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Leading architects reject calls for RIBA Stirling Prize sustainability threshold


Leading architects have rejected calls for buildings to be barred from winning the RIBA Stirling Prize unless they can prove they are eco-friendly and built to last

In a National Building Specification (NBS) survey of more than 500 architects, consultants, clients and contractors, 70 per cent of those polled said the UK’s most prestigious architectural honour should not be given to any project ‘unless it was sustainable’.

Simon Sturgis, who assessed the eco-credentials of each of this year’s shortlist agreed, saying any winner ‘must be an outstanding design with low operational demands’. He added: ‘I would venture to say that two or perhaps three of this year’s finalists may well be consigned to landfill before the end of this century. This is not sustainable’.

But top architects, including a number of those previously shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, have hit back, saying the annual award should not be judged on a project’s green credentials.

Simon Allford of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, whose Angel Building was among the finalists in 2011, said: ‘The Stirling Prize should represent the mood of the moment with no rules except those that the judges decide to utilise.’

Róisín Heneghan, of Heneghan Peng agreed, saying: ‘The Stirling Prize is about the architectural design.’

Her practice was shortlisted for the accolade in 2013 for its Giant’s Causeway visitor centre in Northern Ireland, which received BREEAM Excellent for its use of natural locally sourced materials, geothermal heat pumps and rainwater harvesting.

2013 Manser Medal-winner Carl Turner, founder of Carl Turner Architects, said: ‘The Stirling Prize is about architectural quality and not about proven environmental performance.

‘The [award] is the public face of architectural discourse and not a measure of building performance.’

Meanwhile Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ Peter Clegg, chair of the RIBA Awards panel, said sustainability was already ‘always high on the agenda’, especially at national awards level where winners are judged against criteria including carbon emissions.

He added: ‘In my time as jury chair we have not excluded any building from being a national award winner because of its sustainability credentials, but we have debated them in detail.’

Clegg also said that if the Stirling’s criteria were changed to only assess buildings in use, the award would suffer. ‘Waiting for two years of data wouldn’t necessarily give us a clearer picture,’ he said, ‘and the awards would also suffer from not having newsworthy buildings in there.’

The RIBA has previously mooted a ‘Test of Time’ award which would be based on in-use performance (AJ 27.06.13). Details of the award are yet to be confirmed by the institute but it is expected the award would look at buildings 10 years after completion, assessing their sustainability performance in-use, the robustness of materials, and how users inhabit the building.

But architects have said this award should not be incorporated into the Stirling Prize, with Allford adding: ‘The Stirling – as a celebration – needs to be of the moment, so waiting for three years wouldn’t work’.

Further comments

Alan Dunlop, founder, Alan Dunlop Architects

‘The purpose of the Stirling Prize is to promote architecture generally and the winning architects. Contemporary awards in architecture reflect the interests and sometimes the prejudices of the judges and also the attitudes and influences within the profession at the time.  They cannot determine which buildings will become seminal.’

Alan Stanton and Paul Williams, founders, Stanton Williams

‘The Stirling Prize is presented to the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture over the past year.

‘In reality, most projects are at least a year or two old and the fact that the RIBA insists on visiting the candidate buildings four times, assembling environmental data as well as taking time to interview architects and users, means that many of these issues are already addressed.’

Peter Clegg, chair of the RIBA Awards panel

‘Sustainability isn’t all about carbon and we try to take a holistic view of it when judging. [But] we have not excluded any building from being a national award winner because of its sustainability credentials.’

Rab Bennetts, director, Bennetts Associates

‘It’s easier to frame the question the other way round: should a Stirling Prize winner be ‘unsustainable’? The answer, surely, is no.’



Readers' comments (5)

  • These responses are outmoded. What is being suggested is that 'architectural quality' and 'architectural design' are some how distinct from a responsible approach to the environment. You are only a step away from saying that Quality Architecture justifies any kind of environmental damage, and I am sure this in not what these comments intend. 'Quality Architecture' today has to include environmental efficiency or it does not reflect the society in which we live.

    Simon Sturgis

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  • Surely the buildings we celebrate must be visually & emotionally inspiring but efficient in equal measure. Sustainability cannot be a secondary consideration but central to the judging process. These building must stand the test of time as exemplary examples of architecture & this must include building performance.

    Alan Shingler - Sheppard Robson

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  • Róisín Heneghan, of Heneghan Peng agreed, saying: ‘The Stirling Prize is about the architectural design.’

    This statement in itself reinforces the proposal of having a sustainability threshold. Surely, the Stirling Prize would not be given to a building of questionable sustainability credentials, but by not making it explicit the RIBA are missing a great opportunity to state its importance. And it seems it is the preference of the majority of the profession anyway.

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  • Sustainable, long-lasting design and good architecture are not - and should not - be mutually exclusive. Not including sustainability as a threshold seems to suggest that they are incompatible - and indicates that some of the profession's 'mood of the moment' views are outdated and still 'business as usual'. As Rab Bennetts points out a building which is unsustainable should not win the Stirling Prize; and I think Simon Sturgis and Alan Shingler make a better argument than any other why sustainability should not be a secondary consideration. It is about time the Stirling Prize acknowledged this openly; it might bring about a shift in architectural education too.

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  • I feel it is irresponsible to dismiss the need for the Stirling Prize to recognise a project’s green credentials. It’s high time we start to publicly reward buildings that perform at the highest level both in terms of design and operation. Remember the press surrounding the Scottish Parliament, a highly unsustainable building being lauded for its excellence.

    As an industry, we’re trusted to create or refurbish buildings that fulfil their intended purpose and also help to mitigate climate change, contribute positively to their community and promote health and wellbeing. Wouldn’t it be great if such prestigious awards, such as the Stirling Prize could be inclusive and holistic? Surely it’s time for the industry to reward great building design – architecture + engineering + performance.

    John Deasy, Hilson Moran

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