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RIBA Awards: peer recognition, politics and PR

A House For Essex by FAT with Grayson Perry
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The RIBA Awards, backed by the AJ as professional media partner, are the pre-eminent markers of design excellence. Five years on from a wholesale overhaul, how is the system working? asks Laura Mark

It is 50 years since the RIBA handed out its first awards. The profession and UK architecture have changed significantly since then, and so has the RIBA’s judging process for its awards.

The initial awards were parochial and had very little in common with the system in place today. The regions offered their own prizes, governed by their own rules, and some – the West Midlands, North West and London – didn’t offer any.

In 2012, the then head of RIBA Awards, Tony Chapman, introduced a more rigorous system to bring all of the institute’s awards under one canon. Judging would be done in the regions, with only regional award winners moving forward to be considered for a national award, and only national award winners considered for the RIBA Stirling Prize (European and international projects are no longer eligible for the Stirling). This tiered structure, says RIBA Awards panel chair Philip Gumuchdjian, is designed to ‘create a clear hierarchy between the regionals and the nationals’.

He adds: ‘The quality should move from best practice at regional level to innovative and delightful at national, while Stirling Prize nominees should be game changers.’

The awards process





It costs between £90 and £595 to enter the RIBA Awards, depending on the project value; and practices must submit photographs, plans, plus a variety of supporting material. Approximately half of all entries (those making the regional shortlist) are visited by a panel made up of architects and lay people with some connection to the built environment. Industry figures including Peter Rees, Tom Bloxham and Janet Street-Porter have all served their time as lay assessors (I was a lay judge myself in 2012).

By the time a project makes it to the Stirling Prize shortlist it will have been seen by three different judging panels.

This system of visits has since been copied by others such as the British Construction Industry Awards and the British Council for Offices, and is how the awards have earned the respect of the profession.

How much does it cost to enter the RIBA Awards?

How much does it cost to enter a RIBA Award?
Contract value Entry fee (before 26 Jan) Entry fee (after 26 Jan) 
Less than £0.5 million  £90  £99
Between £0.5 million and £2 million   £192  £210 
Between £2 million and £5 million   £354  £390 
Between £5 million and £20 million   £504  £555 
More than £20 million   £540  £595 

Who sits on the RIBA Awards group?

  • Philip Gumuchdjian, Gumuchdjian Architects (chair)
  • Simon Allford, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris
  • Julia Barfield, Marks Barfield
  • Jo Bacon, Allies and Morrison
  • Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten (sustainability specialist)
  • Denise Bennetts, Bennetts Associates
  • Meredith Bowles, Mole Architects
  • Tony Chapman (awards consultant)
  • Mary Duggan, Duggan Morris Architects
  • Jim Eyre, WilkinsonEyre
  • Piers Gough, CZWG
  • Andrew Grant, Grant Associates (landscape specialist)
  • Alastair Hall, Hall McKnight
  • Marcus Lee, LEEP Architects
  • Stuart McKnight, MUMA
  • Tracy Meller, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
  • Sadie Morgan, dRMM
  • John Pardey, John Pardey Architects
  • Greg Penoyre, Penoyre & Prasad
  • Michael Stacey, Michael Stacey Architects
  • Amin Taha, Amin Taha Architects
  • Paul Velluet, (conservation specialist)
  • Chantal, Wilkinson Wilkinson King Architects

Chapman’s change of approach cut in half the number of ‘full’ national awards handed out, but has actually increased the overall number of RIBA Awards. When the system launched in 2012, there were 141 RIBA awards, 91 of which were regional and 50 national, compared with a total of 89 awards the previous year.

This has raised the value of a national award, but perhaps only in architectural circles – it is questionable whether the general public understands the difference between regional and national accolades. It has also given more power to the regional juries, even if this was not the intention.

