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Stirling Prize shortlist offers glimmers of hope about sustainable design

Nevillholt jimstephenson 13
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After 2018’s controversial Bloomberg win, this year’s six shortlisted schemes reflect, for the most part, a thorough grasp of sustainable design, says Hattie Hartman

This year’s RIBA Stirling Prize shortlist offers glimmers of hope about the place of sustainable design in British architecture. After last year’s controversial Bloomberg win, the six schemes shortlisted this year reflect, for the most part, a thorough grasp of sustainable design. One is trailblazing and a further four have embedded sustainability throughout. Just one reflects ‘business as usual’, albeit with a green twist.

Cork House is the trailblazer. That the RIBA Stirling Prize jury awarded this remarkable small house a place on the shortlist thrusts the issues of regenerative design and embodied carbon squarely into the spotlight. Cork House is proof that bio-renewable materials and detailing for disassembly can lead to beautiful architecture.

In a different vein, Goldsmith Street upends the clichés about the aesthetics of Passivhaus and its delivery at scale. Terraced rows of houses and flats have been finessed without resort to the boxy forms often associated with the standard. With a supportive local authority client, spacious, light-filled, affordable homes have been delivered at an added cost of approximately 10 per cent.

If all green buildings were as elegant as FeildenFowles’ Yorkshire gallery, sustainable design wouldn’t have such a bad name

Sustainability is also central to Grimshaw’s skilful reworking of London Bridge station. That the overhaul has enabled an 80 per cent increase in Thameslink trains has massive transport (and carbon) benefits. The new main concourse, a light-filled link between Tooley Street and St Thomas Street, is a generous urban gesture. This naturally ventilated concourse dramatically reduces the heating and cooling loads, partially met by geothermal piles (a first for Network Rail), predicted to cut the station’s carbon emissions by more than 5 per cent a year.

Another retrofit, Nevill Holt Opera, is a sensitive reworking of a Grade II*-listed 17th-century stable block. Here the architects have delicately inserted a performance venue into the stable yard by reinforcing existing ironstone walls to accommodate a new roof. To minimise energy use, temporary plant is hired in for the approximately one-month summer season: all in all, a lean, intelligent approach.

In contrast, RSHP’s Macallan Distillery is the least convincing in terms of sustainability, despite its undulating green roof and extensive use of timber. The signature RSHP roof canopy delivers visual drama, along with an oversized volume of space to be conditioned, while large expanses of glazing are more visually arresting than thermally performative. Granted a whisky distillery is energy-intensive, but the approach suggests business as usual, rather than a scheme with sustainability at its heart.

My top project on this year’s shortlist is The Weston, Feilden Fowles’ understated gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. A profound understanding both of the site’s ecology and of passive design inform the building’s location and massing. Every project should be approached this way. Eschewing the ‘no concrete’ agenda of many green design enthusiasts, the architects have selectively deployed concrete, with a significant proportion of ground granulated blast furnace slag (GGBS) in lieu of cement, to poetic effect. A labyrinth comprising 10,000 unfired bricks provides a passive temperature and humidity buffer for the gallery.

If all green buildings were as elegant as FeildenFowles’ Yorkshire gallery, sustainable design wouldn’t have such a bad name. This project points the way forward for mainstreaming ecological architecture. And we need more trailblazers.

Photograph: Jim Stephenson

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