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Architects’ imagination realises true potential of SterlingOSB Zero

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Eight years of competitions have turned up an amazing array of practical, useful and impressive proposals using SterlingOSB Zero. Jan-Carlos Kucharek recalls some favourites

In association with
2018 Room  within a Room  Commended entry  Atelier Astula by  student group  Bakerloos Design  Studio.
2018 Room within a Room Commended entry Atelier Astula by student group Bakerloos Design Studio.

As the longstanding chair of the judging panels that have adjudicated the annual RIBAJ competitions run in collaboration with SterlingOSB Zero, I have gained good insights into the possibilities of a building material that many people might view as a prosaic but which is transformed by the rich imaginations of the architect entrants. This was borne out not least by the winner of our 2022 ‘Retreat’ competition – David and Henry Young’s ‘The Keep’, which provided a gripping fictional account of a postapocalyptic scenario to supplement their evocative SterlingOSB Zero insertions into an ancient Scottish castle, dramatically poised on a cliffside; an approach we felt Giovanni Boccaccio would have approved of.

For the past eight years, the RIBA Journal has been excited and proud to present more than 50 finalists who not only made it past a demanding and critical architect judging panel but also survived the scrutiny of West Fraser, which is naturally keen to see the possibilities of Oriented Strand Board presented in the best light. Luckily, they don’t need to encourage take-up from the market as the structural, aesthetic and environmental qualities of SterlingOSB Zero have long appealed to architects; they just needed a forum such as a competition to let it play out. And from such an opportunity came the beautiful 2020 Second Skin winner – Hilder’s Yard by Paper Architecture & Bethan Watson, who inserted a crafted SterlingOSB Zero installation into a disused Victorian warehouse. It echoed the simple practicality of Burgess Architects’ ‘Kit Studio’, a response to our 2017 brief on multi-generational living.

2017 Multigen winner Kit  Studio by Burgess  Architects.
2017 Multigen winner Kit Studio by Burgess Architects.

West Fraser has been on a learning curve too. I remember our first ‘Habitat’ competition in 2016, and architect Mawson Kerr’s ‘Low Rise High Density’ entry. Its proposal for an urban selfbuild rehabilitation centre built by users themselves raised eyebrows at the time for associating SterlingOSB Zero with poverty and deprivation. But the confidence to run with it as the winner would pave the way for Reed Watts’ 2019 ‘Raise the Roof’ top spot placing – a rooftop entertainment space on the River Thames at Kingston which doubled in winter as a temporary homeless shelter. One of this year’s Commended Retreat competition entries looked at SterlingOSB Zero’s end of life ‘mulch’ state – a philosophical musing on natural cycles of birth and death. This open mindedness makes for quite a journey for a marketing department charged with strict protection of a brand.

In the last eight years we have seen over 50 winners, commended and longlisted entries make it to the RIBAJ October issue winners’ supplement, with half of those sharing a total of £20,000 in prize money. The competition format has supported both architects and students, rewarding grasps at blue-sky thinking as well as technical skill or expertise. It is always a pleasure to see students make it through – our 2018 ‘Room within a Room’ challenge, based on a contemporary reading of St Jerome in his study, proved particularly popular, being of a small scale that allowed them to flex learned technical and formal skills.

2020 Second Skin winner Hilder’s Yard by Paper Architecture and Bethan Watson.
2020 Second Skin winner Hilder’s Yard by Paper Architecture and Bethan Watson.

But briefs enjoyed shifting scope as well as scale; the 2021 Off-Grid competition asked entrants to consider the RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, and was won by Kevin Sulca, a young architect from Lima, with a project that not only looked to address low-impact living but also took a polemical stance on the general plight of Peru’s poor.

It is that range of issues and ideas that makes the West Fraser competitions such a joy to judge. It may be why Stephen Proctor of Proctor & Matthews Architects returns every year to adjudicate. In interrogating the entries, his – and all the judges’ – engagement, critical eye and humour are not only appreciated, but hopefully offer potential for SterlingOSB Zero that West Fraser – and architects themselves – may be yet to realise. 



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