Norwich council estate named as UK’s best new building

The pioneering Goldsmith Street council estate in Norwich has become the first social housing project to win the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize in the award’s 23-year history.

A Norwich council estate has made history by being named as the UK’s best new building – the first social housing project to win the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize in the award’s 23-year history.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) gave its top award to Goldsmith Street in Norwich, designed by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley, and the award, coincidentally, comes exactly 100 years since the 1919 Addison Act initially paved the way for the country’s programme of mass council housing.

The winning project has been described as beacon of hope and a pioneering example for other local authorities to follow, with judges praising the estate as a masterpiece with high standards that should become the norm for all council housing.

The Goldsmith Street project for Norwich City Council is made up of almost 100 highly energy-efficient homes. The passive solar scheme is designed to minimise fuel bills for residents, with annual energy costs estimated to be 70% cheaper than for the average household.

To maximise solar gain, all homes face south, every wall is over 600mm thick, and the roofs are angled at 15 degrees to ensure each terrace does not block sunlight from homes in the street behind. 

And, in contrast to the higher-rise flats dominating the surrounding area, Goldsmith Street is arranged in seven terrace blocks, modelled on the Victorian streets of the nearby Golden Triangle district.

Rows of two-storey houses are bookended by three-storey flats, each with their own front door, generous lobby space for prams and bikes, and a private balcony. The back gardens of the central terraces share a secure ‘ginnel’ (alleyway) for children to play together, and a wide landscaped walkway for communal gatherings runs perpendicularly through the middle of the estate. Parking has been pushed to the outer edges of the development, ensuring that people own the streets, not their cars.

The groundbreaking estate saw off tough competition to win the award, with an outstanding shortlist also featuring:

  • Cork House, Berkshire by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton;
  • London Bridge Station by Grimshaw;
  • Nevill Holt Opera, Leicestershire by Witherford Watson Mann Architects;
  • The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Moray by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners;
  • The Weston, Yorkshire Sculpture Park by Feilden Fowles Architects.

Julia Barfield, chair of the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize judging panel, said: “Goldsmith Street is a modest masterpiece. It is high-quality 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. This is proper social housing, over ten years in the making, delivered by an ambitious and thoughtful council. These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing. Goldsmith Street is a ground-breaking project and an outstanding contribution to British architecture.”

RIBA president Alan Jones said: “Faced with a global climate emergency, the worst housing crisis for generations and crippling local authority cuts, Goldsmith Street is a beacon of hope. It is commended not just as a transformative social housing scheme and eco-development, but a pioneering example for other local authorities to follow.”

David Mikhail, of Mikhail Riches, said: “Goldsmith Street’s success is testimony to the vision and leadership of Norwich City Council. They believe that council housing tenants deserve great design. We hope other local authorities will be inspired to deliver beautiful homes for people who need them the most, and at an affordable price.”

Gail Harris, Norwich City Council’s cabinet member for social housing, said: “Winning this prestigious award shows that it is possible to build fantastic new council homes, despite the challenges posed by central government cuts and restrictions around Right to Buy receipts. We are so grateful to Mikhail Riches for sharing our vision for these homes, and helping us to create a sustainable community for our residents.”

John Alker, director of policy and places at the UK Green Building Council said: “Goldsmith Street demonstrates that social housing can and should be great quality and highly sustainable. Norwich City Council has shown incredible vision and leadership with Goldsmith Street and has set a very strong example for others to follow. This local authority has proved that by investing in great design, it is possible to create a development that reaps the rewards of a holistic approach that prioritises both the environment and the needs of the local community.”

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