It happens once in a blue moon: the right project; the right budget; the right client.
The transformation of New Court at Trinity College, Cambridge, (pages 58-62) is a textbook retrofit of one of our most distinguished listed buildings. A labour of love by 5th Studio working closely with Max Fordham, at the behest of a client with the will and resources to do the right thing. To bring a Grade 1 listed building in line with modern-day expectations around environmental performance and user comfort.
To commit to a 12-year Odyssey of research, refurbishment and post-occupancy evaluation. To share the lessons learnt. This kind of project is not for the impatient or faint-hearted. Clients are obliged to pay for extensive research and analysis before design work starts and, in this instance, seven years of monitoring after practical completion. Every design decision has to weigh up the often-contradictory demands of innovation and conservation. Heritage bodies have the power to veto every move.
It’s little wonder that so many custodians of listed buildings choose to live with their charges’ faults. But Trinity takes its obligations seriously. It understands the project’s value as part of a collective mission to improve the environmental performance of our listed building stock. This is the kind of project we should applaud. A project that encapsulates the zeitgeist; that plays to our enthusiasm for intelligent retrofit and post-occupancy evaluation. A shoo-in, surely, for a RIBA award.
Or maybe not. Under its revised eligibility criteria the current crop of RIBA awards hopefuls must have been in occupation since December 2020 and completed after October 2018. In other words, they must have been occupied for at least a year – but not for more than three. New Court, fresh from five long years of post-occupancy evaluation, no longer qualifies.
The message from the awards committee is clear: It’s important to know how the building performed for the first year of its life. But there’s no need to delve into the kind of knowledge that can take years to accrue: comparative year-on-year data for different seasons of the year; a building’s ability to adapt to changing patterns of use; an understanding of what happens once its custodians have forgotten their training, or lost the manual, or just lost interest, or moved on.
Awards culture has to change. Architecture Today is launching the Outstanding Performance Awards to celebrate those projects that have the most to teach us. Buildings that are not box fresh, but thoroughly bedded in.