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RIBA Stirling Prize 2019 goes to Goldsmith Street council housing scheme

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The 100-home Goldsmith Street development in Norwich by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley has become the first ever council housing scheme to win the RIBA Stirling Prize

On an extraordinary evening for the practice, the ultra-low energy project also took home the inaugural Neave Brown award, launched this year in honour of the late US architect’s pioneering social housing work.

The Stirling Prize jury praised the £14.7 million Norwich City Council-backed development as ‘a modest masterpiece’. It had been both the bookmakers’ ‘red hot favourite’ and the AJ readers’ choice to win the UK’s best new building award.

Accepting the award on the night, David Mikhail thanked the residents of Goldsmith Street and called on the government to do more to help architects tackle the climate crisis.

He told the crowd: ‘We were lucky enough to conceive this project 11 years ago, things have changed since then, they are more extreme. We all know we have a climate and a species loss emergency so we know measuring embodied carbon has to be the next step.

’We would ask for government to regulate. We need you to set up a level playing field so we are not seen as the ”mad crusties” in the room.’

The directors had brought along the entire practice to the prizegiving ceremony. Speaking to the AJ on the Roundhouse balcony, architect Sophie Cole said the win was ‘brilliant for the whole office’.

’It’s brilliant to be standing here looking down on the win. The scheme is Passivhaus, and reducing energy in any type of housing is incredible. We’re lucky to have clients who are pushing for that.’

Jury chair Julia Barfield, said: ‘[Goldsmith Street] is high-quality architecture in its purest most environmentally and socially conscious form. Behind restrained creamy façades are impeccably detailed, highly sustainable homes – an incredible achievement for a development of this scale. This is proper social housing, over 10 years in the making, delivered by an ambitious and thoughtful council. These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing.’

She added: ‘Over a quarter of the site is communal space – evidence of the generosity of the scheme. A secure alleyway connects neighbours at the bottom of their garden fences, and a lushly planted communal area runs through the estate, providing an inviting place for residents to gather and children to play, fostering strong community engagement and social cohesion.

These spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing

‘Goldsmith Street is a ground-breaking project and an outstanding contribution to British architecture.’

The scheme, which the east London-based practice landed following an RIBA competition in 2009, was chosen from an eclectic six-strong list of finalists. It was the first time the firm had been on the shortlist.

It is only the second time any kind of housing has won the Stirling Prize since it was launched in 1996. The previous occasion was the Accordia housing development in Cambridge in 2008. 

The AJ’s view by architecture editor Rob Wilson

It feels like this year’s winner sits at the cross-hairs of several admirable strands in architecture at the moment – a small but growing stream of excellent social housing, braver, more informed public clients, Passivhaus standards of sustainability moving to the mainstream and a renewed focus on creating a sense of place and decent shared space. While these trends are driven by issues from the climate emergency to housing shortage and social fragmentation, this is a scheme that creates a carrot out of the stick of need, offering a model solution of what is possible for under £2,000 per m² [original prices]: decent council housing generously detailed and laid out.

In particular its noticeable how improvements in environmental and social sustainability, have been digested back into the architectural form – from threshold to roof profile – rather than being just technical or token gee-gaws plugging into it ­. Notably too it shows not only the importance of a good architect in making good architecture, but of a good client enabling it too: not least in running the project as a traditional contract and allowing the architect to lead on the value engineering where needed, as Annalie Richies pointed out in her acceptance speech.

The significance of a council housing scheme winning the Stirling cannot be overstated – and one in particular that’s 100% social rent and not just infill. It gives out an undeniably positive message about the benefits of good architecture and – importantly for the RIBA no doubt – it’s a right-on winner where clearly last year’s Bloomberg win was a real right-off.

And yet for all that one misses something. Of course, it can’t have the full va-va-voom of some of the big ticket, big budget schemes but for all its considerate, sensitivity of design, it lacks an ambition in its architecture. This relative lack of architectural magic was underlined by a short film on Neave Brown’s work which preceded the announcement, marking the inauguration of the prize for housing named after him – which Goldsmith Street also won. It showed how even with streets-in-the-sky brought firmly down to earth in his relatively low-rise housing, Brown played with traditional forms in an architecturally radical way that one misses here. Noticeable particularly was a lack of focus – or at least of images ­– on Goldsmith Street’s interiors when compared with the generosity of the interiors focussed on in Brown’s schemes.

Goldsmith Street is a worthy winner, providing a great model for how to unlock the process of public housebuilding at budget. It just doesn’t push the envelope on the possibilities of residential architecture itself. It’s a great exemplar scheme just not fully an inspiration.

Costing £2,200 per m² to build (today’s prices), Goldsmith Street is arranged in seven terrace blocks, modelled on the Victorian streets of the nearby ‘Golden Triangle’ district.

Rows of two-storey houses are bookended by three-storey flats, ‘each with their own front door, generous lobby space for prams and bikes, and a private balcony’.

Goldsmith Street was designed to meet rigorous Passivhaus environmental standards – a requirement demanded by the local authority client.

The low levels of energy needed to heat the homes at Goldsmith Street means annual fuel costs are estimated to be about £162 – 70 per cent cheaper than the average household’s bill.

To maximise solar gain, all the homes face south and every wall is more than 600mm thick. The roofs are angled at 15 degrees to ensure each terrace does not block sunlight from homes in the street behind.

Goldsmith Street is a beacon of hope

The jury, which included RIBA president Alan Jones, Foster + Partners’ Michael Jones, lay assessor Kathy Gee and sustainability adviser Gary Clark, was also impressed by ‘meticulously considered’ details, such as letterboxes built into external porches, rather than the front doors, to reduce any possibility of draughts; and perforated aluminium brise-soleils which provide sunshades above the windows and doors.

Jones added: ‘Faced with a global climate emergency, the worst housing crisis for generations and crippling local authority cuts, Goldsmith Street is a beacon of hope.

’It is commended not just as a transformative social housing scheme and eco-development, but a pioneering exemplar for other local authorities to follow.’

The news was announced at the Roundhouse in Camden, London tonight (8 October).

Goldsmiths jimstephenson 8 webres

Source: Jim Stephenson

2019 winner and shortlist

Goldsmith Street, Norwich, by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley WINNER

London Bridge Station, London by Grimshaw

Nevill Holt Opera, Leicestershire, by Witherford Watson Mann Architects

The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Moray, by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

The Weston, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, by Feilden Fowles Architects

Cork House, Berkshire, by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton

The Architects’ Journal is the professional media partner for the RIBA Stirling Prize 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Lovely scheme, but, as usual... parking? Interestingly the images above omitted a layout. I searched it and there appears to be just some on street parking, certainly not 1 place per home. Many LHAs and RPs would not approved that I suspect, so not sure how useful a model this is in the South West anyway - anyone able to comment on this?

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  • Chris Roche

    Congratulations to everyone involved in the design and procurement of this exemplary social housing scheme. The decision to reward socially responsive schemes on a modest budget, and in particular to shine a light on the transformative nature of well designed public housing is long over due. Perhaps RIBA could now start lobbying the government to address Britain's housing crisis. The judges also deserve credit for having the courage to look beyond the usual round up of "A" list architects for a winner.

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