News Analysis

2018 AIA COTE Top Ten Build Community

This year’s AIA COTE winning projects combine small ecological footprints with big social benefits.

The American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Awards recognize innovative and inspiring projects that demonstrate how to combine architectural excellence and environmental performance.

Beginning with last year’s awards, the criteria AIA COTE uses to define sustainable design was updated and redeveloped based on consultation with experts in various disciplines. In addition to things like energy efficiency and water conservation, the revised “COTE Top Ten Measures of Design” now also emphasize the importance of economy, wellness, and resilience, while focusing on actual performance data instead of predicted metrics.

AIA COTE sees these measures as more than just a rubric with which to evaluate existing projects. Project teams can use these measures as an open-ended framework to guide an integrative design process that weaves sustainability in from the very start.

This Year’s Winning Projects

This year’s diverse set of Top Ten projects includes a courthouse, an art museum, and a research lab. Among the winners are buildings that demonstrate the design opportunity and environmental value of participatory design (involving future users in the design process), data collection and analysis, and building reuse and preservation.

One thing many of the projects have in common, beyond their impressive performance metrics, is a dedication to preserving and fostering community—whether it’s at the scale of a single family, a school, or a neighborhood.

Albion District Library

Albion District Library, designed by Perkins+Will.

Albion District Library demonstrates environmental stewardship while providing its community a vital social resource.

Photos: Doublespace Photography
Community input guided Perkins+Will’s design of the new Albion District Library, located on the outskirts of Toronto. (See the City of Toronto’s Strong Neighborhoods Strategy.) The building’s unique form, open and accessible plan, and surrounding public space create a strong sense of place while drawing together the diverse and immigrant-rich population of the local neighborhood.

The project includes a community garden for food production and education, as well as a multi-purpose public plaza on the site of the former library’s parking lot. The plaza’s permeable paving and abundant tree cover—along with the building’s green roof, a constructed wetland, and high-albedo hardscape throughout the site—mitigate urban heat-island effect and stormwater runoff.

The building also includes a photovoltaic (PV) array. A series of interior garden courtyards allow for daylight penetration, resulting in minimal use of electric lighting.

Georgia Tech Engineered Biosystems Building

Georgia Tech Engineered Biosystems Building by Lake|Flato Architects.

The Georgia Tech Engineered Biosystems Building offers an evolutionary take on laboratory design, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration through its design.

Photos: Chris Cooper (L), Lake|Flato Architects and Jonathan Hillyer (R)
Lake|Flato Architects, in association with Cooper Carry, designed the LEED Platinum-certified (v2009) Georgia Tech Engineered Biosystems Building in Atlanta. The facility is meant to serve as a new model for laboratory research facilities. Its “cross-cutting lab” concept—replacing traditional partitioned labs with a continuous work space along the building’s spine—creates a system of open “neighborhoods” that foster engagement and collaboration between the facility’s interdisciplinary researchers.

The building’s narrow, vertically scaled form maximizes daylight penetration while also allowing for the preservation of a swale on the site that now also frames an outdoor room for students to gather.

Among other energy-saving strategies, the project includes heat recovery from exhaust air, high-efficiency condensing boilers, demand-controlled ventilation in non-lab areas, and reduced lighting power density. Fan energy is reduced by the use of chilled beams to condition spaces. The building is also equipped with PV panels and a solar hot water system.

Janet Durgin Guild and Commons

Sonoma Academy’s Janet Durgin Guild and Commons by WRNS Studio.

The Janet Durgin Guild and Commons at Sonoma Academy provides students a unique place to explore the concepts of equity, community, and sustainable living.

Photos: Celso Rojas
The Janet Durgin Guild and Commons at the Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, California, designed by WRNS Studio, includes a student center, community gathering space, a food service center with a teaching kitchen and garden, a theater, and a series of “maker spaces.” The project is pursuing LEED Platinum certification, as well as six of the seven Living Building Challenge petals. It is also a WELL Building Education Pilot project.

The project engaged the community from the beginning, involving teachers, students, and community members in a pre-design visioning process.  And the completed project maintains this connection to local community; for example, by partnering with local farms to provide healthy meals and educate students.

The building is also designed to have a close relationship with its site. The envelope is defined by operable windows, large garage doors, and sliding wood louvers, allowing occupants controlled access to air, light, and views. The use of compressed earth blocks produced locally with regional soils, as an alternative to cement block, further strengthens the connection to place while reducing carbon emissions.

A geo-exchange system uses groundwater to provide radiant heating and cooling during extreme weather months, further reducing energy demand. Waste heat from ventilation air and the kitchen’s refrigeration system is used for space heating and domestic hot water production.

Los Angeles Federal Courthouse

United States Courthouse, Los Angeles by SOM.

The Los Angeles Federal Courthouse achieves high performance goals and serves as a model of how design can strengthen and enhance civic identity.

