parameters of properties, materiality and cycles of a local species of pine tree to tactically rechoreograph the processes of treating and utilising it as an architectural element, both living and processed. It  aims to inspire a paradigm shift in attitudes and methodology towards the employment of timber and trees in architecture. 


University of Greenwich, School of Design

Bethany Hird, MArch, Unit 18

Bethany hird 11

Project title Offsetting Las Vegas

Project description Inspired by Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, this project aims to carbon offset all of Las Vegas’s annual carbon emissions through a new and spectacular landscape of 900km2 of lush forests, 700 carbon pumps and emission treatment plants. Wrapping around the town of Jean to the south of Las Vegas, the project is arranged in a grid to allow for seamless future expansion when required. Two offsetting technologies are proposed and both require a large amount of water – to support this, a 900km2 roof canopy, 5km above ground level, is utilised. The altitude of the canopy is such that it is covered by snow – a monthly snowfall of 30cm on the lightweight, heated ETFE roof provides enough water to support the project in its entirety. Snow settles on the canopy overnight, and is then heated and melted during the day. This allows sunlight to pass through the canopy to reach the forest floor below. At ground level the water is used to carbonate emissions pumped underground and to irrigate the forest.


University of Liverpool, The Liverpool School of Architecture

Sam Jones, Phoebe Smith and Ryan Stevens, MArch, Year 5 Thesis Design

5. smith jones stevens perspective section

Project title Walkersfold Woodland Catalyst Conservation Industry

Project description This thesis is a response to the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To ensure the temperature increase stays below 1.5°C, an increase of tree coverage globally is needed: the climate crisis is a derivative of an imbalance between culture and nature. Focusing on Smithills Estate in Bolton, this project is based on a Woodland Trust plan to do more than just provide a leisure commodity for the public – it introduces a catalyst enterprise that encourages the involvement of both the residents of Bolton and the estate. Putting a sustainably built and managed timber industry within a woodland asset was the opportunity to provide that catalyst and to foster an awareness of, and reliance on, the co-dependent relationship. The project is based on the premise that the most effective way of establishing that awareness is to ingrain this co-dependence within everyday life. The approach aimed to achieve this directly through employment and to take cues from those of Bolton’s historic remnants that have come to define the town’s identity.