This year the system came under fire after RIBA East regional judges controversially elected not to award a gong to FAT and Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex, with industry figures such as Piers Taylor and Martyn Evans calling for the decision to be overturned. In a social media-driven world, a war erupted on Twitter and Facebook between what Peter Cook calls the ‘biscuit boys of architecture’ – referring to their brown brick and timber buildings – and those aiming to challenge the norm.

It is not enough just to be wacky

Andy Ramus

Andy Ramus – who chaired the jury that chose not to recognise the FAT/Grayson Perry project – hit back, saying: ‘As a regional chair judge and past RIBA regional winner, I feel it is not enough just to be wacky’, while the RIBA declined to comment, stating that it does not comment on why individual buildings have not won an award.

However, as Ellis Woodman wrote in the (AJ 19.05.16), A House for Essex wasn’t the only widely praised scheme to see its chances of winning the Stirling Prize snuffed out before they really began. AOC’s much-lauded community centre, The Green, also missed out on a regional award, as did projects by Caruso St John, Níall McLaughlin Architects, Walters & Cohen and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Ian Ritchie Architects’ Sainsbury Wellcome Research Centre in London, described by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios founder Peter Clegg as ‘a technically interesting new piece of urbanism’ also failed to pick up a Regional Award.

Some of the projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Midden Studio by Studio Weave

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Source: Grant Smith

Sainsbury Wellcome Research Centre by Ian Ritchie Architects

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Source: Helene Binet

Liverpool Philharmonic by Caruso St John

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

The Green by AOC

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Source: Dennis Gilbert

Boathouse 4 by Walters & Cohen

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Source: Grant Smith

Y Cube by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Projects that missed out on 2016 RIBA Regional Awards

Source: Jack Hobhouse

A House For Essex by FAT with Grayson Perry

Clegg, whose practice has won 23 RIBA Awards – the most of any practice in the past 10 years – and who is a previous chair of the RIBA Awards group, claims the ‘problems have been caused this year by regional jurors’.

He adds: ‘It is really difficult to find enough people who are sensitive to both national and regional issues when considering these awards.’

Imposing your own taste is not the same as having a discussion about aesthetics

Sarah Wigglesworth

Architect Sarah Wigglesworth agrees that ‘the architect panel members are the main problem’. She says: ‘I have been dismayed and disappointed by the way in which the architect members have been unable to have a debate that transcends their personal taste.

‘Imposing your own taste is absolutely not the same as having a discussion about aesthetics as a product of culture. This omission continues to drag the whole process down.’

And architect Peter Barber adds: ‘We live in a plural architectural culture and so the judging process is a bit of a lottery. One architect’s flash gap is another one’s neurosis.’

However Gumuchdjian insists panel members are ‘encouraged to leave taste behind and focus on deeper architecture’.

‘We are awarding buildings themselves, not the architects – it’s about outcome,’ he says.

Clegg believes there would be fewer ‘odd decisions’ if the regional juries were chaired by a member of the national awards panel, while Gumuchdjian favours regional juries passing tricky decisions higher up the chain.

‘If regions are presented with a controversial scheme we want them to give it the benefit of the doubt and pass it to the awards group,’ he says. ‘But we need to get this mechanism working better.’

What criteria are judges asked to consider?

  • Capacity to stimulate, engage or delight a project’s occupants, visitors and passers-bys
  • Architectural and conceptual ambition
  • Both environmental and economic sustainability
  • Generous contribution to the public realm or environment
  • Extent of innovation, invention or originality
  • Use of materials and the rigour with which the project is detailed
  • Ability to inspire and endure as an exemplary work of architecture

Talk to the profession and it’s clear that, despite this year’s controversy, the RIBA Awards are still the most respected among architects, with many citing their ‘rigorous judging process’ as the reason.

‘You can’t get through with beautiful photos,’ says Clegg. Photos and plans are used to judge projects at the initial entry stage when the decision of whether to shortlist and visit a scheme is made. This small loophole, where buildings have to make an initial cut to receive a visit, could explain why some projects – especially those more difficult to understand through conventional drawings and photographs – fail to make it to the next round.

