Should there be prizes for sustainable architecture?

Brock Environmental Center
© Brock Environmental Center/ SmithGroupJJR

When reviewing this year’s AIA/COTE Awards for the top ten sustainable buildings, I chose to accentuate the positive: The remarkable reworking of the awards to redefine sustainability, to include aspects like wellness, resilience, resource use and embodied energy. But I noted:

It is a wonderful, well rounded list that covers so many aspects of sustainable design; It’s also seriously out there in terms of most architectural practices where even thinking about saving energy is pushing the envelope. I wonder if that is why I find the actual top ten a bit disappointing this year, with no single building jumping out as being seriously great architecture. There are so few buildings around that would meet such tough criteria as COTE has set out, so few architects around who could even fill out the application form.

Writing in Dezeen, critic Aaron Betsky used much stronger language.

If a thoroughly mediocre building uses less energy and is made in ways that are more "sustainable", should it receive an award? …If these are really the best projects American architecture can produce – that are also sustainable – in a year, I believe the chances of convincing a larger public that sustainability, beauty, and good building can come together are very low.

He wonders why we even have these awards at all, concluding:

In fact, there should be no top-10 prizes for "sustainable architecture". There should be recognition for great design, which starts by building good – in an environmental, social, and aesthetic sense –spaces. These should serve as models of how we can use architecture to make our environment better, which is not necessarily by making more new and mediocre buildings.

Writing in Huffington Post, Architect and writer Lance Hosey explains the history of the award, started in 1997 because the AIA wouldn’t include sustainability criteria in its AIA design awards. He quotes Bob Berkebile:

“Originally,” Berkebile explains, “COTE agreed that the awards program should sunset in 5-10 years, once all architects understood that great design is not possible without great performance. Two decades later, there remains a need for the program to demonstrate this truth.”

So there is no real disagreement there; Everybody agrees that all beautiful buildings should be sustainable and vice versa. Everybody hoped that these sustainable design awards would become redundant. But there are still many who just do not care all that much about sustainability, and frankly, there are a lot of architects who do care about the nuts and bolts of sustainable design, but are not very good designers. This is a discussion that has been going on as long as we have been thinking about sustainable design; I wrote in 2009 in a post titled Why is so much green architecture so ugly?

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. There is a reason architects are usually old when they get famous- it takes years to build a building and it takes many buildings until you really know what you are doing.

It is an important discussion about beauty and sustainability. Lance has written "Design isn’t separate from sustainability—it’s the key to it." and in his book The Shape of Green that “Following the principles of sustainability to their logical conclusion inevitably requires the reshaping of buildings in ways that are smarter with resources, better for people, and, yes, more aesthetically satisfying.”

But for all his complaining about Betsky’s article, he is making the same point - both believe that green buildings should (and can) be beautiful. As Betsky noted, “There should be recognition for great design, which starts by building good – in an environmental, social, and aesthetic sense –spaces.”

Lance asks an important question. I suspect that last year I might have agreed with Betsky, that we don't need these awards anymore. But it doesn't appear that Betsky actually spent a lot of time looking at the new criteria. They are a seriously high bar, including things that most architects have barely even thought about. I suspect that it really limited the pool of available entries. Sustainable design is getting a lot harder, addressing more issues, and the award programs might actually be diverging rather than heading toward merging.

But that's why, I love the Living Building Challenge; high bars give you something to reach for.

Interesting reading; Betsky in Dezeen and Hosey in Huffpo.

Should there be prizes for sustainable architecture?
Two prominent critics discuss the recent AIA/Cote Awards.

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