WHAT IF A GLOBAL CORPORATION sponsored a green building contest with $2 million in prize money and nobody noticed?
That scenario played out when American architects all but ignored the 2005–2006 Holcim Awards, an international competition designed to identify innovation in sustainable design and construction. With a Feb. 29 deadline looming for the next contest cycle, North American jury chief Adèle Naudé Santos recalls her angst over the last turnout.
“I was horrified,” she said by phone from her post as dean
of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “We had very few entries from the U.S. We weren't showing well.” The cash-rich awards were started in 2005 by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Development, an off shoot of the Swiss concrete powerhouse Holcim Group. The initial competition invited architects, planners, engineers, or project owners to enter buildable projects that addressed the well-being of people and the planet.
“If we want the generation after us to live in a decent way and have enough raw material and power, we have to be more conscious of how we build,” explains Holcim spokesman Edward Schwarz. “If we raise awareness for sustainability in construction, we can influence everyone along the value chain to be more responsible.”
The call for entries drew about 3,000 inquiries from 118 countries. Nearly 1,500 projects survived technical vetting before juries on five continents—North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and Africa—winnowed the field to 46 regional champions. Winners of gold, silver, and bronze regional awards went on to compete for the top global prize of $500,000.
In the end, Santos says, American architects were conspicuously absent, not only from the winners' circle, but from the contest itself. Renzo Piano and Chong Partners' green-roofed California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco won a silver prize in the North American category, a $50,000 tribute to the Italian architect's rigorous design and poetic aesthetics. Both the $100,000 gold and the $25,000 bronze went to Canadians, honoring an affordable housing project in Montreal and research on fabric-formed buildings, respectively.
No project on U.S. or Canadian soil swayed the jurors as much as a daylighted underground rail station for Stuttgart, Germany, by Christoph Ingenhoven, and a viable revitalization for a shantytown in Caracas, Venezuela, by Proyectos Arqui 5 CA. They tied for the top global prize and took home $300,000 each. “This isn't cheap stuff,” Santos says, trying to explain why developers in the United States, and their architects, lag behind counterparts elsewhere in sustainable design.
The construction industry is perhaps the world's neediest consumer of energy and materials, and its huge potential for contributing to the betterment, or the devastation, of the environment, drove Holcim to set up the foundation, which Schwarz says operates independently of commercial interests. The advisory team includes microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, environmentalist Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and architect Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos. Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne of Morphosis signed on to judge the first global contest.