Stirling Prize Short List Raises the Question: What Is Climate-Responsible Design?

We live in a make and mend world, and have to question every new building.

100 Liverpool Street
100 Liverpool Street.

Charles Hosea via RIBA

The Stirling Prize is awarded every year to the United Kingdom's best new building, and every year I used to complain about how unsustainable the winners were. A few years ago, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) declared it was changing its ways, 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."

This year, the new rules kicked in, and RIBA President Simon Allford is quoted in the RIBA Journal describing this year's shortlist:

"All six are…underpinned by their understanding of construction’s responsibility to mitigate and adapt to our climate crisis. From the reuse and upgrade of existing buildings to the conscious specification of low-carbon materials and technologies, to the thoughtful design of hybrid, flexible spaces – these schemes consider their environment and give generously to their community."
100 Liverpool Street
100 Liverpool Street.

Jain Airey via RIBA

The article is titled "Climate-responsible design underpins Stirling Prize 2022 shortlist," which begs the question: What is climate-responsible design?

One of the shortlisted projects, 100 Liverpool Street by Hopkins Architects, is described by RIBA's Eleanor Young as being a "high ambition refurb, "The project takes the conversation on from the re-use of the concrete frames and foundations to be a net zero carbon building, a first for property company and client British Land." The project page says: "Its approach to reuse demonstrates clear strategic thinking, keeping what could be salvaged, unpicking what could not, and adding what was necessary."

The original building was an interesting pile of post-modern pink granite from the '80s with giant trading floors for the financial sector, which are no longer in demand. The C20 Society noted that "the complex was widely celebrated as the country’s most outstanding office development built during the 1980s financial boom, and was praised for its exceptionally high quality, carefully planned public realm and prestigious collection of purpose-designed artworks."

In an earlier RIBA Journal article about the building, there was lots of talk about sustainability, reducing embodied carbon as far as possible through careful design and specification, and offsetting the remainder, which they did with tree-planting in Tibet and Mexico. Head of Sustainable Development Julia Morgan "acknowledges that offsetting is not a panacea, noting that no amount of forest growing could compensate for carbon emissions at our current rate, but the scale of British Land’s investment is impressive."

None of this was very convincing when I read the original article, planting trees in Tibet is certainly not a panacea, I rather liked the pink PoMo original building, and the new all-glass façade did not particularly seem like a more sustainable approach, but I didn't think it merited a post at the time. However, talking Stirling Prize is another story altogether; does this truly up the ante on environmentally aware entries, as promised?

Our friends at Architects for Climate Action (ACAN!) aren't so sure, and call on RIBA to stop celebrating architecture that is bad for the planet. They are pretty blunt about 100 Liverpool Street:

"100 Liverpool St is an exercise in greenwashing. Demolition of the 1980s pink granite office block paved way for the erection of a entirely glazed office block. Its claim to ‘net zero’ is founded on the re-use of a portion of the building’s original concrete and steel, hardly a saving for a building that did not need to be demolished in the first place. The purchase of carbon offsets abroad, in Tibet and Mexico, is contentious. Buying offsets are a ‘get out of jail free’ card that reinforces the status quo of pollution and takes land out of the control of indigenous groups. Its glazed facade requires an expensive and intensive artificial cooling and heating that in a fuel poverty crisis and climate emergency is thoughtless to promote."
Heygate Estates in 2009
Heygate Estates in 2009.

Bradley via Wikimedia

Another shortlisted project not previously known to Treehugger is Orchard Gardens, a redevelopment of a big housing project in the Elephant & Castle area, built on the site of the Heygate Estate. This was another of those modernist neo-brutalist projects that everyone loves to hate (like the much lamented Robin Hood Gardens) that they refused to maintain properly, and then we end up with demolition by neglect.

It was a big scandal back in 2013 when it was sold at a loss and was unfairly maligned. Architect Tim Tinker told the BBC: "The Heygate and its design has been stigmatized and I thought it was time to set the record straight. Its notorious reputation is a farrago of half-truths and lies put together by people who should have known better."

Orchard Gardens
Orchard Gardens.

Enrique Verdugo via RIBA

I have suggested before that no building that rises out of such rubble should be considered for an award, that it is like encouraging arson, but it's actually worse than that. ACAN! describes how 1,194 social housing units were replaced by 2,700 homes, of which only 92 are now social housing. They write: "Unnecessary demolition further fuels climate breakdown. The replacement of social housing with high end homes is an act of social cleansing, which exacerbates growing inequality facing our societies."

looking up at Magdelene
The New Library, Magdelene College.

Nick Kane

There are some wonderful projects on the shortlist, notably Níall McLaughlin's Magdelene College Library, a wonder in wood and brick.

But we live in a world where we have to make do and mend rather than just knock things down, and the history behind 100 Liverpool and Orchard Park cannot be ignored. In the Stirling Prize announcement, Allford says, “As we grapple with housing, energy and climate crises, these six projects give cause for optimism, each offering innovative solutions to the challenges of today and the future." Two of them do not.