Skip to content

Make this the last AIA Awards where they don’t consider sustainability

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) just released their list of winners of the 2020 AIA Awards, which “celebrates the best contemporary architecture regardless of budget, size, style, or type. These stunning projects show the world the range of outstanding work architects create and highlight the many ways buildings and spaces can improve our lives.”

Last year, I suggested that these awards should be scrapped, and that they should just do the Committee for the Environment (COTE) awards, suggesting that “if a building doesn't meet these basic and necessary criteria, it doesn't deserve an award.” Meanwhile, the Royal Institute of British Architects is going this route, and has just announced that all entries for their awards (which include the Stirling Prize) have to be “environmentally sustainable.” You don't even get considered for the shortlist if you are not. I recently suggested a Carbon-cle Cup award for the least sustainable projects; let's look at the AIA award winners through this lens.

Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship

Kaplan Institute© Steve Hall

In the heart of Mies van Der Rohe’s historic Illinois Institute of Technology campus, the Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship fosters collaboration and innovation among the school’s students, faculty, and alumni. Containing a wide array of collaboration spaces for the school’s project-based experiences, this open and light-filled building embodies its synergistic and interdisciplinary approach to educational initiatives.

No environmental info here, but what's most interesting is the exterior wall, made of ETFE instead of glass. You don't get a view, but still….

Overall, the design is forward-thinking in its approach to sustainability. The institute’s second floor, which cantilevers over the ground floor to provide shading, is wrapped in a dynamic facade of ETFE foil cushions that vary the amount of solar energy entering the building through a sophisticated pneumatic system. The entire facade is controlled by an automated system and adapts to shifting weather and daylight in real time to balance energy use and daylight potential.

John Ronan Architects say that the foil is 1 percent of the weight of glass “and gives the building a light, cloud-like appearance.” More info and images at the AIA here.

Calgary Central Library

Calgary Central Library© Michael Grimm

The library is wrapped in a striking triple-glazed façade composed of a modular, hexagonal pattern that echoes the library’s efforts to welcome all visitors. Variations of the pattern are scattered across the building’s curved surface in alternating patterns of fritted glass and aluminum, giving rise to shapes that evoke familiar forms. The whole building is encased in the same pattern, allowing every side to operate as the “front” of the library, and the same visual vocabulary plays a significant role in the library’s new visual identity and wayfinding inside.

It's by Snøhetta and Dialog, and neither firm is a slouch when it comes to sustainable design. It's LEED Gold and that's all we know. More at AIA.

Floral Court

Floral Court© Tim Soar

The design team organized Floral Court around the guiding principles of improving London’s public realm, conservation, and the replacement of previously non-contributing architecture. The project’s public courtyard has quickly become a popular destination, and its exterior spaces boast tailored details that lend it an interior feel and enhance their room-like environment. Key elements of the district’s historic fabric have been restored and repurposed while new details, such as a set of ornate gates inspired by a historic balcony, evoke its heritage.

I'm struggling here, so little information. But this one definitely gets points for preservation, for weaving the new and the old, this one works. “Floral Court’s mixed-use scheme feels both contemporary and as if it has always existed. Its assemblage of individual projects that combine retail and residential uses both new and period buildings in the city’s historic core.” More at the AIA.

Glenstone Museum

Glenstone Museum© Iwan Baan

This major expansion of the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, MD, dramatically increases exhibition space for its collection of post-World War II art from around the world. The centerpiece, a 204,000-square-foot building called the Pavilions, is ringed by a dramatically renovated landscape boasting 6,000 new trees and 55 native species, helps advance the museum’s mission of presenting contemporary art in a captivating setting.

The architects say it's LEED Gold, but going beyond that, such stunning landscape, so many trees, credit to PWP Landscape Architecture. It always helps to have Iwan Baan take the photos too, he makes anything look gorgeous. More at the AIA.

Jishou Art Museum

Jishou Art Museum© Tian Fangfang

Firmly cemented in the city’s urban fabric, the new museum straddles the Wanrong River and functions much like a pedestrian bridge. Covered bridges called fengyu qiao, meaning wind and rain bridge, are common in this mountainous region of China, and the design is a contemporary interpretation of the time-honored building type. The introduction of art as a program element helps translate the formal language of the traditional bridge into a modern context.

