I've been involved with the AIA Top Ten Awards Program for a long time. In the early years, when Gail Lindsey
started it as an informal program to generate some recognition for a handful of green projects, Environmental Building News
was one of the very few media outlets available to provide that publicity. Later we participated in conversations with the national Advisory Group of AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) as they worked to refine the metrics and formalize the program. In recent years, BuildingGreen has provided technical support to the AIA Top Ten Awards. Because we manage US DOE's High Performance Buildings Database, which also hosts the Top Ten online submission forms, we've supported those submission forms — updating them with changes each year, providing technical support to applicants, and then editing and preparing the winning projects for publication on the www.AIATopTen.org
As we edited and published the winning entries each year, I thought it would be great to sit in on the jury process and learn more about how they make their selections. So when I was invited to join the jury for 2009, I was thrilled. I'd finally have a chance not only to observe the process, but to participate!
The jury that assembled in March to pick the winners was high-powered and diverse. Before diving into the projects themselves, we spent a little while talking about each of our priorities and intentions. That, in itself, was a fascinating conversation.
Jurors talked about looking for projects that are "aggressively innovative," that have integrated the aesthetics with green performance, that don't rely on tacked on technologies — dubbed "green bling" — to achieve their results. There was an active conversation about whether the purpose and function of the building was a relevant criterion.
After a while the AIA staff who support the program began suggesting ways for us to start making some decisions, but their concerns were unfounded. We had a team of leaders used to getting results, and it didn't take long for us to come up with some approaches to honing in on our top picks. It also helped that everyone came in well-prepared, having spent hours with the online submissions, making notes and identifying favorites.
Before long a couple of key tensions emerged that stayed with us through the day. One was the fairly predictable push between energy efficiency and other aspects of design quality (primarily aesthetics and functionality). The other reflected differences of opinion on the jury about the best ways for a building to engage with its immediate surroundings. On a few projects we simply disagreed about whether the way a building met the street represented good design or not.
In the end, there were a handful of projects that we all felt really good about, and others that we selected only after one or two jurors agreed to go along with a choice they wouldn't have made on their own. But the story doesn't end there.
Last week architect Bruce Coldham asked me about the jury's process, and then circulated a letter questioning whether the jury had its priorities right. I've done some soul-searching in response to that letter. As someone who has a better grasp of energy data than architectural styles, I was a likely advocate for energy efficiency. And I wasn't the only one focused on energy efficiency as a priority — nearly everyone expressed how important it is.
We set out to find projects that did it all — great design and great performance (at least as predicted by models). So how did we end up with a bunch of projects that are only moderately efficient, while passing over some better performers? I think it comes down to the fact that the jury as a whole was more confident about judging the aesthetics of the projects than their green performance. Of all the sustainability measures, energy was the only one on which we had a decent grasp, but unfortunately, the data we had to work with didn't inspire confidence. Not all projects reported their numbers consistently or reliably. In trying to find projects that inspired on all counts, we ended up, as a group, more willing to compromise on the energy performance than on the aesthetics.
Do I wish we had done it differently? Perhaps — although I think that our best alternative might have to pick fewer winners. Maybe this was the year that should have only had a top five. But as someone who looks at data on green performance of buildings all the time, I was more interested in understanding the values of design — what makes for projects that people will love and care for — than in recognizing some high-performing buildings that are otherwise uninspiring. In the end I may have been too quick to indulge that fascination instead of drawing a hard line on energy performance. I had my chance — next year's jury will have another chance to declare its values.