“There should be no top 10 prizes for sustainable architecture”

Awards should not be bestowed on buildings that boast sustainable credentials but lack other design merits, says Aaron Betsky in this Opinion column.


If a thoroughly mediocre building uses less energy and is made in ways that are more “sustainable”, should it receive an award? The American Institute of Architects (AIA) apparently thinks so. This spring, they gave their so-called Top Ten Awards through their Committee on the Environment (COTE).

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.

It is not that any of the designs are particularly bad, although some, such as the Health and Science Building for the Bristol Community College by Sasaki Associates and the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital by HOK, come pretty close.

The COTE Top Ten unfortunately seems to me to give the wrong message

While the former is a banal box housing institutional spaces with lay-in tile ceilings, while an awkwardly balanced roof floats over a featureless atrium/hallway, the latter is a neurotic accumulation of metal-clad curves containing what appear to be equally unpleasant interiors.

These two buildings are receiving awards because they have features such as natural ventilation and design elements that reduce energy usage, as well as gadgets that, in the case of the Bristol building, include an “enthalpy wheel heat recovery” and “fan coil units for local control,” but they are still large, stand-alone structures that are not only (in my opinion) ugly, but create little in terms of a worthwhile experience for users.

You also have to wonder about the recovery cost of the energy embedded in making and transporting all those gizmos.

Ng Teng Fong General Hospital & Jurong Community Hospital
Betsky believes that new buildings like the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital & Jurong Community Hospital are inherently unsustainable

On the positive side, if you want to reduce your energy costs, it pays to let in more daylight (of the right kind and from the right direction), which means larger windows and, in almost all these award winners, sky-lit atria look to be decent places to be.

Although they have become a cliché for most office and institutional buildings, this ubiquity does take away from the fact that this is one place where the renewed focus on the environment has the advantage of spurring architects to create a space that is not necessarily necessary, but opens up their creations to human occupation in a pleasant manner.

The most beautiful design among the 10 is one that has no atrium, however, and very little occupiable space. It is a garage in New York designed by Dattner Architects with WXY Architects.

The most sustainable architecture would start by using existing structures

Its contribution to the discussion about sustainability comes mainly from a feature the public will never experience, which is the 1.5-acre (0.6-hectare) rooftop garden. Its perforated double skin also performs well in making sure the insides do not cook. The result is that the building looks slick, sleek, and modest, forming a useful foil to the expressive forms of the concrete salt storage shed next door.

Also impressive, at least from photographs, is Stanford University’s Central Energy Facility, designed by ZGF from Portland, Oregon. It is not much more than a canopy roof made up of solar panels, a concrete box for the machinery and another fritted glass one for the personnel who work there.

Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage & Spring Street Salt Shed
Of this year’s COTE Top Ten, Betsky is more impressed by the Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage & Spring Street Salt Shed

What I like is that is does not mush these forms together, nor does it try to dress itself up other than by using what appear to be refined construction details that handle how the various materials meet. The energy facility turns a utility building that has active energy consumption reduction features into a monument of that very condition of usefulness.

As the AIA’s citation says (in rather broken English), “the architectural expression is one of lightness, transparency and sustainability to express the facility’s purpose”.

In terms of true sustainability, probably the best project, though, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Regional Center in Oahu. That is because it reuses two airplane hangars that late American architect Albert Kahn designed.

Beyond renovation, architecture needs to be an act of opening up and aligning to the landscape

It would have been better if that had been all that architects HOK had done, but the programme brief apparently necessitated an additional building between the two hangars, and the firm created a fussy infill box, although once again it has what appears to be a nice atrium.

On the plus side, most of the new building’s energy reduction comes from a natural downdraft system, rather than through lots of gizmos and gadgets.

There lies the crux of both the problem and the solution of how to make sustainable buildings that also represent good architecture. The most sustainable architecture would start by using existing structures, as the demolition of existing ones is a tremendous waste of embedded resources, while the act itself creates more pollution.

NOAA Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center
Bestky praises the NOAA Daniel K Inouye Regional Center for the reuse of existing buildings

Constructing any building, no matter how energy efficient, also means using non-renewable resources, while construction is a major contribution to pollution. If, on the other hand, you can figure out how to make an existing building more energy efficient, you will make wise use of what we have already created.

Beyond renovation, architecture needs to be an act of opening up and aligning to the landscape. Sustainability means finding ways to create ways to promote airflow, temper temperature differentials, bring daylight in, and create spaces that people will use more efficiently, which usually means together.

The next step is to find ways to store and release energy within the building, and to do the same with rainwater. Only then do the next level of gadgets – from geothermal energy to solar collectors to heat pumps and moveable louvers – make sense.

There should be recognition for great design, which starts by building good spaces

The COTE Top Ten unfortunately seems to me to give the wrong message. It says that you can make bland box, dress it up to mitigate its inherent wastefulness, take some pretty pictures, and go to sleep at night thinking you have saved the planet for your children.

You have not. You have used up the resources they should inherit to make just another building block in the sprawl of banality, while imprisoning its users in a fluorescent lit limbo of low-ceilinged offices and classrooms, even if you are giving them the sop of a nice atrium in which to sip their responsibly sourced coffee.

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.

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