Over the past two decades the Stirling Prize has slowly begun to recognise sustainability, writes Hattie Hartman
The Stirling Prize recognises the best building designed by an RIBA-chartered architect over the past year. Past winners have spanned a wide variety of building types and architectural vocabularies, ranging from Lord’s Media Centre by Future Systems in 1999 to last year’s Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann.
Although I would argue that great architecture should be timeless, the definition of what constitutes ‘best’ has evolved considerably since the award’s launch in 1996, particularly when it comes to sustainability. After a brief flirtation with a Sustainable Building of the Year award, the RIBA awards committee discarded this approach, arguing that all buildings should be sustainable.
During almost two decades of Stirling, interest in sustainable design has bourgeoned from non-existent to a feverish frenzy. The introduction in 1990 of the BREEAM measure, though less than perfect, has raised the bar for sustainable design and the design of green buildings has become increasingly sophisticated. Spearheaded by Sunand Prasad during his RIBA presidency, the RIBA Awards group developed a Sustainability Statement, which became a mandatory element of the awards submissions process in 2007. This arms the judges with a basis for more careful scrutiny of the sustainable design credentials of each project. Tony Chapman, head of awards at the RIBA, observes that ‘the quality of [sustainability] information being submitted now is exponentially better than when we started.’
Since 2012 the sustainability statements of the Stirling mid-list have been reviewed by two specialist members of the awards group, FCBS’s Peter Clegg and Atelier Ten’s Patrick Bellew. Those statements are then reviewed by the Stirling jury, along with commentary from Clegg and Bellew. This process is meant to ensure that no sustainability dunces make the shortlist and the results of the increased scrutiny are evident. Of this year’s shortlist, five are rated BREEAM Excellent and one is BREEAM Outstanding. But, as Simon Sturgis points out opposite, a BREEAM Excellent rating does not guarantee a low carbon building.
As buildings become more energy efficient in response to stricter regulations, we must look at factors beyond operational energy use to judge their green credentials. Embodied carbon plays an ever more important role and we must be increasingly vigilant about the whole life footprint of a building. This year UK-GBC hosted more than 20 events on this subject during Embodied Carbon Week. Occupants’ health and wellbeing, weighted heavily in certification systems such as the Pacific Northwest’s Living Building Challenge (launching in London later this month), is another critical consideration which deserves more than lip service.
Opposite and inside, Simon Sturgis, a partner of Sturgis Carbon Profiling, reviews this year’s shortlist, with a particular eye to the embodied carbon in each project. The Green Construction Board’s Low Carbon Routemap for the Built Environment projects that a 39 per cent reduction of embodied carbon is required by 2050 to meet the UK’s carbon reduction commitments. The Stirling prize winner should represent not only Britain’s finest architecture, but reflect the latest sustainable design thinking.