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AJ Architecture Awards will recognise best sustainable project

Hattie Hartman
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Architects should take inspiration from Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion and enter the AJ Architecture awards now, says Hattie Hartman

Five years ago almost to the day I wrote in the AJ that the idea of ‘a sustainability award’ was a subject of debate within the RIBA. Should the RIBA single out one building each year as the UK’s ‘greenest’? Ten years ago the RIBA had initiated an award that did just that and then abandoned it two years later, justifying its about-face with the argument that all buildings worthy of an institute award should be sustainable. 

This was both wishful thinking and a mistake. The same debate resurfaced recently on Dezeen and the Huffington Post. A decade later most architecture awards are still dominated by buildings where sustainability is not a significant driver in shaping building form. The RIBA regions continue to nominate their most sustainable building, but there is no national award. 

The good news is that the new AJ Architecture Awards – deadline for entries coming up on 14 July – reinstate a UK-wide sustainable project of the year award (amid more than 20 other categories). A related category will recognise the AJ health and wellbeing project of the year. To qualify, a project must have been completed within the last 18 months. 

Serpentine fka 4394

Serpentine fka 4394

Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion

So 10 years on, how far have we come? The RIBA national awards featured in the current AJ reveal that sustainable architecture can be both varied and refined. Jury member and environmental engineer Neil Daffin of Ritchie + Daffin notes: ‘It’s no longer just one-off buildings with one of everything and a long list of sustainable features. The building fabric is almost always super-insulated close to Passivhaus standard.’ 

Another barometer is the AJ100 Sustainable Practice of the Year award, now in its ninth year, and last month presented to David Morley Architects. More practices have a rounded approach to sustainability and have embedded ways of working that ensure that it is championed throughout the life of a project. And more architecture courses are making sustainability a core offering in Part 1, from Nottingham and Sheffield to UWE and Portsmouth. 

More practices have embedded ways of working that ensure that sustainability is championed throughout the life of a project

Elsewhere across the industry Open-City’s GreenSkyThinking put on a particularly strong programme this year, with the likes of Google sharing best practice on sourcing healthy materials. The Green Register has ramped up its range and frequency of courses, and now skills up over 900 green practioners annually across the country. And after six years, the CIBSE awards, which require a year’s performance data, are gaining traction. 

Other encouraging news is that in May, for the first time, solar energy met almost a quarter of the UK’s electricity demand – a transformation that has taken place in just seven years. Within a generation, solar energy could well be a game-changer. So should it be with building design. 

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement last month remains a cause for despair and outrage. The World Green Building Council responded with an announcement that to achieve the Paris targets, all buildings need to be ‘net zero carbon’ by 2050 and all new buildings by 2030. At present, only 2,500 buildings worldwide meet this target. 

There’s much that architects can do: discuss the benefits of innovative solutions with your clients; review your internal processes to ensure sustainability remains a key driver throughout a project and is not lost during value engineering; share knowledge across projects throughout your office(s); negotiate a fee for ‘soft landings’ at the outset of a job so that you can stay with a project after handover to be sure it performs as intended; when you publish your exemplar buildings, highlight how they approach these complex issues. 

And finally, enter your projects in the AJ Architecture awards now. Take inspiration from Burkina Faso architect Francis Kéré, designer of this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, an elegant structure with a soaring roof that incorporates ingenious handling of water.

The new American Embassy and numerous buildings in North West Cambridge with high sustainability aspirations are due this year. We must celebrate these projects and scrutinise them for what works well – and less well. Sustained engagement is the only way to out-Trump Trump.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This is so true, all the buildings should start from being sustainable by design and the materials they use, not like many of the so called "sustainable buildings", where sustainability is a label they can get by adding some "extra kit" ignoring the real issue,
    Real sustainable buildings can only be achieved if conscious design is applied from the very beginning.

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