February 2014

Volume 23, Number 2

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AIA Honor Awards To Be Judged on Sustainability

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Many previous winners of AIA Institute Honor Awards have featured green attributes, but energy and water use data are now required submission criteria.

By Candace Pearson


Energy models indicated that Clemson University’s Lee Hall, an Honor Award recipient in 2013, would perform 50% better than a conventional building. Contestants submitting applications for 2015 will be required to provide similar energy use metrics for their projects.

Photo: Nicobro. License: CC BY 3.0.

After decades of effort within the American Institute of Architects (AIA), sustainability metrics have now become required submission criteria for what many consider to be one of the highest recognitions in architecture—the annual AIA Institute Honor Awards.

Submission guidelines for the 2015 awards will require projected energy and water use figures and a narrative describing the project’s sustainable features—both of which were only “recommended” in 2013 and 2014. To ensure that this information is fully considered, at least one architect with recognized expertise in sustainability will sit on the jury panel.

A long time coming

According to William Leddy, FAIA, who had an instrumental role in passing the changes while serving as both 2013 Committee on the Environment (COTE) chair and member of the Awards Task Force, pressure to change the Honor Awards has actually been brewing for years. “Bob Berkebile pushed for incorporating sustainability into the Honor Awards back in the ’80s,“ Leddy told EBN. Instead, COTE was formed, and a separate award, the COTE Top Ten Green Projects, was created to recognize excellence in sustainable design. According to Leddy, the topic was brought up again in 2008 under the leadership of Henry Siegel, FAIA, and years later, a task force charged with examining all AIA awards recommended that sustainability metrics become mandatory for the Honor Awards; however, the proposal was defeated by a two-thirds vote of the AIA board.

Then, when Leddy became 2013 COTE chair, he took up the challenge as a COTE priority and partnered with the AIA Awards Task Force to rally support. At least 100 firms responded by sending letters. Backing also came from former national firm award winners and 14 AIA knowledge communities, including the Technical Design for Building Performance community and the Housing Knowledge Community.

In a period of two years, the AIA board was swayed from its two-thirds opposition to unanimous support.

What to expect in 2015

There were worries that the mandatory criteria might preempt too many projects from applying, according to Rand Ekman, AIA, who was also on the 2013 COTE advisory committee. However, last year’s submissions have put most of those concerns to rest. Of the 108 projects chosen for jury review in 2014, 81% submitted the sustainability narrative and metrics. Furthermore, the point of the awards is to identify the cream of the crop, according to Ekman. “We aren’t talking about all projects. We are talking about those that deserve AIA awards.”

Nevertheless, “there is still a lot of work that has to happen for this criteria to play out,” Ekman told EBN. Juries have to be knowledgeable enough to interpret and compare energy performance, and local award programs have been encouraged to adopt similar criteria in order to feed competitive projects into the national program.

Good design is green design

For now, Leddy sees the victory as a way to push back against a history of differentiating sustainable design from good design: “Today sustainable design has its own separate awards, separate magazines, and separate following. We have to get to a place where sustainability is no longer a tack-on idea.”

In addition, the Honor Awards are the “most potent expression of the values architects should aim for,” said Leddy, and communicating the importance of sustainability brings the awards in line with the values already embraced by the AIA Repositioning Initiative, the Communities by Design’s 10 Principles for Livable Communities, and the 2030 Commitment.

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