For the first time, a social housing project has been recognized as the best new building in the UK. Today, the Royal Institute of British Architects’s 2019 Stirling Prize was awarded to the Goldsmith Street affordable residential complex in Norwich, England. Modest in scale and sensibility, the design by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley eschews architectural spectacle in lieu of social good and sustainability.
This is affordable housing without caveats: rents are fixed and the tenancies are permanently secured. Commissioned directly by the Norwich City Council, the rigorous design also meets low-carbon PassivHaus building standards, which reduce energy costs by approximately 70 per cent. It’s an architectural marvel, too.
Curved brick and textured flourishes are appealing 21st-century grace notes for a project inspired by Victorian terraced house vernacular. Rows of two-storey houses are bookended by small three-storey apartment buildings that face the street. Goldsmith Street comprises close to 100 homes, making for a deceptively dense milieu that belies its low-rise scale.
The streets of terraced homes are met by shared alleyways that invite children to play and neighbours to meet. Rows of small private back gardens gently slide into more public spaces, where ample greenery and textured paving is paired with communal tables and benches to foster a sociable ambiance.
For Goldsmith Street residents, the green and welcoming public realm is complemented by functional suite layouts and light-filled interiors. It’s a notable rarity for thermally massive PassivHaus projects, which tend to be characterized by conspicuously thick walls and deep-set windows.
But getting it built was no mean feat. As reported by Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, the project emerged from the last decade’s recession. “The council’s intention had been to sell the site to a local housing provider,” writes Wainwright, but the financial crisis meant that “the city took the brave step of deciding to develop the site itself.” It was the first time the Norwich town council built homes in decades.
The risks were worth it. According to the Stirling Prize jury, “Goldsmith Street is a modest masterpiece” that represents “architecture in its purest, most environmentally and socially conscious form.”
“Behind restrained creamy façades are impeccably-detailed, highly sustainable homes – an incredible achievement for a development of this scale,” the jury notes. “These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing.” With its masterful integration of environmental and social consciousness, Goldsmith Street sets a bar that should be the norm for major architecture awards, too. For now, it’s a notable – and welcome –first.
Photography by Tim Crocker.
Designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, the affordable housing scheme is a modest – and meaningful – winner.