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Awards have a responsibility to set the agenda for best practice

Hattie Hartman
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The appointment of a carbon profiling expert to advise the Stirling Prize jury is a welcome move, but the RIBA could go further, says Hattie Hartman

The RIBA Stirling Prize season offers an opportunity to reflect on the purpose and significance of architectural awards. Earning a coveted spot on the shortlist is an enormous achievement. It celebrates the clients and design teams behind Britain’s best buildings and acknowledges the toil that goes into every project. 

Awards are a key route to recognition for the profession. By shining a light on a project, an award validates it.

Awards also have a responsibility to set the agenda for best practice. The appointment of Simon Sturgis of Sturgis Carbon Profiling to advise the Stirling Prize jury is a welcome move, which hopefully means that a building that is not sustainable – in the holistic sense – will not come out on top.

Pla rendering crop

Pla rendering crop

Hydroelectric Canal by Paul Lukez Architecture, overall winner of the WAFX 2017 prize and category winner of the WAFX Climate, Energy & Carbon prize

Yet the RIBA could go further. Reinstating the £20,000 that accompanied the Stirling Prize prior to 2013 would add further prestige to the accolade. Last month I attended the European prizegiving for the LafargeHolcim Awards for Sustainable Construction, a programme that grants $2 million on a three-year cycle through its Zurich-based foundation. (Aggregate Industries is its UK subsidiary). Bill Dunster’s ZEDFactory walked away with $30,000 for its ZEDPod homes-over-car parks concept. The cash adds considerable cachet to the award. 

Second, the overdue launch of the RIBA’s long-mooted ‘test of time’ award would be a potent reminder that, to be truly successful, buildings must endure. Last year the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment, which recognises 10 buildings annually across America, established a Top Ten Plus category for buildings with performance data and post-occupancy lessons. And this year LafargeHolcim launched a ‘Building Better’ category for outstanding projects from its previous award cycles which showcase sustainable architecture.

Schemes should be scrutinised as to how sustainability has been approached; and then again a few years later to ascertain whether these aspirations have been met

Third, the RIBA should bring back the Sustainable Building of the Year award. Such an award would play an important role in revealing what, in the best projects, is invisible: embedded sustainability. BedZED, a previous winner, and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2003, is now 15 years old. I recently visited Architype’s offices in Upper Twyford, Herefordshire, another winner of this award in 2007. This modest and well-judged retrofit, like BedZED, was ahead of its time. Since then sustainable design has come a long way.

This year, numerous buildings with high sustainability aspirations are completing. Waugh Thistleton’s Dalston Works, KieranTimberlake’s US Embassy in Nine Elms, Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg Headquarters and Northwest Cambridge number among the higher-profile ones. It is not enough to judge these schemes on architectural merit. Upon completion they should be scrutinised to unpick how sustainability has been approached so that best practice can be shared; and then again a few years later to ascertain whether these high aspirations have been met.

Tackling tough issues keeps awards relevant. The World Architecture Festival’s recently launched 10th anniversary Manifesto and WAFX Prize are good examples. According to WAF research commissioned to inform the Manifesto, four out of 10 architects cite climate change as the industry’s biggest challenge. The inaugural WAFX prize recognises future projects that address key challenges that architects must confront, such as climate, energy and carbon, water, ageing and health, ethics, power and justice. 

Last but not least, the Stirling Prize is an ideal moment to bring architecture to a broader audience. Architects talking to architects gets us nowhere. Whatever the medium, we need to get the Stirling Prize in front of a mass audience once more.

This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue – click here to buy a copy

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