Sign In, Renew, Sign Up

Search AIA

Search AIA Go

Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture

Page Tools

Reed Insight and Community


Description: Stellent_Header

Opinion Piece
Repositioning the AIA Institute Honor Awards: There Is No Separation Between Sustainability and Design Excellence

The AIA needs to tell the world: Good design is green design.

By William Leddy, FAIA

Chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment Advisory Group

“For more than 60 years, the Institute Honor Awards program has recognized achievements for a broad range of architectural activity to elevate the general quality of architecture practice, establish a standard of excellence against which all architects can measure performance, and inform the public of the breadth and value of architecture practice.” —Call for Entries, 2014 AIA Institute Honor Awards

As the premier architecture and urban design awards program in the nation for more than two generations, the AIA Institute Honor Awards have successfully established the standard for design excellence within our profession. As a result, architects rightly regard the Honor Awards as esteemed recognition for hard-earned design achievement, and deserving acknowledgement of the clients who make it possible. But the call for entries clearly points to another equally vital purpose of this program: communicating the evolving character and lasting value of architectural design excellence to the public. Indeed, as we proceed with the Repositioning the AIA initiative, the Institute Honor Awards should be recognized as one of the Institute’s most engaging and effective public expressions of our purpose, our values, and our leadership in building a better world.

Collectively, the works recognized over the past 60 years represent an extraordinary legacy—each successive year presenting a sampling of the very best design thinking and technological advancement of its time. In the spirit of this legacy, and recognizing the importance of communicating the value of architecture more effectively, we should ask ourselves how the Institute Honor Awards can evolve to better reflect the rapidly changing conditions of our own time.

“Design Excellence” for today

In this era of advancing climate change, resource depletion, and growing concern about the health and resilience of our built environments, the AIA has worked hard to educate the profession about the technical dimensions of these challenges. Numerous AIA programs and policy statements—including the AIA Communities by Design’s 10 Principles for Livable Communities, the AIA Position Statement on Sustainable Architectural Practice and the 2030 Commitment—have provided significant leadership. But we have largely failed to fully engage design responses to these pressing conditions within our broader concepts of design excellence. Sustainable design has been generally perceived as somehow separate from our “real” design pursuits. Separate design awards programs are held for “good design” and “green design,” and separate design journals are produced for “architecture” and “sustainable architecture”—thus perpetuating a false distinction that the AIA and our profession can no longer afford to make. Just as the early 20th-century’s abundant fossil fuels and rapid advances in steel and glass construction technologies helped produce the Modern movement, the current historic convergence of powerful digital design tools, renewable energy technologies, and healthy resource-efficient materials and systems are giving birth to a new architecture of our own time. “Green” design is “good” design.

In the 21st century, architecture isn’t truly excellent unless it deeply engages the natural world and promotes health and resilience. This means far more than complying with prescriptive third-party green building certifications. It means creatively embracing the rich opportunities for meaningful architectural expression that present themselves when we anchor our buildings firmly in the authentic character of each site, climate, and circumstance. It means evolving our design award programs to make them reflect both the realities of our time and the stated values of the Institute by requiring sustainable design narratives and building performance metrics as an integral part of “design excellence.” This information would in no way negate or relegate our profession’s other long-held design values. Juries, as always, would make their selections based upon a wide range of criteria. But it would send an unambiguous message to the profession and the public of our forthright commitment to building a better world.

The next steps

Our colleagues around the country are clearly ready for this next step. In the 2013 call for entries for the Institute Honor Awards, a basic sustainable design integration narrative and projected energy/water use metrics were for the first time requested (but not required). Data compiled by AIA National staff indicated that 91 percent of the 343 submissions to the Honor Awards for Architecture category provided at least the requested sustainable design integration narrative, and 53 percent provided the requested building performance projections. Interestingly, the percentage of respondents that included this sustainability information actually increased when the jury culled the submissions down to 119 projects for in-person review. Ninety-eight percent of this more elite group provided the requested narrative, and 60 percent provided the requested building performance metrics. In the end, all 11 projects selected for the 2013 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture display a creative integration of exemplary architectural design with deep resource efficiency, healthy indoor environments, strong community connections, and enduring resilience.

Clearly, a majority of firms submitting their work to the Institute Honor Awards for Architecture are already willing and able to provide basic sustainable design information. This is attributable in no small part to the excellent job the AIA has done in educating the profession on these important issues. Still, as our communities are increasingly challenged by a rapidly changing world, telling a good story about the sustainable design features of our projects isn’t enough. We need to be able to provide projected or actual energy- and water-use data that convincingly support our claims of advanced resource efficiency. While last year’s Honor Awards for Architecture were a good start in this area, we have more work to do:

    Institute Honor Awards: To bring the Institute Honor Awards into consistent alignment with the AIA’s stated values, and to show strong leadership to the profession and the public, the 2015 Institute Honors Awards should require the basic sustainable design narratives and performance metrics that were only requested in 2013 and 2014.

    Twenty-five Year Award: As the window of eligibility approaches the 1990s, the AIA’s prestigious Twenty-five Year Award should reflect our evolving concepts of resilience, health, and resource-efficiency over time.

    • Jury Composition: To ensure that these factors are fully incorporated within the jury deliberations, the jury panel should include at least one member who is a proven leader in the advancement of integrated sustainable design practice.

    AIA COTE Top Ten Awards: As these values become more embedded within common professional practice, the AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects program will evolve to celebrate advanced research and the cutting edge of net-zero energy and carbon-neutral design.

A pivotal moment

The continued integration of ecological design thinking within our profession’s broader concepts of design excellence is absolutely key to the Repositioning the AIA initiative because it positions architects as effective leaders in a rapidly changing world. Sustainable design isn’t just about engineering and building codes. It isn’t just about a menu of strategies and building performance metrics. It’s definitely much more than simply “checking the boxes.” It’s fundamentally about design innovation. This is what architects do best. By seizing this historic opportunity to demonstrate strong, meaningful leadership to the profession and to the public, the AIA can inspire its members across the nation to focus the transformative power of design on the critical issues of our time, helping to lead our communities to a resilient, regenerative future.


LMN Architects’ Vancouver Convention Centre West, a 2013 AIA Honor Award for Architecture recipient. Image courtesy of LMN Architects.

Description: enlarge-icon


Recent Related:

2013 AIA Institute Honor Awards for Architecture

2013 Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture

2013 Honor Awards for Regional & Urban Design


Visit the AIA Honors and Awards website.

Visit the Repositioning the AIA website.


Back to AIArchitect September 13, 2013

Go to the current issue of AIArchitect


Footer Navigation

Copyright & Privacy

  • © The American Institute of Architects
  • Privacy