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Weekend roundup: Stirling Prize goes to the right kind of sustainability

Stirling winners 2019 3

This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon AldousGoldsmith Street housing wins Stirling • Human cost of building Istanbul Airport • Green walls planned for City and Greenwich • Chipperfield posts £1.3 million loss

London’s Roundhouse was filled with noticeable whoops of delight on Tuesday night as the Goldsmith Street housing scheme, by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, was announced the winner of this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize.

Everyone seemed happy about the result with the exception of Ireland-Scotland bridge champion Alan Dunlop who said he found the choice ‘puzzling’ feeling an opera house would have been a more worthy winner.

Otherwise, there seemed to be unconstrained joy that the prize had gone to an elegant council housing scheme that achieved the very low-energy Passivhaus standard and that had been built, as Annalie Riches told a cheering audience, using a ‘traditional contract, not design and build, because they wanted to ensure that these houses were really high quality and actually met the environmental standards that they were aiming for’.

There may have also been a bit of satisfaction that a smaller practice had triumphed – just 14 staff are listed on Mikhail Riches’ website (though they are advertising for another architectural assistant).

But overall it was a marked contrast to a year ago when Foster + Partners’ £1.3 billion Bloomberg HQ took the prize. No sooner had the architects stepped off the stage, the TV coverage’s architectural expert Daisy Froud was calling it ‘a big clunky building’. Anna Liu, whose practice had won the Stephen Lawrence Prize that evening, called the result ‘disastrous’. 

Bloomberg had been heralded as the world’s most sustainable office, but not everyone was convinced. Notably, Simon Sturgis, who had been the jury’s environmental adviser, who argued that its low operational energy use was overshadowed by ‘the enormous resources used to create it’ making it, in his opinion, ‘not a truly sustainable building’. 

Funnily enough, Sturgis wasn’t advising this year’s jury; that roll was taken by WilkinsonEyre’s head of sustainability, Gary Clark. 

In his acceptance speech, David Mikhail did suggest that his own attitude to sustainability had evolved during the 11-years it took to realise Goldsmith Street. ‘Things have changed since then,’ he said, ‘… so measuring embodied carbon has to be the next step.’ 

But what seemed to truly excite people about this year’s win was the effect it could have on future housing schemes. That the housing crisis can be addressed without being at the expense of either quality, the environment or marginalisation of the profession. 

Poll: Will Goldsmith Street’s Stirling Prize win help bring about of new wave of well-designed, eco-friendly council housing?
• Yes
• Maybe a trickle
• No
Vote here 

• The council housing rebirth was further boosted by this week’s announcement of the latest tranche of architects to join the Public Practice programme. This signs up architects, then places them in local authorities across London and the South East. 

The 30-strong intake includes architects from Fosters, Marks Barfield and Stanton Williams. Public Practice also says it is its most diverse cohort yet, with a third of them from a BAME background.

Terminal employment

Shutterstock istanbul

Shutterstock istanbul

Working on airport projects has become something of a moral quagmire as air travel’s impact on the climate crisis has become ever-more apparent. But now, added to the charge sheet comes news that building the world’s largest airport has resulted in the deaths of dozens of construction workers. 

An investigation by the AJ and sister title Construction News has revealed a shockingly casual attitude to health and safety during the construction of the new Istanbul Airport, which opened a year ago.  

The site’s official death toll stands at a shocking 55, but trade union organisations in Turkey claim it could, in fact, be more than 400. 

Three of the four main architects involved are British: Grimshaw, Scott Brownrigg and Haptic. But do they bear any of the blame? Haptic and Grimshaw were concept architects and had completed their work by early 2015, prior to the construction phase. Both have expressed shock and sadness about the number of fatalities and Grimshaw has stressed that its design enabled ‘straightforward and safe construction’.

One whistleblower who spoke out made the point that whenever international companies were operating on the site, it would be transformed before their visit to give the appearance of a safe working environment, with safety barriers temporarily installed and shift lengths reduced. 

Scott Brownrigg, which as delivery architect was employed during the actual construction process, says ‘access to the site was limited and tightly controlled by the EPC contractor’ adding that it was ‘shocked and saddened’ to later hear news of the deaths. 

Some may be a little surprised, though, by the comment of its director of aviation, Maurice Rosario, who told the AJ: ‘Unfortunately, construction is inherently risky. Deaths and injuries can also happen on UK sites.’ This is true. But, to put things in perspective, during the three and a half years that the 55 deaths were recorded on the $12 billion project, there were approximately 130 site deaths in the whole of Great Britain, a construction industry worth £110 billion annually. 

Many of the larger UK practices are now getting a substantial amount of their income from overseas projects, much of them in countries with lax safety standards, most notoriously Qatar, where preparations for the 2022 World Cup have already resulted in more than 1,200 construction deaths

As such grave safety lapses gain widespread publicity, it will be harder for architects to simply plead ignorance and regret.

