As well as providing many outstanding athletic performances, the London 2012 Olympic Games have put sustainability back on the agenda. Our athletes are being rightly heralded as fantastic role models for future generations, but which UK buildings deserve a gold for sustainability, wonders Melanie Thompson of Get Sust.

From the cheery smiles of the volunteer Games Makers and the enthusiastically applauding hard-hatted construction team reps, to the heights of athletic achievement in the ring, pool, track, velodrome and on the water, the UK now has no shortage of excellent role models who can show the next generation that there is more to life than reality TV games and winning on the Xbox. But that is only part of the slightly clichéd 'legacy' ambitions of London 2012: to be "the most sustainable Games ever".

In a report on progress so far, Shaun McCarthy of the Commission for a Sustainable London declares that London has won the gold in the sustainability stakes, ahead of nearest rivals Sydney and Barcelona. Beijing, writes McCarthy, was "never really a contender and Athens did not get past the heats".

Despite his clear enthusiasm for the overall goal, McCarthy does not shirk his responsibility to point out the less-than-exemplary performances. His main criticism is that the learning legacy externallink (which is, in principle, an excellent thing) is currently a little "sugar coated", and he cites a telling example:

"At a recent event one of the architects of an iconic venue was asked what they have learned and what they would do differently. The answer was nothing at all."

McCarthy rightly states that many people learn best from their mistakes and that nothing is perfect, saying of the anonymous architect: "... such arrogance is unnecessary and does nothing to help us to improve".

It is ironic that some of Team GB's most memorable golden near-misses were followed by heart-breakingly unnecessary apologies (from the sculls pair Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase externallink) or vigorous defence of having done everything possible on the day and being proud to win bronze (Rebecca Adlington, Tom Daley). These champions were certainly not afraid of owning up to being very slightly less than 100% perfect, and are all the more praiseworthy for that: 'Starchitects', take note!

Industry awards and peer review

In practice, the world of champion sustainable buildings is more readily comparable with the team gymnastics event – everyone in the team has a part to play, and potential winners are carefully scrutinized by a team of independent judges. The question is, what is the pinnacle of achievement when it comes to sustainability?

There are a number of event-driven awards across the industry for specific technologies and sectors, from the Ecobuild Awards externallink to the Brownfield Briefing Awards. In addition, most professional bodies run award schemes and prizes for teams, projects, students and specific buildings (see, for example, the CIBSE Building Performance Awards externallink).

Casting a slightly wider net are the new Greenbuild Awards, organized by Greenbuild magazine and Greenbuild Expo. The first presentations were made in May 2012 and it is good to see that these awards give equal prominence to refurbishment projects and new-build. Winners ranged from small domestic projects to a large public sector refurbishment.

Industry-wide awards have the benefit of picking from an even wider pool of entrants. However, only two of the 19 categories in the Building Awards 2012 were specifically for sustainability:

  • The Cut the Carbon Award externallink was won by The Alumet Group, a specialist contractor that has developed a clever solar panel 'sustainable facade' system called BritSol, which can be used in refurbishment of both commercial and domestic buildings
  • The Sustainable Project of the Year externallink, Brockholes Nature Reserve Visitor Centre, Preston, by Adam Khan and Max Fordham, is notable for its extensive use of environmental analysis (for embodied energy, on-site sewage treatment and low-energy catering) and wildlife consultancy to support design decisions. Runners-up included: the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre, Shrewsbury; Marks & Spencer's Ecclesall Road store, Sheffield; and the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts.

In general, all of the above awards are an excellent way for practitioners to gain the recognition of their peers and promote their expertise to potential clients, often in a niche sector of the industry. As such, they play a valuable supporting role in the long-distance walk towards sustainability. But each award applies different assessment criteria, and inevitably the subjective preferences of judges can come into play.

Expert assessment

Taking the subjective out of sustainability awards is, to date, best achieved by reference to an assessment system such as BREEAM. That scheme has now amassed such a wealth of case studies and exemplars – some 7000 individual assessments carried out in 2011 and 200,000 in total since the scheme was launched – that it runs its own 'awards'. The ceremony for the 'best in class' externallink was held during Ecobuild in March 2012.

