Repositioning the AIA Institute Honor Awards

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2013 Chair, AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group
“For more than 60 years, the Institute Honor Awards program has recognized achievements for a broad range of architectural activity to elevate the general quality of architecture practice, establish a standard of excellence against which all architects can measure performance, and inform the public of the breadth and value of architecture practice.” – Call for Entries, 2014 AIA Institute Honor Awards

As the premier architecture and urban design awards program in the nation for more than two generations, the AIA Institute Honor Awards have traditionally established the standard for design excellence within our profession. As a result, architects rightly regard the Honor Awards as esteemed recognition for hard-earned design achievement and deserving acknowledgement of the clients who make it possible. But the Call for Entries clearly points to another equally vital purpose of this program: communicating the evolving character and lasting value of architectural design excellence to the public. Indeed, as we proceed with Repositioning the AIA, the Institute Honor Awards should be recognized as one of the Institute’s most engaging and effective public expressions of our purpose, our values and our leadership in building a better world. They are the AIA’s national celebration of the power of design to create more beautiful, useful and relevant environments for our communities.

Collectively, the works recognized over the past 60 years represent an extraordinary legacy of the history American architecture – each successive year presenting a sampling of the very best design thinking and technological advancement of its time. In the spirit of this legacy, and recognizing the importance of communicating the value of architecture more effectively, we should ask ourselves how the Institute Honor Awards can evolve to better reflect the rapidly changing conditions of our own time.

Matching our concepts of design excellence to the pressing realities of our time

In this era of advancing climate change, resource depletion and growing concerns about the health and resilience of our built environments, the AIA has worked hard to educate the profession about the technical dimensions of these challenges. Numerous AIA programs and policy statements, including AIA’s 10 Principles of Livability, the AIA Position Statement on Sustainable Practice and The 2030 Commitment have provided significant additional leadership in this area. But we have largely failed to fully engage design responses to these pressing conditions within our broader concepts of design excellence. Sustainable design has been generally perceived as somehow separate from our real design pursuits. Separate design awards programs are held for “good design” and “green design” – separate design journals are produced for “architecture” and “sustainable architecture” – thus perpetuating a false distinction that the AIA and our profession can no longer afford to make. Just as the early 20th century’s abundant fossil fuels and rapid advances in steel and glass construction technologies helped to produce the Modern Movement, the current historic convergence of powerful digital design tools, renewable energy technologies and healthy, resource-efficient materials and systems is giving birth to a new architecture of our own time. “Green” design IS “good” design.

In the 21st century, architecture isn’t truly excellent unless it deeply engages the natural world and promotes health and resilience. This means far more than complying with prescriptive third-party “green building” certifications – it means creatively embracing the rich opportunities for meaningful architectural expression that present themselves when we anchor our buildings firmly in the authentic character of each site, climate and circumstance. It means evolving our design awards programs to make them reflect both the realities of our time and the stated values of the Institute by requiring sustainable design narratives and building performance metrics as an integral part of “design excellence”. This information would in no way negate or relegate our profession’s other long-held design values – juries, as always, would make their selections based upon a wide range of criteria. But it would send an unambiguous message to the profession and the public of our forthright commitment to building a better world.

Fully integrating ecological design thinking within the Institute Honor Awards

Our colleagues around the country are clearly ready for this next step.In the 2013 Call for Entries for the Institute Honor Awards a basic sustainable design integration narrative and projected energy / water use metrics were requested (not required) for the first time. Data compiled by AIA National staff indicated that 91% of the 343 submissions to the Honor Awards for Architecture provided at least the requested sustainable design integration narrative, and 53% provided the requested building performance projections as well. Interestingly, the number of respondents to sustainable design integration actually went up when the jury culled the submissions down to the first cut of 119 projects for in-person review. 98% of this more elite group of projects provided the requested narrative and 60% provided the requested building performance metrics as well. In the end, all eleven projects selected for the 2013 Institute Honor Award for Architecture display a creative integration of exemplary architectural design with deep resource efficiency, healthy indoor environments, strong community connection and enduring resilience.

An overwhelming majority of AIA members are already willing and able to provide basic sustainable design information with their design awards submissions. This is attributable in no small part to the excellent job the AIA has done in educating the profession on these important issues. Still, as our communities are increasingly challenged by a rapidly changing world, telling a good story about the sustainable design features of our projects isn’t enough. We need to be able to provide projected or actual energy and water use data that convincingly supports our claims of advanced resource efficiency. While the 2013 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture was a good start in this area, we have more work to do:

Institute Honor Awards: To bring the Institute Honor Awards into consistent alignment with the Institute’s stated values, and to show strong leadership to the profession and the public, the 2015 Institute Honors Awards program should require the basic sustainable design narratives and performance metrics that were requested in 2013 and 2014.

Twenty-Five Year Award: As the window of eligibility for the AIA’s prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award approaches the 1990’s, award winners should reflect our evolving concepts of resource-efficiency, resilience and health over time. This would powerfully illustrate the role that concerns such as daylighting, thermal comfort and resource conservation have always played in architectural excellence.

Jury Composition: To ensure that these factors are fully incorporated within the jury deliberations, the jury panel should include at least one member who is a proven leader in the advancement of integrated sustainable design practice.

AIA COTE Top Ten Awards: As these values become more embedded within common professional practice, the AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects program will evolve to celebrate advanced research and the cutting edge of net-zero energy / carbon-neutral design.

We stand at a pivotal moment in the history of architecture
The continued integration of ecological design thinking within our profession’s broader concepts of design excellence is absolutely key to Repositioning the AIA because it positions architects as effective leaders in a rapidly changing world. Sustainable design isn’t just about engineering and building codes; it isn’t just about a menu of strategies and building performance metrics; it’s definitely much more than simply “checking the boxes” of a certification program – it’s fundamentally about design innovation. This is what architects do best. By seizing this historic opportunity to demonstrate strong, meaningful leadership to the profession and to the public, the AIA can inspire its members across the nation to focus the transformative power of design on the critical issues of our time, helping to lead our communities to a resilient, regenerative future.


William Leddy, FAIA

William Leddy is 2013 Chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group. He is a founding Partner of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and has devoted his career to creating architectural works that integrate innovative and environmentally responsible design while respecting tradition without imitation. A graduate of the University of Oregon in 1975, his diverse body of work is internationally recognized for its creative, comprehensive response to the unique characteristics of each site and circumstance.

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