Really nothing I can say here, there is no information at all at the AIA or on the architects website. But it is…interesting.

Minnesota State Capitol Restoration

Minnesota State Capitol Restoration© Paul Crosby Architectural Photography

Having withstood more than 100 years of the region’s harsh winters, “The People’s House,” as the Minnesota State Capitol is affectionately called, was in desperate need of a thorough restoration. Recognized as a Class Gilbert masterpiece built between 1898 and 1904, the building faced significant water infiltration, dangerous stone conditions, and long-delayed preservation efforts.

We do always quote Carl Elefante: “the greenest building is the one already standing.” And HGA did a masterful job here. I really liked this from their website, where they mix new tech and old:

Inside the Capitol and in collaboration with multiple contractors and subcontractors, we installed entirely new, energy-efficient, cost-effective, and low-maintenance mechanical systems. Our primary challenge was finding ways to insert the new systems into ceilings and walls decorated with historically significant murals and decorative paintwork. Using BIM modeling and laser scanning, we carefully coordinated and inserted ductwork, wiring, and plumbing into the walls and ceilings…. because the Capitol was the first building in the state to have electrical lighting, our team saved as many historic fixtures as possible, which were rewired, refurbished and retrofitted to accommodate LED bulbs.

More at the AIA.

Tivoli Hjørnet

Tivoli Hjørnet© Hufton + Crow

With one foot planted in the past and one in the future, this project engages the history of Copenhagen’s extraordinary Tivoli Garden and adds to its storied legacy. The garden, originally founded in 1844 on the city’s perimeter, was envisioned as a place for amusement, culture, and recreation, and the Hjørnet project resonates with the garden’s dualities: traditional and experimental, bucolic and urban, contemplative and entertaining.

When I first saw this building, I thought wow, that is a lot of weird glass. In fact, according to the Pei Cobb Freed website, it as a “climate wall, solar panels, electronic heliostatic shading” and conforms with Danish energy performance simulation model BR2010, which is pretty energy efficient.

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Terminal 2

Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Terminal 2© Lucas Blair Simpson

Accommodating Mumbai’s emergence as the financial capital of India and supporting its airport’s growing volume of domestic and international air traffic required a bold solution. Already daunting, this project was further complicated by the client’s challenge to triple the existing airport’s capacity on a highly constrained site ringed by informal villages and an overflowing river. The result is a new terminal that echoes the heritage of the country and the spirit of the city.

Not a peep about sustainability anywhere. But then, it's an airport, where sustainability is a contradiction in terms. More at the AIA.

Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship© Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship/ Steve Hall

So what do we learn from all this? Not much, because there is so little information. But as the Chair of the RIBA Awards noted, “‘Environmental performance is no longer detached from architecture.”

The AIA celebrates “celebrates the best contemporary architecture” but can it be good, let alone the best, if it's not sustainable? Or as Lance Hosey put it, “Design isn’t separate from sustainability—it’s the key to it,” writing in his book The Shape of Green:

“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.”

Many of these buildings had green qualities and certifications. I am sure if the questions had been asked, as they are now at the RIBA, they would have given the answers, and we could have really understood these buildings better.

Bronwyn is right. I love a beautiful building as much as any architect or for that matter, any person, but I can't look at a building anymore without thinking of what it's made of, how much it weighs, how it performs. I don't see how anyone can, especially at the AIA where, in their statement, Where we stand: climate action, they wrote:

It is our responsibility to work globally to help reduce operational and embodied greenhouse gas production with passive design techniques, employ energy efficiency measures, adapt existing buildings, and specify low-impact building materials that increase human health and productivity while withstanding the effects of a changing climate.

It is our responsibility to make the business and financial case to clients to help them better understand and support the need to integrate renewable energy sources into all buildings, making them more sustainable, resilient, and economical.

I believe that it is their responsibility to ensure that from now on, the AIA awards reflect this stance where the AIA will ” shift a significant portion of its work to climate action.” Tune in next year.

They say these are about celebrating the best contemporary architecture. But what does than mean today?