Image credit: Tim Crocker

A modest Passivehaus social housing estate has scooped up the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize, one of the most important architectural prizes in the UK.

 Goldsmith Street is seven terraces of homes designed for Norwich City Council by architecture practice Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, in the east of England.

It beat five other buildings: a mega project – London Bridge Station, the Weston Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the beautiful Nevill Holt Opera House and a house made entirely of cork.

The judges, including the architect of last year’s winner Bloomberg London, and the architect of the London Eye, called it “a modest masterpiece”.

“It is high-quality architecture in its purest, most environmentally and socially-conscious form… These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing.”

RIBA president and judge Alan Jones, an ex-council house resident himself, described it as a “beacon of hope”.

The back gardens mostly share a secure, curved alleyway for children to play together, and a wide landscaped walkway runs through the middle of the estate. Parking is located at the outer edges so that people, not cars, prevail upon the streets.

It’s a distinct contrast to last year’s winner, Norman Foster’s £1.3bn (AUD$2.46 billion) headquarters for billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The building was claimed to be the most sustainable office building ever conceived, despite having imported 600 tonnes of bronze from Japan and a thousands of tonnes of granite from India, giving it a massive ecological footprint.

Passivhaus features

It consists of almost 100 highly energy-efficient homes set in rows of two-storey houses bookended by three-storey flats, each with their own front door, generous lobby space for buggies and bikes, and a private balcony.

Image credit: Tim Crocker

Goldsmith Street also meets rigorous Passivhaus standards – still unusual for a dense, mass housing development. With highly insulated walls, energy costs are estimated to be 70 per cent cheaper than an average household. Letterboxes are built into external porches to reduce draughts, and perforated “brise-soleil” sun shading is above windows and doors.

Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) is used, as is the case with most Passivhaus projects. The full range of providers’ services come pre-wired, so that providers don’t have to drill holes through the crucial vapour barrier and thermal envelope.

Windows are positioned to minimise overlooking, and roof profiles are angled at 15 degrees to let sunlight and daylight into the streets.

Although dense, it is in no way oppressive. Reminiscent of traditional English terraced housing, it is nevertheless very modern.

It looks more like a mews. The Passivhaus windows needed to be smaller than in a traditional terrace home but the architects have recessed the windows to give them the same proportions.

Recognition for social housing

Since the first award in 1996, this is the first time that the Stirling Prize has gone to a project consisting entirely of social or council houses.

It had previously won the Neave Brown Award for Housing, the only shortlisted project with a 100 per cent social housing provision (councils normally only are able to demand a small percentage of social housing from developers).

Louis Brown, a builder who worked on the estate, now lives there. “For me and my family and this has literally been the best thing that has happened,” he told the BBC.

“From my perspective, it’s just being able to come home from work and open my little gate, especially in the summertime and my little girl isplaying up-and-down with her friends, who come from all over the world, you’ve got Polish, Lithuanians, English, and they’re all absolutely brilliant people.

“Inside is lovely and warm. I get up early for work and it’s never cold. When I lived in a flat and I had to get up for work it was horrible.”

The local Norwich councillor Gail Harris, cabinet member for social housing, said “winning this prestigious award shows that it is possible to build fantastic new council homes, despite the challenges posed by central government cuts and restrictions around the right to buy receipts.”

Designing for social connectedness

The architects are David Mikhail and his wife and practice partner Anna Lee Riches.

“Our brief asked for one hundred homes, but it was a small site of one hectare and there was no way of delivering that kind of density with the usual 22 metre separation between homes that is enshrined in most planning policies, so we had to look at historical examples,” he told BBC.

“Luckily for us there was a really successful scheme in Norwich of Edwardian houses that everybody loves and wants to live in called Golden Triangle, and we discovered that that was characterised by 14 m separation distance so that meant that we were able to bring back streets to that part of knowledge in a similar way.

“It’s a series of yellow brick streets characterised by some pretty racy black pantiles on the roof, two to three storey homes, it’s verdant, it’s gotten hidden landscape spaces for children to play overlooked by their parents, away from cars, it’s a very lovely place to walk, cycle or play.”

The design uses a very simple technique to achieve social connectedness. “Streets with front doors face each other; this is a really good basis for social connection.

“There’s lots of research showing that traffic speed is inversely proportional to the number of friends you will have on a street so we focused on how to incorporate cars and car parking, but at the same time we tried to find ways of prioritising pedestrians and children playing.

“Making the homes ultra low energy was really key,” he said.

Image credit: Tim Crocker

“We did a prior scheme which was used as a research for this in a way. The master plan was based around how you get free energy from the sun in winter, which determines their orientation to the south. It was very important for us, and wonderfully, the client, Norwich City, came back to us and said can you make these houses Passivhaus, which means ultra low fuel bills.”

“I think they are social, ecological and beautiful.”

A new dynamic

Mikhail said that he hopes this will give a new dynamic to the construction of council housing in the UK. “At this time when we have a housing and climate change crisis we need to rearm and involve local authorities to start building again.”

Accepting the Stirling Prize, David Mikhail also called for better rules on designing in a climate emergency:

“We need the government to legislate, so we are not seen as the crusties in the room.” This was a direct dig at Prime Minister Boris Johnson who that day had described the Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking streets in London as “crusties”.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference,  Energy Management in Buildings and  Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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