RIBA Sterling Prize 2019 winner is an exciting social housing design

Goldsmith Street ©Tim Crocker

Social housing seldom wins prestigious awards. Often made to be functional and built within tight budgets, these are not sexy headline-grabbing projects. Besides, in recent decades few have attracted big-name architects – ‘starchitects’ who seem more involved in monumental global structures than these humble projects. Last week, though, a modest social housing design picked up the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize for successfully combining sustainability in both the environmental and social sense. Goldsmith Street in Norwich, UK by architects Mikhail Riches Architects with Cathy Hawley won the inaugural Neave Brown Award for Housing.

It took ten years to finalise Goldsmith Street. Built with Norwich City Council, the housing development comprises 100 affordable homes – the sensitively-designed mix of houses and flats are arranged in seven terrace blocks to encourage residential interaction and help build new communities. There are secure play areas for children to roam around and for the elderly to enjoy in safety. Positioned at the back of the houses, the idea mimics the traditional terraced house streets where parents could keep an eye on their children as they played.

Goldsmith Street meets the rigorous ‘Passivhaus’ environmental standard too. All homes incorporate a range of sustainability measures – heat recovery mechanical ventilation systems and triple glazing to innovations like garden-wall letterboxes to reduce energy loss – for substantially reduced living costs and minimum climate impact.

The mid-twentieth century saw some monumental social projects conceive around the world as decent homes and free education were seen as pivotal to establishing healthier societies and therefore better worlds. There were great schemes, and lesser ones, with some projects lasting the test of time. In London for instance, the Barbican Centre, with its brilliantly bold brutalist structure and vibrant mix of housing projects and cultural centre, remains a utopian ideal.

Goldsmith Street ©Tim Crocker

Following a period of decline steered by governments more interested in short-term profits than the health of societies, some novel social housing ideas are beginning to pop-up in cities around the world steered by committed architects and clients, governments and local councils. In recent months, Spinach Branding has been approached by numerous architects and construction companies working with exciting urban regeneration projects involving affordable housing and with progressive sustainability at their core.

‘The UK urgently needs more ambition and creativity to drive the housing revolution that is needed, and Goldsmith Street shows us how it can be done,’ says RIBA chair of the jury Ben Derbyshire. Talking of the Neave Brown Award, created to honour the modernist architect known for his progressive social housing projects, he notes that Brown ‘sought to improve the lives of people and communities, and we are very proud to have selected what we believe is a fitting tribute to his memory.’

Brown, who passed away last year, created an extraordinary body of work in London in the late 1960s and 70s to include the Winscombe Street and Dunboyne estates, and the Grade II listed Alexandra Road Estate for which he won the RIBA Gold Medal Award in 2017.

At a time of mass urbanisation, and critical affordable housing shortages in most cities around the world, recognising design excellence in social housing feels very timely. The RIBA award will encourage not only architects to get more involved but crucially attract more funding. Goldsmith Street happened because of visionary architects, but also a thoughtful council determined to make affordable and desirable homes for its residents. This should be the archetype for all social housing.

All images Goldsmith Street © Tim Crocker

Read what it’s like to live in the Barbican Centre, take a peek inside The Contemporary House, view the work of Japanese visionary Sou Fujimotos, and Radical Essex with its utopian ideals, plus see the brutalist modernist ideas explored in SOS Brutalism.

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Goldsmith Street ©Tim Crocker
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