Alongside the Stirling, four prizes celebrated ambitious and assured housing, dauntless stewardship, close collaboration and a holistic approach, including a new award for sustainability and adaptive reuse. Below Josh McCosh, of Van Heyningen & Haward, reacts to the practice's Reinvention Award success
Four outstanding projects have been celebrated with some of RIBA’s highest honours, announced along with the 2023 Stirling Prize at a packed ceremony in Manchester.
They include Van Heyningen & Haward’s dextrous conversion of a disused radio transmitter station to make a new secondary school – the recipient of RIBA’s Reinvention Award. Introduced for the first time this year, the annual prize reflects the growing importance of adaptive reuse to social and economic as well as environmental sustainability.
Now in its fifth year, the Neave Brown Award for affordable housing went to A House for Artists by Apparata – an ambitious and assured east London apartment building intended to reset the bar for residential design.
The essential contribution made by the people who commission and champion good architecture is recognised by the long-established Client of the Year award, which was scooped by the Onion Collective for its dauntless stewardship of East Quay, a lively arts and community centre on the Somerset coast.
Emerging talent is celebrated by the Stephen Lawrence Prize, justly awarded to Conrad Koslowsky Architects for its subtle and sensitive Lighthouse Children’s Home. RIBA President Muyiwa Oki commended the architect and its client for their ‘close collaboration, holistic approach, and the exceptional results that have been delivered as a result’ – qualities exemplified by all the winners on the night.
Van Heyningen & Haward, Houlton School
At one time, the hulking assemblage of redbrick industrial structures east of Rugby was the largest radio transmitter station in the world. After decommissioning 20 years ago it began a descent into dereliction, but its deft conversion into a secondary school – without loss of historic character – has earned architect Van Heyningen & Haward the first annual RIBA Reinvention Award.
Repurposing the cavernous volumes and poorly-performing fabric of the grade-II-listed building required some bold decisions on the part of the architect, which won the support of conservation and education authorities alike. Access to new blocks was created by the removal of later additions to the complex, leaving open brick arches between the original transmitter hall – now filled with classrooms – and the power hall, repurposed as a refectory where the building’s grand scale and muscular, utilitarian construction can be fully appreciated. The awards jury commended the clear delineation of old and new. A faceted aluminium crown that adds an extra storey above the restored cornice acts as a beacon for the school, and the rejuvenated campus is a richly characterful centrepiece for the new residential district now growing around it.
‘The architects have skilfully balanced the programme of reinvention with the detailed challenges of meeting both the listing and environmental performance criteria,’ said Simon Allford, chair of the Reinvention Award jury and immediate past president of RIBA. ‘In the highly regulated worlds of both school design and building codes, this is a significant achievement, and one to be applauded.’
After Houlton School's Reinvention Award win, we put three questions to Josh McCosh, partner at Van Heyningen & Haward
What’s the significance of the new Reinvention Award?
There’s been a tipping point in the public’s perception of architecture. We can’t just throw away what our forebears built and build anew, because we’re going to run out of world to do it with. And I feel strongly that because adaptation is creative, it’s no less a form of architecture than new build. All the same skills are equally involved, albeit packaged slightly differently, and you’ve still got to make great places for people. So for both of those reasons I’m delighted that the RIBA has set up this award. I hope that it will give confidence that retrofit works. Sadly, I don’t think many public bodies would have commissioned our school – which had a very enlightened developer – but there’s no reason why other clients couldn’t behave with equal imagination.
You have successfully given new life to a challenging building. What are the lessons for other reinvention projects?
The organisation of the school as a campus was directed by the existing buildings. At the beginning of projects there needs to be a mature discussion about whether the use is fit for the building, not the other way round. I’m among a big group of people, under LETI’s wing, writing a guide to non-domestic retrofit. It’s clear that if you can fit the use to the building you reduce the amount of change required, achieving more with less embodied carbon. You have to be sensitive to what a building can and can’t do, but most can be adapted and brought up to current standards. Our building shows what is possible: the grade-II-listed uninsulated shell is now internally insulated – tricky but doable – and performs better than current building regulations require.
What does the win mean for you?
We are a small practice – eight people, of whom four worked on this project – and have a mildly suicidal business plan which is to do interesting projects well. The award endorses the skill sets we have. It shows that we’re capable of doing really complex work and that a small team of committed people can deliver really good things for society. Everyone in the practice will feel equally pleased by it, and will enjoy the glory for a bit – and then we’ll get on with the next job!
