RIBA Stirling Prize Claimed By Public Housing Project Shows What Can Be Done

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The Royal Institute of British Architects awards the Stirling Prize to the best building of any type built in the UK during that year. First awarded in 1996, the Stirling Prize has been awarded to everything from the media gallery of the Lord’s cricket pitch in 1999 to the rebirth of a 12th century fortified manor ravaged by fire in 1978 reborn into the 20th century. Zaha Hadid has won twice, as has Foster + Partners. It’s a big deal.

This year, the award went to a public housing project that’s built to Passivhaus energy efficiency standards designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley.  In total, the Goldsmith Street project by the Norwich City Council has racked up six RIBA awards. Called council housing in the UK, in the US we’d equate it with public housing, built by local governments to house a lower-income working class.

That this type of cost-conscious housing could win a design award is telling. That it could also be so energy efficient, tells more. In addition to being affordable to construct, tenants’ energy bills are estimated to be 70 percent lower than normal – bringing running costs down further.

The UK has a history of long blocks of Edwardian and Victorian rowhouses which this project picks up on. Set in a semi-urban environment close to the city of Norwich. The area houses roughly 250,000 residents and, as a non-sequitur, is the least religious city in England with 42.5 percent reporting no religion.

The project is just less than 100 units divided into blocks. In the photo above, you can see the significant use of green space as community congregation space as well as playgrounds. In order to get such spaces, streets were narrowed to essentially one lane and cars forced to the periphery.

It was also set so that front doors faced front doors encouraging resident neighborliness which the narrowness of the streets help promote. How narrow?  Just 46-feet separates the buildings.

And to further promote neighborliness, front doors were placed next to each other, increasing the opportunity to create that bond.

Creating a more convivial streetscape. Space was freed in back. Beyond backyards there is a ribbon of green space. To avoid an alley feel, the designers took care to make the space wind around objects.

Part of Passivhaus standards harness the sun. Seen above, the roof lines were not arbitrary. When the sun is lower in the winter, the rooflines allow sunlight to reach the front of each home, heating it. The higher sun angles of summer are diffused by brise soleils mounted atop each window (seen below).

So fastidious are the standards, mailslots were not placed in front doors (standard in the UK). Instead, mailboxes were mounted on exterior walls. Why?  Letter slots would let air through, increasing heating and cooling requirements.

It’s encouraging to see a city and architects take care to make homes working-class people want to live in and that are affordable. It’s equally encouraging that bodies like the RIBA recognize the skill required to make a pound/dollar stretch to design beauty and energy efficiency.

Chicago Shows A Way?

But it’s not this one building an ocean away. In Chicago, home to infamously dangerous, crime-ridden public housing championed by one Mayor Daley (and torn down a generation later when his son was mayor), there’s a drop of hope. During Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, an idea was hit upon to combine public libraries with public housing. Neither had enough money on their own, but combined, different financing became available.

Three projects, built in different neighborhoods, combined ground-level libraries with affordable housing above. Residents benefitted from the library and its free internet while the neighborhood gained a vibrant library. Oh, and they were architecturally impactful as well as neighborhood scale. Instead of the rack-and-stack public housing high-rises (now gone), these are boutique buildings are managed not by the city, but private management. Eugene Jones, former head of the Chicago Housing Authority told the Chicago Tribune that his only regret was not putting in a café or coffee shop.

As Dallas tries to figure out affordable housing and how to make it available across the city, it’s worth understanding that it doesn’t have to look cheap to be cheap.

And as much as richer neighborhoods stamp their feet about nearby affordable housing, like so many other have/have-not situations, their wealth bubble is unsustainable.  Last week’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that restaurants are having a hard time hiring enough staff.

The reasons are obvious, poor wages and poor wage growth. But they also pointed out issues in higher-income areas where teenagers with big allowances don’t work low-pay jobs as they did in prior generations, cutting participation by a vital workforce. Combine that with universally low unemployment, and workers don’t have to commute far to a low-paying job (saving transportation time and costs).

These single-income bracket (and often single ethnicity) neighborhoods are victims of their own “success” at keeping the working class out. And while this particular xenophobic bubble won’t pop anytime soon, at least the examples above prove that affordable housing doesn’t have to be ugly or cheapen a neighborhood.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is CandysDirt.com's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on SecondShelters.com. An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

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