It’s over: green bling gongs all gone

By Tina Perinotto
24 August 2011 –
[Updated] The Australian Institute of Architects has taken the controversial decision to drop its sustainability awards as a separate category, in a move designed to rid the awards of “green bling” and ugly buildings that would not make the grade in regular categories.

Instead the institute is expected from next year to require all entrants to respond to sustainability criteria and may make sustainability an award that can be made in any category of the awards.

The move caused a backlash among some institute members when it was mooted during the awards presentation night in July by NSW Awards jury chair, Genevieve Lilley, but has been vigourously defended by leading institute members.

The decision was made at meeting at Tusculum, the institute’s NSW headquarters last December attended by architecture Gold Medal winner Ken Maher who chaired the meeting, Tone Wheeler of Environa Studio, Paul Berkemeier of Paul Berkemeier Architects, Tristram Carfae of ARUP, Ross Clark, the institute’s chief operating officer, Melinda Dodson, the institute’s immediate past president and Peter Stutchbury of Peter Stutchbury Architecture.

Ken Maher

Mr Maher told The Fifth Estate it had always been part of the plan that a separate sustainability award be a transitionary measure to a broader inclusion of sustainability across all the award categories.

“We thought it was a maturing of the process,” Mr Maher said.

“We thought many projects, have it, yes, but not all – and really we want to encourage projects to demonstrate what they are doing in terms of sustainability.

“It was initiated with its own obsolescence in mind. It was always conceived as such because it is such a pressing issue of the age.

“What we are saying now is that the issue is well understood and no longer needs its own category and is implicit in every category.”

But not everyone is convinced.

Architect Debra Williams who has worked for a number of developers as well as urban design manager at the City West Development Corporation and The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, said it is far too early to make such an assumption and that sustainable design has a long way to go.

She told The Fifth Estate that she was concerned for buildings that might not be considered sufficiently aesthetic. “What happens to buildings that are exemplary [in] sustainable design but when judged under aesthetic considerations (the first hurdle to winning any of the other awards) are not considered?” she asked.

“There is so much more that can be done to produce truly sustainable architecture,” she said.

It was also annoying that there was so much concern about “green bling” as a reason for scrapping the award, or making it “an award within an award” which would still minimise its importance, she said.

“I just think it’s so self-congratulatory to assume this and that five star ratings are all we need now and that as far as they are concerned everyone will be ‘incorporating it’.”

Mr Wheeler, for one, was unmoved.

The sustainability category had become too often an “excuse for bad work” and “an excuse for bad aesthetics”, he said.

“That’s the problem with having a separate category… buildings not capable of entering other categories end up in the sustainability awards.”

Mr Wheeler said there were plenty of other organisations that handed out sustainability awards and some industry associations give out awards to buildings “just because they got built”.

However the institute says its awards “have to contribute to the tradition of aesthetics or quality of building and innovation in construction and planning and form,” Mr Wheeler said.

“The difficulty is that if you’ve been involved in a jury and see what gets dished up in the sustainability area – most of them are second rate buildings.”

A key motivator to rid the awards of the separate category was the profusion of “green bling” and “metrics”

By this he says he means a “whole series of purchasable green items” such as photo voltaic cells, or solar hot water and water recycling that are added to a poor quality building, sustainability metrics enumerated and then dubbed green and entered into the sustainability category of the awards.”

Tone Wheeler

“An analogy might be with motor cars: you can put a green engine in a Hummer but is it safe to drive or inexpensive to run?”

Mr Wheeler named recent sustainable award winning buildings that did not perform as expected  or failed in significant ways.

“We’re looking for two things: it has to be green and it has to be beautiful; in other words, does it have merit as architecture?”

Mr Wheeler said design and an enduring aesthetic quality needed to be the starting point of true sustainability.

It was not good enough to make a more sustainable airconditioning system. If the building is naturally ventilated then that is an element that would last for a long time, Mr Wheeler said

Will there still be a separate sustainability award?

Mr Wheeler was unsure.

“I am less concerned with that than I am with that the entry criteria is the same in every state.”

“It has to be good enough, without the green bits, to win an award.”

And coming up in The Architectural Review

In a forthcoming article for The Architectural Review Mr Wheeler says: “No award is more controversial than the sustainability Award, introduced in the early nineties.

“For some, the award was never legitimate: either every building should be ‘sustainable’, or it’s unfair to single out one aspect of a building’s design when it should be the core value in building design, particularly in the current zeitgeist, or simply one, minor, consideration among innovation, aesthetics, narrative, composition and so on.

“For others, the award has simply run its course, important when green issues were rising to the fore, but now redundant given the belief that all buildings should be judged against green criteria. ”

Mr Wheeler  also contests in the article that the print version* of the Environment Design Guide, the “premium research document for architects” to guide sustainable design only had 300 subscribers from institute  membership of more than 10,000.

“Indeed, there was some concern amongst the EDG editorial committee (which included members of the RAIA NSC) that very few of its 300-odd subscribers had even opened the huge, three-volume printed version of the EDG, and frustration that it had become a green talisman for the bookshelf. Even when it switched to a digital version, the fear remained that, as great a resource as it was, it wasn’t known or used.”

Michael Day editor of EDG has contested these claims and told The Fifth Estate that the circulation figures are wrong, “by an order of magnitude.”

Mr Day said that EDG was still transitioning from its printed version to an online one.

“The current EDG is online it is very much alive, it is relevant, it has a large subscriber base and it is growing.

“Of course we can do more to revitalise EDG, yet I am extremely concerned that Tone’s unfounded comments will only damage those efforts.”

Mr Wheeler concludes in the article that  “the intention of the … revised Sustainable Architecture Award was to increase awareness of sustainable issues among the profession, to emphasise that it applied to every building, and that by having to reference some green criteria, there would be a general increase in knowledge about green design issues.”

Clarification: Mr Wheeler referred here to the earlier print version of EDG, and an update to this story has included comments from EDG editor Michael Day to clarify this issue. These updates were made immediately and in consultation with Mr Day.

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