A Big House on a Hill Is the RIBA House of the Year

Once again, we have to ask: Should buildings like this be given prizes?

House on the Hill

Paul Riddle via RIBA

Every year the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) chooses a House of the Year, all televised on a captivating show called "Grand Designs" that is hosted by Kevin McCloud. This year, the House on the Hill, an addition to a Georgian farmhouse designed by Alison Brooks Architects, took the prize. According to the jury report:

"A small eighteenth century farmhouse on an exceptionally beautiful site, the highest point of Gloucestershire, has been transformed, in a four-phase programme over ten years, into a very special place, both a home and a gallery of Indian and African sculpture. House on the Hill is a labour of love by client and architect working together with what appears to have been a complete unity of purpose. An art collection might sometimes be a sobering influence on the liveability of a home, but here the overall mood is never didactic or pompous. The house and its contents represent a near perfect amalgam of architecture, landscape, inhabitation and art that is notably poised and elegant as well as being light, fresh and airy. The overall mood is calm and entirely assured."

Most houses in the United Kingdom have Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) that measure carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and get an energy efficiency rating. Hawkes Architecture collated them all and found that none of the short-listed houses had an A-rating. The House on the Hill apparently got a D rating and pumps out 14 metric tonnes of CO2 per year—the worst on the long list. The only house on the long list that had an A was the Devon Passivhaus—what I previously described as "an architectural stunner, among the most beautiful Passivhaus designs I have ever seen."

House on the Hill addition

Paul Riddle via RIBA

However, the House on the Hill does have some green features, according to the RIBA:

"Ground and air source heat pumps and solar panels work together to reduce the building’s overall energy consumption, and the new wing has an extensive green roof planted with native wildflowers to reduce rainwater loss. As part of the renovations, the surrounding grounds have also been revitalised with new wildflower meadows and orchards, bordered by hedges that have been repaired and renewed with pollen-rich species of plants."
Inteiror of house on the hill

Paul Riddle via RIBA

The jurors' report notes this project was "a labour of love" built in a four-phase program over 10 years. When asked about the sustainability of the RIBA shortlist, jury chair Amin Taha told Architects' Journal that "it’s a little unfair to judge designs conceived more than a decade ago by today’s expectations."

I am sorry, but I don't think it is unfair at all. This is the same argument that was used this year for the Stirling Prize, that it was on the boards before people took carbon as seriously. But times have changed.

Fridays For Future COP26 Scotland March
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

This award is being given out a month after the 20201 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), where young protesters complained that "we’ve seen tokenism, we’ve seen an incremental approach, we’ve seen sustainability treated as box-ticking activity."

Hot or cool report lifestyle targets

Hot or Cool

This award is being given out a few months after the Hot or Cool Institute issued its report "1.5 Degree Lifestyles: Toward a Fair Consumption Space for All," which documented how we need to reduce our carbon emissions to 2.5 metric tons per capita by 2030, and that the average resident in the U.K. currently emits 8.5 metric tonnes per year, with 1.9 metric tonnes coming from their housing. According to the EPC, this house emits 14 metric tonnes.

Highway 9

Insulate Britain

Perhaps most importantly, this award is being given out to honor a lovely but leaky house for a very wealthy family of art collectors while 9 of their fellow citizens are in jail for demanding decent housing that does not emit 14 metric tonnes of carbon as part of the Insulate Britain campaign. They explained:

"Following the widely recognised failure of our government at COP26, we are continuing to ask them to get on with the job: of cutting carbon emissions; of insulating cold and leaky houses; of protecting the people of this country from climate collapse, because the lives of our children and those of all future generations hang in the balance."
Interior of the House on the Hill

Paul Riddle via RIBA

There is no question that the House on the Hill is a gorgeous two million pound pile, and that Alison Brooks Architects have done a marvelous job. It is, as RIBA President Simon Allford notes:

"Intriguing and distinguished, House on the Hill is the impressive result of a ten-year collaboration between the homeowners and their architect. This is an extraordinary labour of love in architectural form. Every detail has been meticulously considered and exquisitely finished, resulting in a truly remarkable home that enhances its unique setting."

Everyone involved—the architect and the client together—did a lovely job and deserves congratulations. But do they deserve a House of the Year award? It seems extraordinarily tone-deaf.

In the Architects' Journal, Taha says maybe in five years they will take carbon seriously, blames contractors and project managers, and says, "Architects should, I hope, be the last to point the finger at." That is a statement of staggering hypocrisy.

covered in ink
protester covered in ink.

Insulate Britain

People are literally gluing themselves to streets demanding low carbon buildings. In reaction to this and other climate-related protests, laws are being changed that, according to The Guardian columnist George Monbiot, are turning Britain into a police state by stealth.

I am writing this from Canada and may be out of touch with what is happening in the U.K., but from here, the optics of this are terrible. I am in awe of many British architectural activist groups, from Architects Declare to the Architects for Climate Action Network and, yes, even Insulate Britain. But the RIBA has lost the plot here. They should be leading instead of lagging.