The fact that you get two goes at submitting should get past any real problems

Murray Kerr

Once the visits begin, the judging process is, in the words of Denizen Works founder and Stephen Lawrence Prize-winner Murray Kerr, ‘incredibly rigorous, with judges giving days of their time to ensure each project is given the consideration it deserves.’ He adds: ‘Things get missed, as with A House for Essex, but I would like to think that the fact that you get two goes at submitting should get past any real problems.’

Coffey Architects founder Phil Coffey comments: ‘Awards where judges actually visit the site carry much more weight than those that don’t. Architecture is three dimensional, and is best experienced through being in the space rather than judging by photographic evidence alone.’

And Pollard Thomas Edwards partner Teresa Borsuk says: ‘The [RIBA Awards] are important in that they are a peer recognition and so raise the bar, improving the output of the whole profession. They set an important standard. Winning an award is a third-party endorsement; a validation.’

The awards raise the bar, improving the output of the whole profession

Teresa Borsuk

There is also hope that winning an RIBA award means something to clients, too. In a Twitter poll, 28 per cent of respondents said they entered RIBA Awards to attract clients, and one RIBA Awards judge suggested winners could charge higher fees as a result.

Tom Bloxham, founder of Urban Splash, which has commissioned more national RIBA award-winning schemes over the past 10 years than any other client, says: ‘We know how rigorous the process is. Working, therefore, with architects whose work has received RIBA Awards is important, as it demonstrates a shared consensus and commitment to pioneering great design.’

And there is even reason to believe that winning an RIBA award can boost a property’s value. Baobab Developments director Paul Templeton says: ‘They have both great PR value as well as an impact on house value. I have heard, and not apocryphally, that the winning of an RIBA award added a clear £500,000 to a single house.’

Founder of estate agent Modern House, Albert Hill, agrees the awards contribute to the property sales pitch. ‘It doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to the price but it certainly contributes to the story of the house,’ he says. ‘A lot of the time that is what people are buying into.’

There is concern, however, that the public aren’t certain what the awards really mean. Hill says that, in his experience, the general public ‘has a vague sense of the awards, but it’s more the royal RIBA title than what the awards stand for. The plaques are really nice. They are impressive and really great when attached to a building.’

‘Perhaps,’ jokes Kerr, ‘the lead plaques need to get the status of the blue ones to enter the public’s consciousness. Maybe they need to go neon.’

Winning an RIBA award is a big deal for architects. It means your building has survived arduous judging by peers, and is thought of as a genuinely good piece of architecture. It isn’t easy to get a plaque – this year 83 regional winners missed out in the final cut.

Perhaps the controversy surrounding taste and style actually comes down to a lack of consensus throughout the profession on what really makes good architecture. It is, after all, a subjective decision. The awards, therefore, encourage debate.

The RIBA’s hierarchical system will only work, however, once there is complete confidence in the regional juries which make the first cut.

Can judges ever leave taste at the door when making their decision? A good judge can, but training and clearer guidelines need to be introduced to ensure first-time and regional judges have the profession’s trust.

The RIBA Awards have the most rigorous judging process out there. But as the House for Essex controversy highlights, every high-flying act needs a safety net.

See all 46 of this year’s RIBA National Award winners

View from the top: RIBA president Jane Duncan on the RIBA Awards

For 50 years the RIBA Awards have generated hot debate. I welcome this discussion; it means they are relevant and valued by the people that enter, read about, visit, work or live in the winning buildings.

I am proud that the RIBA Awards set the standard for great architecture and are the most rigorously judged and prestigious architecture awards in the UK. Every winning building is visited, by RIBA jurors who ‘leave their taste buds at the door’ and judge them on the basis of established RIBA criteria.

The awards have never had a higher profile. Politicians of all colours look to RIBA award-winning buildings as examples of the very best in the UK, and in recent months we have taken the housing minister Brandon Lewis and London mayor Sadiq Khan on visits to winning projects. Partnerships such as our one with the AJ are an important way of increasing the reach and awareness.

