Keep the AIA/COTEs, but it's time to scrap the AIA Awards

Oregon Zoo Education Center
© Oregon Zoo Education Center/ Christian Columbres Photographer

If a building doesn't meet these basic and necessary criteria, it doesn't deserve an award.

A decade ago, sustainable architecture looked different. In 2009 I asked Why is so much green architecture so ugly? and wrote:

Making a green building great is a lot harder when you have to worry about so many additional issues. Your material choices are limited, they are often more expensive, and the technologies are new. Green architecture is at an awkward stage, as architects learn how to play with this new palette.

At the time you could look at a building and tell whether it was "architecture" or whether it was a "green" building that met some LEED standard. That's why the Committee on the Environment introduced the AIA/COTE awards – to encourage sustainability and give a prize to the weird new stuff the hippies were doing.

Daniels School© Daniels School Toronto, photo Nic Lehoux

Today you can't tell the difference. I have been wandering around my alma mater, the Daniels School of Architecture, for the last year and it didn't occur to me that it was actually "green", but evidently "design strategies were multifaceted to address environmental, economic, and social values."

Lakeside Seniors© Lakeside Seniors/ Photo Bruce Damonte

It is the same with the other winners; they no longer look odd or ugly, they look like... buildings. When you compare them to the "real" AIA awards, they are pretty much indistinguishable.

Arlington Elementary School© Arlington Elementary School/ AIA Awards

The AIA award winners share many of the same features. The Arlington Elementary School has the same skylights that the Daniels School makes a big deal about. The New Orleans Starter Homes look like they could be a Passivhaus project in Munich.

The criteria for the COTE awards were upgraded two years ago in what they called an "extreme makeover" which raised the bar, including more things that should be in every building. They explained:

Some elements of previous measures have been merged together, and issues that have gained prominence in recent years—health, comfort, resilience, and economy—have been brought to the forefront. Metrics have been updated to reflect what current tools enable designers to track, with carbon emissions associated with construction, building operation, and occupant transportation earning special attention.

So, are the AIA awards given to buildings that are uncomfortable and unhealthy carbon spewing energy hogs? Of course not.

Two years ago, I asked, "Should there be a prize for sustainable architecture?" I quoted Lance Hosey who explained the history of the awards, who noted that they were supposed to sunset in five to ten years, "once all architects understood that great design is not possible without great performance."

This year I am going to turn it around, and ask, "Should there be a prize for buildings that are NOT sustainable?" Surely in these times when we are desperate to cut our carbon emissions, every single submission to the AIA for an award should have to fill out that application that COTE has prepared to show how they address carbon emissions, embodied energy, transportation energy intensity, not to mention health.

Looking at a lot of the AIA award winners, I suspect that many might have made it to the COTE awards had they bothered to fill in the form.

Next year, the AIA should scrap the the basic AIA awards but keep the COTEs. Frankly, in these times, if a building doesn't meet the criteria established by the COTE, it doesn't deserve an award of any kind.

UPDATE: In his article two years ago, Lance Hosey said exactly the same thing, turning it around as well.

I won’t debate the “other design merits” of this year’s winners, although I will point out that every one of them has won several awards focused on architecture separately from sustainability. By my count, so far these include two national AIA Institute Honor Awards—“the profession’s highest recognition of works that exemplify excellence”—as well as two dozen local or regional AIA design awards and nearly 50 design awards from other organizations. Excluding Top Ten, the median number of awards each project has won is five. So, if Betsky feels they are “thoroughly mediocre,” his beef is with the industry’s standards of design, not sustainability.

Given this, let’s reverse his question: Should awards be bestowed upon buildings that boast “other design merits” but lack “sustainable credentials”? In other words, if we’re forced to make a Sophie’s Choice—a false premise, as I point out below—which is more acceptable: to look good to one critic but perform poorly, or to perform well but look bad to that critic?

Keep the AIA/COTEs, but it's time to scrap the AIA Awards
If a building doesn't meet these basic and necessary criteria, it doesn't deserve an award.

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