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Stirling Work

November 2019 Issue

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are reading this at the end of the Whathouse Awards. On your way home – or even already in bed?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re a little tipsy and dipping into this piece to ease yourself under the purple cloak of sleep - to arise fresh faced in the morning remembering fondly the prize you won the night before.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a good and worthy prize – and you deserved it.

But what was it for?

Was the prize really for you? – or was it really aimed at something else – with you lucky enough to get caught in the cross hairs.

That’s not to take anything away from what I’m sure is your great piece of work but I’ve been thinking about this wider issue quite a bit recently – as one of the most important prizes in my profession was awarded last month – the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Unfortunately, a brief trawl through the history of the prize (it’s only a little over 20 years old) shows an absolute dearth of housing schemes. The two that show up are the Accordia housing scheme in Cambridge by Countryside Properties and Astley Castle in Warwickshire (yes – a castle - welcome to the 21st century).

The Accordia scheme was one of my favourite winners – it really looked like housing that could nurture a community, with good quality spaces between the buildings, front gardens, front doors – stuff like that – and 30% of it was ‘affordable’. It was also not in the least pastiche – it’s most obvious reference to its vernacular context (Cambridge) was the buff stock brick used pretty much throughout.

It’s a tragedy that it was never entered for the WhatHouse Awards – I’m sure it would have won plenty.

This year the Stirling Prize was scooped by a 100% affordable housing scheme in Norwich, commissioned, funded and built entirely by the local authority to Passivhaus standards (for £1,850/sqm). So Zeitgeist-y it hurts. Like Accordia it’s another scheme that, this time understandably, was not entered for the WhatHouse awards. But they have an excuse for not entering - they are literally not in the market – none of the houses are for sale – thought that’s not to say that they don’t offer important lessons to private housebuilders.

Passivhaus is a good one for starters.

For those of you that don’t know (and I’m hoping there can’t be many) this is an accreditation developed in Europe that seeks to massively reduce the energy use, and hence also carbon footprint, of housing. Typically, that means keeping energy use to less than 15KWh a day (next to an equivalent current RIBA target of less than 75KWh a day for new housing). A human emits about 2.5 KWh of heat a day – so that’s where the assertion that a family house built to Passivhaus standards (and also benefiting from a few KWh of solar gain etc.) doesn’t require heating. The problem is that even by Norwich’s own account the scheme cost ‘about 10%’ more than non-Passivhaus. Do you think your customers will pay for that? The way to frame it obviously is not that their house might be 10% more expensive – it’s that it could cost 70%-80% less to heat over the lifetime of their ownership.

It might be worth asking them?

While Extinction Rebellion has been a massive pain for commuters it has been effective in keeping the climate emergency in the forefront of people’s minds – and changing government policy too. I’ve been particularly delighted to see the emergence of Circular Economy policies in the New London Plan. And the reality is that Extinction Rebellion are the zeitgeist – reminding us of a broken world that urgently needs to heal.

Winners and losers alike the thing the Stirling Prize screams of, more and more, is a reflection of that Zeitgeist – whatever it may be at the time. So much so that Grimshaw, one of the runners up this year - for their astonishing work at London Bridge - even said as much (graciously) on the night. Perhaps they would have done better if they’d described their work at London Bridge in terms of the equivalent number of cars taken off the road through the increased capacity of Public Transport provided by the improved train frequencies?

Sometimes the soaring structures of heroic engineering just aren’t enough.

Sometimes they are - do any of you remember the ‘Magna Centre’ in Rotherham? The UK’s ‘best building in 2001 apparently – beating the Eden Centre in Cornwall that year – I just can’t see that happening if they’d been up against each other this year…

In a reflection of how quickly sentiments change – can you really imagine last year’s winner, the Bloomberg buildings in the City of London winning now? Described at the time, even by client as ‘a building designed for a billionaire who wants to be an architect, by an architect who wants to be a billionaire’ - it consumed so many natural resources that the quarry from which the elevations were drawn is now exhausted. And yet it also claimed to be the world’s ‘greenest’ office building – providing a neat quasi-public route through its site – both key justifications for what was an otherwise controversial win. Shows what a Billionaire’s marketing budget can do eh?

I’m sure the same can’t be said of your win.

And if you’ve made if to the end of this…

…Sleep tight.

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