Sheppard Robson plans Europe’s ‘largest living wall’

Green wall in city

Green wall in city

Sheppard Robson has revealed plans for a mixed-use building in the City of London with the ‘largest living wall in Europe’ wrapped around its façade.

The building on Holborn Viaduct will act as a gateway building to the CIty’s newly established Culture Mile, providing office space, a hotel and a publicly accessible rooftop terrace.

The 3,700m² green wall would comprise approximately 400,000 plants covering the entire façade and extracting 9 tonnes of CO2 each year.

Also embracing the green wall ethic is Rem Koolhaas’s practice, OMA. It has revealed its six-years-in-the-making masterplan for a 1,500-home development on the Greenwich peninsula, next to the O2 Arena. 

Morden Wharf will be built on the site of a former Tate & Lyle refinery and will include the refurbishment of existing warehouses as well as several towers of up to 37 storeys. These are set to feature ‘green façades’, apparently inspired by Jean Nouvel’s Le Nouvel KLCC tower in Kuala Lumpur. 

However, AJ reader Robert Watson questioned whether these would get through the latest fire-safety building regulations for external walls.

Chipperfield going through a transitional period

Chippo transition

Chippo transition

Bad news for David Chipperfield Architects, which has posted disappointing trade figures for 2018. The acclaimed practice made a £1.13 million loss, while turnover dropped nearly 20 per cent – down to £6.96 million from £8.58 million the previous year. 

However, the practice says that – like Jules in Pulp Fiction – it is going through a transitional period so (probably) we should all be cool like three little Fonzies. Whether it will now walk the earth is another matter, but some sort of international trawling is probably in hand as it says it has been ‘working very hard to win new work to replace a number of long-term projects which completed during the year’. 

And it may be paying off. The company has recently landed the commission to design a 25-storey skyscraper for watch manufacturer Rolex in New York, beating rival bids from Fosters, BIG and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. 

According to the practice, the 15,329m² building has been designed to LEED Platinum standard, the US Green Building Council’s highest rating for environmental efficiency.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Talking of the significance of the Goldsmith Street social housing, I wonder whether this has been clocked by the hon. Michael Gove - one of the movers and shakers of the current Westminster regime - who, in a previous incarnation as education minister did so much to dumb down the design of publicly financed school buildings (but not, of course, of public schools)
    Probably coincidental that he's out of the same journalistic stable as our hon. Prime Minister, but they both seem to be keen on the populist empty (or downright destructive) gesture.

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  • It's a shame that Simon Sturgis was sacked for speaking truth to power, as it is only on the basis of rigorous quantitive analysis that we can solve this one. Architecture is about to get a great deal more scientific and technical. Interestingly, the Bloomberg building was mentioned in an article by Steve Webb in last month's RIBAJ, claiming that design decisions about materials are damning the world to further climate change. He quantifies this in terms of a 'Range Rover Shopping Trip' (RST) to his local supermarket, which he estimates produces about 400g of CO2 each. To quote from his article directly:

    "Claiming that, for example, Bloomberg London’s building is sustainable because of its systems is beyond ridiculous. The structural designers proudly state: ‘In the interests of delivering a building of visual impact as well as longevity, steel tonnages were not seen as a limiting factor.’ The fabricator boasts: ‘The project included 15,500 tonnes of steel installed – 1,000 tonnes more than used on Brooklyn Bridge and more than double the weight of the Eiffel Tower.’ Next to these figures its future energy consumption seems utterly trivial; 116 million RSTs to all involved."

    I make that 116m x 400g = 46,400,000,000 grammes of CO2 (46,400 Tonnes).

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  • 46,400 Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide is equivalent to:

    – 9,851 passenger vehicles driven for one year
    – 113, 447,433 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle
    – 5,221,109 gallons of gasoline consumed
    – 50,725,683 pounds of coal burned
    – 5,556 homes' energy use for one year
    – 5,916,571,569 smartphones charged
    – 767,234 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to sequester
    – 54,609 acres of forests in one year to sequester.

    Statistics from the US Environment Protection Agency (epa.gov)

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  • Clare Richards

    The AJ asks in its survey, ‘will Goldsmith Street’s Stirling Prize win bring about a new wave of well-designed, eco-friendly council housing?’

    Of course it would be brilliant if this becomes the “pioneering exemplar for other local authorities to follow”, that the judges suggest. But an exemplar of what exactly? It’s ‘environmental’ credentials are clear but what are it’s ‘social’ credentials?

    Sustainable development (which underpins our planning system) has 3 ‘dimensions’: economic, social and environmental, with the ‘social dimension’ defined as “supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities”. Yet none of the descriptions or press comment have picked up on this aspect.

    We’re told the design fosters “strong community engagement and social cohesion”. But did the existing community have any involvement? Does it address identified social needs? What is its impact on the surrounding area? Does it contribute to a sense of local identity? In short, will it help bring about a new wave of thriving communities?

    If Goldsmith Street is also exemplary in this social sense we must yell about it from the rooftops. Let’s play Goldsmith Street’s moment of glory for all it’s worth!

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