All of the award-winning buildings achieved at least an 'Excellent' rating (scoring 70% or above), with a number reaching the 85% needed for 'Outstanding'. The winners for 2012 included the following:

  • Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre, which gained the highest ever BREEAM post-construction score awarded to date
  • The Green, student accommodation at the University of Bradford, which earned additional credits for its provision of real-time energy-use and water-use displays to every student flat
  • The new Harold Hill Fire Station, which uses 42% less energy than the average for a London fire station
  • Houghton Primary Care Centre, the first healthcare building in the UK to achieve a BREEAM 'Outstanding' rating
  • The Living Unit at Thameside Prison, the first prison building to achieve BREEAM 'Outstanding'
  • One Silk Street, the first building in the City of London to be certified under BREEAM In-Use.

Using the BREEAM criteria means that buildings of similar types can be compared, and detailed case studies of many of the winners are available free of charge on the BREEAM website externallink, helping to spread best practice.

The gold standard

And then there is the gold standard: the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Although this award is primarily concerned with the architectural merit of the building – the wow factor – the judging criteria now put sustainability and fitness for purpose at the heart of the judging process. The 2012 finalists included:

  • The Hepworth Wakefield externallink, by David Chipperfield Architects – which uses the neighbouring river as a source of renewable energy for heating and cooling
  • Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge externallink, by Stanton Williams – which demonstrates innovative ways with water as well as excellent energy efficiency, and has already garnered a fistful of accolades
  • London Olympic Stadium externallink, by Populous – designed to be made smaller or taken apart and reused elsewhere.

[Editor’s note: Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge externallink went on to win the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize]

Personal best

When the 2012 Stirling Prize winner is announced I shall be cheering for the Olympic Stadium, despite the bookies originally making this the outsider of the competition, and not just because it is the only finalist building I have visited.

It is one of numerous iconic buildings on the park that are designed to be reused (even the BBC's TV studios, built from a series of shipping containers, will be used elsewhere). But that is only one element of its sustainability appeal. More significant by far is the client's willingness – indeed, determination – to take on the role of demonstration project, inviting critics and supporters to analyse and assess the building's performance, just as the athletes are scrutinised by the judges and the global crowds.

BioRegional, which has just released its revised assessment of the Olympic Delivery Authority's sustainability goals, Towards a One Planet Olympics revisited, praises the park's use of temporary structures, lightweight venues, sustainable materials and 'legacy-proof' design, saying that it "shows leadership with strong potential to be emulated at future sporting mega-events". Crucially, the report also highlights several disappointing aspects of the overall project, in particular the failure to meet the renewable energy targets set out in the bid.

True champions acknowledge that they have tried their best and are ready to work on their weaknesses and, as the primary icon of the overall project, the Stadium deserves to win in the sustainability stakes.

Lifetime achievement

While we can probably all agree that good role models are as important a part of driving improvements in sustainability as regulations, as each year goes by it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify the true winners from the also-rans. And most of the awards, even the BREEAM role of honour, focus on new-build or newly refurbished projects. As I type I have received another email invitation to an awards dinner! It is good news that there are so many UK buildings, including several global design icons, which have scored highly in terms of overall sustainability, energy efficiency or innovative use of low-carbon technologies.

We can already see the emergence of a few Chris Hoyexternallink of the building world – the oft-nominated and multi-award winners such as the Dogs Trust Shrewsbury Rehoming Centre, the Pool Innovation Centre, Redruth, and several of the Maggie's Centres spring to mind.

But perhaps instead we should be seeking out the Katherine Graingerexternallink of the building world – the runners up from previous years that are coming good in the long-term.

What we need now is an award for 'lifetime achievement'; not based on an analysis of the building across its 50-odd year life span (of course that would not be practical) – but to take full account of the building in use over, say, the first five or ten years of operation and in particular, featuring feedback from the users and occupants.

Roll on the gold medal for 'Sustainable Building of the Decade'.