RIBA Stirling Prize Goes to Passivhaus Social Housing Project

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
©. Tim Crocker via RIBA

The most prestigious prize in British architecture is given to the solidly green project rather than the flash in the pan.

The Stirling Prize is the top award in British architecture, and it's often controversial, going to the flashy attention-grabber like last year when the Bloomberg Headquarters in London won, much to my chagrin. This year, the smart money was betting on a house made of cork, but the winner was Goldsmith Street, a housing project by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, built for the Norwich City Council.

©. Tim Crocker via RIBA/ Passivhaus townhouses in Goldsmith Street

© Tim Crocker via RIBAThe architects won a competition almost a dozen years ago, and have been working on it ever since.

The eventual layout is a simple series of seven terrace blocks arranged in four lines. An immediate connection with a very recognisable urban layout, the architects were able to convince the planners to accept a narrow 14m between blocks – effectively the street width – through a careful design of windows to minimise overlooking, and a very thoughtful asymmetric roof profile that allows good sunlight and daylight into the streets. The result is a very dense development, but one that is in no way oppressive.

The housing is built to the tough Passivhaus standard that we love on TreeHugger, which has lots of insulation and careful control of the amount of glazing, which is far more expensive than the usual windows on modern housing.

front facades head on

© Tim Crocker via RIBA

To be certified Passivhaus, the windows had to be smaller than the proportion in a Georgian or Victorian terrace, so the architects have used a set-back panel around the windows to give an enlarged feel, and panels of textured brick have been introduced into the main elevations, again to balance the feel of the fenestration along the terrace.

This is a trick that a lot of Passivhaus architects use; look at this house in Seattle to see all the stuff around the window to make it look bigger.

roofing detail Goldsmith street

© tim Crocker via RIBA

Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian is impressed, calling it an architectural marvel.

Immense thought has gone into every detail – from the perforated brick balconies to the cleverly interlocking staircases in the three-storey flats at the end of each terrace – to ensure that every home has its own front door on the street. The back gardens look on to a planted alley, dotted with communal tables and benches, while parking has been pushed to the edge of the site, freeing up the streets for people, not cars.
Goldsmith Street facades

© Tim Crocker via RIBA

There is a huge problem of fuel poverty in the UK, where draughty old houses cost a fortune to heat and some people have to decide whether to eat or heat. It's one of the great virtues of Passivhaus design that fuel poverty is eliminated, because they never get really cold. The 80 watts that humans put out every hour is almost enough to keep it warm.

There is also a real shortage of high quality social housing in the UK, thanks to the Thatcher policies that sold it all off, and the right to buy policies that are still pushed by Conservative governments. It should also be noted that not everyone is thrilled with this project; there is a group called Architects 4 Social Housing that claims it is "inaccurately described as ‘social’ and built on the ruins of demolished council homes."

Notwithstanding this, as Wainright concludes: "This year’s choice sends a clear message that, despite government cuts, it is eminently possible for brave councils to take the initiative and build proper social housing."

This project is a model for how to do it right. It's got reasonable densities, traditional street planning without cars, and Passivhaus performance that means it will be healthy and comfortable. This truly deserves the Stirling.

James Stirling in Edinburgh

James Stirling would probably approve/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We have also quoted Bronwyn Barry who says Passivhaus is a team sport, so along with architects Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, congratulations to Environmental Engineers Greengauge Building Energy Consultants and Passivhaus designer WARM.