Neave Brown Award
Apparata, A House for Artists
Given a brief for a low-cost apartment building for artists, Apparata set out to prove that with sufficient imagination and dedication, the constraints governing housing design could be overcome. The spacious, light-filled and economical Neave Brown Award-winner provides a template that could be widely emulated. ‘A House for Artists offers an ingenious architectural response to the pressing challenge of increasingly unaffordable city living,’ said Neave Brown Award jury chair Alice Brownfield, ‘demonstrating what’s possible when communities are put first.’
To eliminate corridors and lobbies, and thereby create more useful space within flats that conform to minimum standards, the architect eschewed conventional fire strategies. Instead, escape routes from each flat run along two access decks that double as deep verandahs. The plant-filled shared terraces are intended to foster connections between residents, an ambition that permeates the scheme and was highlighted by the jury. There was praise, too, for the building’s inherent flexibility. Services and partitions are designed to allow residents to adapt their homes to changing circumstances. Novel features include interconnected apartments that would enable co-living.
The mould-breaking project was commissioned by the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham and arts organisation Create, whose courage was praised by the jury. ‘Residents told us that the architecture had changed the way they are in the world, leaving feelings of isolation behind, and the building’s influence extends far beyond this into the wider community,’ said Brownfield. ‘It is housing that challenges us all, and the bravery and dedication of all individuals involved should be celebrated.’
Client of the Year Award, sponsored by Ibstock
The Onion Collective, East Quay
When plans for a major development in the coastal town of Watchet fell through, four local women stepped into the breach. Determined to ensure that community benefit should drive future plans, they formed an activist group – the Onion Collective – surveyed neighbours about what needed to be done, found a site in an abandoned boatyard, and hatched an idea for a mixed-use building comprising a gallery, artists’ studios and education spaces. Architects Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams Architects were engaged, and £7.3 million raised for construction.
After eight years’ work, East Quay has transformed the quayside: an exuberant agglomeration of forms, resplendent in seaside stripes, perches on a peach concrete plinth that makes an open embrace to the harbour. It is helping to drive regeneration of the wider area, and was itself named South West Building of the Year in the 2023 RIBA Awards. It would be an extraordinary accomplishment for any developer – doubly so for novices.
Judges noted that the project’s success owes much to the way that the Onion Collective involved local organisations in its development, from schools and social clubs to businesses. ‘Their vision, and dedication to creating meaningful change, enabled Invisible Studio and Ellis Williams to deliver a model for exceptional community-led economic regeneration’, said jury chair Denise Bennetts. ‘East Quay is a fantastic example of how great architecture, collaboration and co-creation can empower communities and deliver incredible, transformative benefits.’
Stephen Lawrence Prize, supported by the Marco Goldschmied Foundation
Conrad Koslowsky Architects, Lighthouse Children’s Home
Founded in memory of Stephen Lawrence, the young aspiring architect murdered in a racist attack in 1993, the Stephen Lawrence Prize has celebrated the best small projects for a quarter of a century. This year the criteria have been refined to focus on schemes led by early-career project architects. The jury, including RIBA President Muyiwa Oki, found an ‘exceptional’ example of emerging talent in the Lighthouse Children’s Home, designed by Conrad Koslowsky Architects.
Koslowsky, a RIBAJ Rising Star in 2021, played an integral role in all aspects of the project, which provides a home for up to six children aged 12 to 17 and flats for two care-leavers. Having initially responded to an advertisement for a project manager, he advised on the search for a suitable property, and took on financial reporting as well as providing architectural and interior design services. The conversion of a dilapidated former care home, built in an Arts & Crafts style, shows exemplary sensitivity to both the existing building and the needs of young residents. Deep thresholds and little nooks dotted throughout the home provide privacy, while solid oak joinery and smooth lime-plastered walls help to create a sense of warmth and tranquility.
Also on this year’s jury was architecture student Adefunmilayo Adebiyi, who will go on to be mentored by the winning practice. ‘This exceptional project showcases how design can remove social barriers, while providing highly functional and attractive spaces for users,’ she said. ‘It sets the stage for buildings that create the conditions for connected and healthy communities, shaping a precedent for other designers like me to follow.’