Today, on Earth Day, The American Institute of Architects announced the winners of the 2021 COTE Top Ten Awards. Established in 1997 by the AIA Committee on the Environment, the awards program celebrates 10 projects that exemplify the integration of design excellence and environmental performance. Entrants to the COTE Top Ten Awards are evaluated against AIA's Framework for Design Excellence, which comprises 10 principles to help architects achieve projects that are zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy. As the award name suggests, 10 projects are typically selected, with some exceptions. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the program distinguished projects with post-occupancy performance information in a distinct COTE Top Ten Plus category. In 2017, AIA merged the tracks into one field.
This year's winners include five higher education projects, two commercial office buildings, a library, a health care clinic, and a single-family residence located in cities across the United States and including Toronto. All offer lessons across a variety of project parameters, says COTE Top Ten Awards jury chair Michelle Amt, AIA, a senior associate and director of sustainability based in the Charlottesville, Va., office of VMDO. "Each of this year's winners charts a pathway for merging design and performance excellence on tight—and not so tight—budgets, in new construction and renovations, on urban sites and suburban sites, and across seven different climate zones," she says.
Nearly every entry had "comprehensive approaches and metrics for energy and water, [but] the number of projects achieving their [AIA 2030 Commitment] targets was much lower than expected," Amt says. The jury, she adds, was largely underwhelmed by the entries' approaches to the Framework principles of well-being, resources, and equitable communities—though each of the selected winners did excel in at least one of those three principles.
"Most submissions weren’t doing anything beyond what any good design firm would do," Amt says. Citing daylighting as the main design strategy for well-being or holding a few public stakeholder meetings "does not mean you’ve done anything meaningful toward creating equitable communities," she says. "Achieving a couple LEED points because you collected HPDs (Health Product Declarations), while commendable, is not doing anything beyond a best practice."
Amt suggests several resources that model design innovation and leadership, including the WELL Building Standard for well-being, the Materials Petal of the Living Building Challenge for resources, and the SEED Evaluator for equitable communities. "Reviewing these entries during a global pandemic, and in the midst of a national reckoning on equity, only highlighted how woefully far behind we are as a profession in these areas," Amt says. "We just aren’t there yet."
Along with Amt, this year's jurors included Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, founder and principal of Marlon Blackwell Architects, in Fayetteville, Ark.; Renée Cheng, FAIA, dean of the College of Built Environments, University of Washington; Erica Cochran Hameen, Assoc. AIA, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics; and Lynn Simon, FAIA, head of Real Estate & Workplace Services Sustainability at Google, in Mountain View, Calif.
See ARCHITECT's coverage of past COTE winners here.
The 2021 COTE Top Ten Winners
Jury Comments: "It is clear on that the feedback and community engagement influenced the final building. [This project] demonstrates what you can do with an existing building—that you can still elevate it. The building has a real human scale to it [and] an intelligence in how it deals with the Arizona sun. The interior references back to mid-century instead of trying to go super trendy, which fits its origin and the external façade much better."
Jury Comments: "It's a bold project; it's going out on a limb, which is positive. At scale, it fits in the neighborhood. People are welcome to come by and see and engage with it more than with other projects. There is outreach to the community—doing tours and using the project as a case study. [The project is] more outward-facing than some other houses [and] thinks about its neighbors. Single-family houses exist, and if you're going to do it, this is it."
Jury Comments: "There are some very smart architectural elements here. [The stairs are] bold and out of character but in a really interesting way. Performance-wise, it is strong. [The design team members] have shared a lot of information on their decisions and process. [This is a] good example for how you introduce the modern into the more historical campuses. [The project's] placement, daylighting, and bird safety were all seamlessly crafted in.
Jury Comments: "The restraint is a rarity, and this shows maturity about how decisions are being made on intervention ... . The geothermal loops were unusual, while not necessarily innovative. It is adaptive reuse and efficient price per square foot. It's a very good building and is well done."
Jury Comments: "[This project represents a] thoughtful take on a challenging typology [and demonstrates] nice utilization of a leftover piece of site. [The] integrated organization of the mechanical systems stood out. It's crisp and clean and legible. The building has an ephemeral quality and nice juxtaposition. [The team is] doing a lot of post-occupancy evaluation work. By keeping the facade light with the glass, [the project] avoids creating dark alleys. [The team] had an advisory group and lots of workshops to help folks understand program and use."
Jury Comments: "From the sustainability perspective, they are using all the criteria across the board. They are using a series of standards to help set the sustainability goals. From an equity perspective, they worked a lot with their community of employees, but [looked] at the habitat and public trails around the site and how their water management helps with the ecosystem as well. They go beyond their own employees of in who would benefit. [The] net-zero water story is strong [and the] courtyard approach is good."
Jury Comments: "This project lends dignity to the people visiting. It's smart with a basic plan organization so that nature can be inserted into it. [It uses] more meaningful biophilia than other projects with just a green wall at the entrance. This project provides the opportunity to talk about patient well-being in a spatial capacity. It makes a great case for space and well-being. Situated on a former brownfield site, the project took the opportunity to say this is what you can do in places where people are sick. It has a nice occupant comfort story, especially now, when health care is very unequal."
Jury Comments: "[This project is a] landmark of the city and resolute at every scale. As a work of architecture, it was really well done and presented. [It involved] lots of stakeholders and focus group in predesign. The university is involved in the metrics, which is a plus for discovery. [It makes a] nice, walkable community and good use of existing brownfield. It's a wonderful solution for that site and where it sits in the city."
The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, Georgia Tech, Atlanta
Lord Aeck Sargent, a Katerra company, in collaboration with design architect The Miller Hull Partnership
Jury Comments: "This project checks a lot of boxes and it performs great. It hits everything: water management strategies, great community engagement, the [life cycle assessment] is good, [and the] social equity and intentions are good. Performance, performance, performance. It has everything in it, [addressing the] equity petal, labor force training, [and use of a] site of historical significance."
Jury Comments: The building has an important role on campus for recruiting students and getting them excited about life sciences. [The project sets] a good standard for water management ... [and] uses reclaimed timber. It's an impressive project, especially [with] the memorable interiors and street presence. [We were] struck by innovative use of vertical fins for solar. [The] stakeholder engagement process in the design phase was good; [the design team] looked beyond college-age and included K-12 students and other constituents."