Grafton Architects Win 2021 Stirling Prize for Kingston University 'Town House'

But many wonder if sustainability shouldn't have a higher priority for the judges.

Front of townhouse

Ed Reeve via RIBA

The Stirling Prize is awarded every year to the United Kingdom's best new building. They usually end up on Treehugger because lately, they have been such interesting "green" buildings. In 2019 the winner was Mikhail Riches' Goldsmith Street, described as a "modest masterpiece" and perhaps the best example yet of how to do Passivhaus on a budget. In 2018 it was Bloomberg's London headquarters, described by many as the world's most sustainable office building, although I said it's not. But nonetheless, the Stirling Prize was definitely on a roll when it came to sustainable design. Or maybe after a year off, they have been there, done that.

There is no question that the student "Town House" at Kingston University, designed by Grafton Architects, is a lovely building. Lord Norman Foster, who was chair of the jury, describes it:

“Kingston University Town House is a theatre for life – a warehouse of ideas. It seamlessly brings together student and town communities, creating a progressive new model for higher education, well deserving of international acclaim and attention."
Students dancing

Ed Reeve

It is an unusual mashup of different uses. The University vice-chancellor explains:

“We had an incredibly ambitious brief – to create a space for students that would allow them to benefit from knowing each other, a library to inspire learning, dance studios and a softening of the threshold between gown and town. Grafton Architects delivered just such an innovative programme.... It is invigorating to witness the creativity, collaboration and shared learning this open, inviting space fosters. Our students have embraced Town House, relishing the opportunity to find their place within it and make its many spaces their own."
Interior of space

Ed Reeve

The press release does note that "light and air to flow naturally through the building, which also uses a thermally-activated concrete frame to reduce operational energy use." They do not explain what they mean by "thermally activated," it could be many things, but the jury report gives a bit more detail about the building's environmental cred:

"The building performs well environmentally, achieving BREEAM Excellent in design. Its embodied carbon has been reduced through structural efficiency, the use of better concrete mixes, and designing out the need for a carbon intensive basement. As well as performing architectural and aesthetic functions, the concrete frame’s thermal mass helps to regulate indoor temperatures, reducing the overall energy load."
detail of balconies

Ed Reeve

It is an important building, designed by a firm led by two women that have been cleaning up Pritzkers and other awards late. As the jurors note:

"This building is about high quality at every scale, from the choice of materials, to the more abstract characteristics of warmth and flow. The muted colour palette and detailing too is controlled and expertly executed: nothing is out of place, everything is considered, and the result is a rich, beautiful canvas against which to set young creative minds free."

But many share reservations about whether a building like this should be taking the top architecture prize in the country. Treehugger favorite Elrond Burrell wonders if this had something to do with the head of the jury.

Gerard Carty of Grafton Architects addressed the question of concrete in an interview with the Architects Journal, noting the project started in 2013 when embodied carbon was not such a concern as it is now and that they did their best.

"We used longer spans, so we were using less of the material. We also didn’t make a basement, which meant that the whole issue about the amount of concrete being used was significantly reduced by that.... We have to be careful when we look at other forms of construction: they don’t always have the answer for all of the needs that we have. If we use the resources we have wisely and carefully then that can be sustainable."

They may have been reading the recent report we covered on the future of concrete:

"There'll be replacements for cement and there will be replacements for the more difficult and challenging ingredients in concrete. And rather than turning our backs on it completely, maybe we need to also invest in what we can do to make it carbon neutral as a material."

It is a difficult call. A few years ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects, which gives out the Stirling, announced that they were going to change the rules, with the Chair of the awards group saying:

"Environmental performance is no longer detached from architecture. A lot of Stirling shortlisted schemes had good sustainability metrics… We want people to demonstrate the strength of their environmental credentials. If they are not there we need to be able not to shortlist them for the highest level of awards."
dancing inside

Alice Clancy via RIBA

However, noting that buildings take a long time to get designed and built, the new tougher rules don't kick in until 2022. So the Kingston University Town House may be the last of its kind to get a Stirling.