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The RIBA awards process means we all need to be sustainability experts

Hattie Hartman
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By sharing and publicly championing the metrics of the most innovative buildings, the RIBA could promote UK sustainable design skills, says Hattie Hartman

Last year the RIBA named a sustainability expert to advise the Stirling Prize jury. This year, with the support of the institute’s Sustainable Futures Group, the RIBA has ramped up the scope of sustainability information required in the awards submission process and stipulated that each region appoint a sustainability expert to advise its jury. 

The first-year results are encouraging. Alex Whitcroft, associate director at Bere Architects and a leading author of the revised Sustainability Statement which accompanied award submissions this year, notes that the primary objective of the new form is to promote a more holistic and collaborative understanding of sustainable design. 

Designers are asked to explain their strategic moves, necessitating a clear grasp of a building’s passive design – its massing, orientation, and degree of transparency. Far too often, this fundamental premise of sustainable design is glossed over or ignored.

The emphasis of this year’s regional sustainablity winners is on simple and smart passive design, eschewing the high-tech systems once so prevalent 

Because the previous iteration of the RIBA Sustainability Statement focused primarily on energy performance data, submissions tended to be comprised of a list of energy metrics and a litany of sustainability features, often compiled by the services engineer with little input from the architect. The updated form is much more robust, broadening the scope of information required to include a headline narrative and data on energy and fabric performance, as well as information on materials, embodied carbon and life-cycle assessment, enhancement of biodiversity and post-occupancy evaluation. 

A perusal of this year’s RIBA regional sustainability award winners is equally encouraging. The emphasis is on simple and smart passive design, with many buildings eschewing the high-tech systems so prevalent just five years ago. In the London region, a thoughtful pub retrofit with new-build extension in Clerkenwell by Chris Dyson Architects topped strong contenders such as Fosters’ Bloomberg, AHMM’s White Collar Factory, Feilden Fowles’ Waterloo Farm and Witherford Watson Mann’s Walthamstow Wetlands for the capital’s sustainability award. 

This reflects other promising industry trends: 

  • A strong showing this year by practices short-listed for the AJ100 Most Sustainable Practice with the award going to mainstream housing practice Pollard Thomas and Edwards.
  • The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), a coalition of 200-plus construction industry professionals led by Elementa Consulting, which this week launched the LETI Declaration (https://www.leti.london/declaration), a simple form that can be appended to energy statements to build consensus around an energy strategy amongst a project’s many stakeholders at planning stage and make intended outcomes more transparent;
  • Increased demand for sustainable construction skills with attendees at the Green Register courses doubling from under 450 delegates to over 900 delegates annually in the last five years. 

The holistic approach of the revised Sustainability Statement and the input of a sustainability expert on both the Stirling Prize and regional juries are welcome initiatives in upping the RIBA’s game. As the process beds down in coming years, it should also mean that a project that ‘fails’ on sustainability would not make it to the Stirling shortlist.

Whitcroft acknowledges: ‘The closer you get to Stirling, the more pushback [on sustainability] there is.’ 

To date, sustainability input into the RIBA judging process has been used primarily to inform the judging panel. Expanding this work by making the sustainability findings of the RIBA awards process more public-facing would be a welcome next step.

By sharing and publicly championing the narratives and metrics of each award cycle’s most innovative buildings, the RIBA could promote UK sustainable design skills both at home and abroad. A wealth of knowledge about best practice could be disseminated which would be good for the profession – and the planet.

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