Members are not able to enter this category directly. All Awards entries may be considered in this category…Members who submit a completed sustainability checklist in their award entry and is deemed eligible as per the criteria will be considered for this award.The AIA 2023 Awards Handbook.

The requirements for entering the award for sustainability within the AIA National Awards have changed. Instead of entering a specific category of sustainability, entrants must answer a checklist on the sustainable aspects of their entry, and on that basis alone an award of sustainability is made.

It’s been that way in NSW for a couple of years, and is now national. It’s an improvement, but it doesn’t go far enough.

My advocacy rarely shifts the dial, but it did on this cause. Some 20 years ago I joined the RAIA National Environment Committee, the NEnvC, which was composed of ‘experts’ rather than elected representatives of the states. Now, I lack the patience for committee work, but when it means discussions with Terry Williamson and David Oppenheim it’s a joy, and we made noise.

In 2006 I became Chair of the NEnvC, and set about a particular hobby horse of mine, sustainability awards. We made a submission to the RAIA National Awards Committee, and sixteen years later it bears some fruit. Some of that submission makes interesting reading.

By the early 2000’s the Institute’s sustainability awards were haphazard: the criteria in its excellent (now discontinued) ‘Environment Guide’ were applied inconsistently across States and Territories; in NSW there was both an ‘Energy Award’ and an ‘ESD Award’.

In discussion the NEnvC said: “there are two schools of thought within the sustainable community about awards; some that think they promote sustainability; others take a more hardline approach that all buildings should be sustainable, and a separate award marginalises sustainability.”

We tried to have it both ways: “… the NEnvC are keen for Sustainability Awards to promote this aspect of architecture, albeit in a different form… whereby codified conditions for sustainability are applied universally across all awards for a period of time (with a sunset clause).”

We argued: “This would allow for the promotion of sustainability to a point when it is expected that good sustainable performance, like good civic and urban design and good heritage considerations, are a part of every building submitted for an award.”

In this way we believed we could accommodate a sustainability award that would eventually disappear, because all awarded architecture should be sustainable. We had a four-point plan to have our cake and eat it too:

1. The Sustainability Award must have cogent criteria, based on the RAIA Sustainable Policy.

2. All buildings submitted for awards must complete the sustainability criteria as a requirement of entry, and there would be no separate ‘sustainability category’.

3. In the medium term (five to eight years) we proposed the Sustainability Award be given to the most sustainable buildings (in any category), promoting the idea that all buildings should be sustainable.

4. In the longer term, (say post eight years) the Sustainability Award should be discontinued, at the point all AIA awarded buildings achieve a substantial degree of sustainability.

The ideas were good, the timeline not so much. Sixteen years later, and we have only just reached step 3. And a separate Sustainability Award is ever more entrenched with named awards: after Milo Dunphy in NSW, the late David Oppenheim for the national award (how ironic he would find it).

Even more troubling is what we mean by ‘sustainability’. It’s changed dramatically, so even more drastic changes to the awards are needed.

Sustainability looms large in discussion, if not in action. On websites and in books, sustainably designed buildings are touted as a panacea for ‘Climate Change’, by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; but that’s far too narrow a concept, based as it is on ‘energy efficiencies’ from alternative technologies and passive solar. In many ways it's passed it's used-by date.

Environmental concerns in buildings are so much wider now: materials, IEQ (interior environmental quality), wellness, construction worker safety, operation, maintenance, the circular economy. One look at the diversity of issues raised in a Green Star application shows where the last twenty years have taken us.

Just as the environmental concerns widen, so do the social concerns become important in our increasingly inequitable cities and buildings: accessibility, housing for all, diversity, flexibility, opportunity, futureproofing; we look to urban design and architecture to redress inequality rather than exacerbate it.

And affordability looms large: the era of outrageous costs is closing; we see fiscal responsibility being applied in design; at one end cheap gimcrack construction is under attack; at the other we are swapping quantity (of space) for quality (of experience).

In other words, design must now be based on the ‘triple bottom line’. Whilst it may be spoken of in progressive forums, it is not reflected in the AIA’s awards. Sustainability as envisaged in the NEnvC report of 2006 is now a passé concept. We need a new definition of what constitutes ‘awardable architecture’.

I see some synchronicity here. In the same week as the announcement about changes to the sustainability awards, the Institute awarded me a Life Fellowship. I'm grateful for both. The citation acknowledges my long advocacy for all things sustainable (presumably including the issue of awards ventilated here).

The Institute may not be so grateful for my determination to change the awards even further, to advocate for the expansion of the awards criteria into the triple bottom line. Not only should all entrants address sustainability criteria (step 4 above), but now we must address the wider environmental, social and financial aspects of entries. Awards that address a wider set of criteria tell a different, better story.

This may take another 16 years, but I believe that we can only demonstrate to the public that architecture addresses the current concerns of society if our awards are based on more than aesthetic and creative innovation.

I will try to use my Life Fellowship advocating for that change.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his / contact at [email protected]. He is also the proud recipient of the 2014 AIA NSW Milo Dunphy Award.