Likewise our partnerships with the BBC for the RIBA Stirling Prize and Channel 4 for the RIBA House of the Year award enable us to take key messages about the importance of well-designed buildings to huge public audiences.

The selection process is a pyramid structure starting with local juries working with local intelligence, while the National Awards Group plays a significant collaborative role in the shortlisting and awards decisions. There are also measures to check decisions, offer fair appeals and make changes and improvements to the process every year – and we are open to ideas.

View from the clients:

Trevor Silver, managing director of Landid 

What do the RIBA Awards mean for you as a client? Are they something you are aspiring to win?
I am interested and impressed by them, but I wouldn’t necessary say I aspire to them. That’s probably because I have sat on judging committees in the past and found them fairly political. While I’m not sure the RIBA awards suffer the same fate, I suppose I am slightly sceptical about the political and commercial aspect of awards in general.

Do the RIBA Awards have any influence on you when choosing an architect?
Despite my slight scepticism, yes they still do. I am impressed by the recognition of design merit because even if politics are involved, the architects will have had to earn their space on an often very competitive shortlist.

Do the RIBA Awards provide you with PR as a client?
Yes. If we won, I’d definitely shout about it – but I don’t think it particularly adds financial value.

Could you charge more for an RIBA Award-winning building?
There’s no doubt that the combination of a renowned architect and a Stirling Prize helps marketing and could perhaps draw great competition in buyers, but I can’t image the rent would go up if we won an award.

Do you think the public have any awareness about the awards?
If they were referred to as the Royal Institute of British Architecture awards, the public might take a bit more notice. Unfortunately, the abbreviated RIBA is inaccessible to the public.

Tomaš Jurdák, HB Reavis 

What do the RIBA Awards mean for you as a client? Are they something you are aspiring to win?
As a real estate developer, our primary focus is on our clients and as they are concerned with the aesthetical quality of our buildings, so are we. It is an important aspect of the product design and strategy. What is even more important, and I believe it’s part of the RIBA award assessment, is how the building complements the existing urban structure, how it contributes to the functional richness of the environment, how it performs environmentally, what kind of working environment we are creating inside and how we can improve the overall quality of life for the people working in our buildings.

Do the RIBA Awards have any influence on you when choosing an architect?
As a client, HB Reavis check potential architects references thoroughly. A RIBA Award is a very relevant piece to the jigsaw, highlighting the architects overall performance and setting them aside from the crowd, which in a competitive industry is very important.

Do the RIBA Awards provide you with PR as a client?
The awards are one of the most prominent architectural awards within the industry and therefore receives substantial positive press coverage. This certainly complements our PR activities.

Could you charge more for an RIBA Award-winning building?
It is definitely a useful marketing tool, but I don’t believe the RIBA award in itself has an impact when it comes to the pricing of office space. However, RIBA awarded buildings are, on average, achieving higher rents due to the quality of the internal and external space.

Steve Sanham, development director at HUB Residential

What do the RIBA Awards mean for you as a client? Are they something you are aspiring to win?
We’ve not won any, yet….but we haven’t finished any of our buildings yet either.
I’m desperate to win an RIBA award for all of our buildings and it is massively important for our buildings and places to be recognised by the architecture industry in this way. We try to design beautiful, pragmatic, deliverable buildings…and we think we’ve got some really great architects working with us to deliver them.

The difficulty is always having the right profile as a business too but in the four years HUB’s been around, we’ve done OK and hopefully by the time we complete a building, the architecture, and the story behind it, will be strong enough to warrant an award.

Could you charge more for an RIBA Award-winning building?
People definitely like ‘award-winning architecture’ and apart from winning the Stirling, a RIBA award definitely has to be the most recognisable award for great design.
I also reckon people would pay more for a RIBA award winning architecture - 20 per cent because it’s got a RIBA Award badge, but 80 per cent because the reason it has that badge is that it is really well designed.



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