Photos: © 2018 Bruce Damonte
The glass façade of the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, designed by SOM, is pleated—designed to re-orient the panes to align with true north while maintaining the building’s orthogonal relationship to the city’s gridded streets. This optimizes access to daylight and views while mitigating solar heat gain. The glass façade system includes internal louvers, frits, and shadow boxes that minimize bird strikes.

A saw-toothed skylight over a central light court provides daylight to all floors. A landscaped courtyard and public areas featuring artwork (See the GSA Art in Architecture program) provide calm, contemplative spaces where visitors can wait before and between tense courtroom proceedings.

The LEED Platinum-certified (v2009) building also features 900 PV panels generating 507,000 kWh of energy annually, demand-control ventilation, and a water-harvesting system that provides 100% of the project’s annual irrigation needs.

The project team evaluated the carbon footprint of various structural systems early in design and selected a composite system of concrete and steel that achieves a 30% reduction in embodied carbon compared to conventional all-steel or all-concrete framed structures.

In order to ensure that the project meets its aggressive performance goal and confirm that building systems function as planned, the contractor and design team have overseen the first year of operation. This allowed for the correction and adjustment of, for example, the multi-stack chiller and the hot-water-circulating pump.

Mundo Verde at Cook Campus

Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School by Studio Twenty Seven Architecture.

The Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School transforms a derelict urban space into a demonstration of ecological design in support of education for sustainability.

Photos: Anice Hoachlander, Hoachlander Davis Photography
The design of the Mundo Verde school’s Cook Campus in Washington, D.C., by Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, was driven by the goal of providing environmental education. Composed of two buildings—a renovated former public school and a new annex—the campus is designed to foster ecological stewardship by providing preschool through fifth grade students the opportunity to learn through engagement with the natural world.

The school engaged not only students and parents but also neighbors in the design process. They collected aspirations for the project with a “Sidewalk Chalk Charrette” on the asphalt of the original site. This resulted in the incorporation of community gardens and hands-on, expeditionary learning stations into the project’s site design. The site serves as a “learning landscape” and includes a Certified Wildlife Habitat that supports migratory insects and birds.

The school has reduced potable water use with the capture of rainwater for flushing toilets and watering the gardens. Various features—including a demand-based heat-recovery ventilation system, efficient fixtures, and vacancy sensors—reduce energy use. An energy-monitoring system allows students to understand the building’s performance.

The project team conducted a cross-sectional analysis of the environmental impact, cost, and complexity of each sustainability investment to inform design decisions. This helped the campus achieve LEED certification (Platinum on the annex, Gold on the renovation; v2009) at half the construction cost of other public schools in the region that were pursuing LEED Silver certification.

Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House

Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.

The not-for-profit Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House supports families of ill children with a comforting space that promotes wellness and community.

Photos: Bruce Damonte
The Nancy and Stephen Grand Family House in San Francisco is run by a not-for-profit organization that provides free temporary housing to families of seriously ill children being treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco. Designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the LEED Platinum-certified project (v2009, LEED for Homes Midrise) can house 80 families.

Input from Family House staff, members of local communities, and past visitors of the old Family House locations resulted in the inclusion of tree-lined pedestrian mews, planting setbacks, and an activated street edge. This engagement with stakeholders also allowed for the correction of problems encountered in the organization’s previous buildings, like insufficient office space, bathrooms, and parking.

The building’s guest rooms are grouped into “neighborhoods” around shared laundry rooms and living, dining, and play areas, enabling the visiting families to form their own small, supportive communities. These clusters are arranged around a large, multi-use courtyard that can host a variety of events.

The project team achieved an actual site energy use intensity (EUI) of 30.6 kBtu/sf•yr (compared to the national average of 78.8 for multifamily mid-rise) by integrating a high-efficiency lighting system and a solar hot water system, among other strategies.

Ortlieb's Bottling House: Top Ten Plus Winner

Ortlieb's Bottling House, Kieran Timberlake.

The historic Ortlieb's Bottling House was retrofitted into a high-performing, flexible office space that fosters collaboration and creativity.

Photos: Christopher Leaman (L), Michael Moran/OTTO (R)
KieranTimberlake has retrofitted Ortlieb's Bottling House in Philadelphia, built in 1948 (and recently added to the National Register of Historic Places), transforming the industrial building into its new studio. The studio includes open office space for more than a hundred people along with conference rooms and fabrication shops.

The preservation of the building helps to maintain the architectural heritage of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and provides an example of how the region’s many mid-century buildings can be adapted into innovative and sustainable projects.

Bands of windows on three façades and a clerestory provide the two floors of the building with daylight as well as both stack ventilation and cross ventilation. These features, along with the thermal mass of the concrete structure, provided the design team an opportunity to experiment with various strategies for combining passive and active ventilation, and dehumidification when planning the renovation.

The team used a custom sensor network to collect temperature and humidity data, and conducted daily occupant surveys to inform the simulation models used to test thermal-comfort design strategies. This study allowed the project team to define specific thresholds for occupant comfort in the building instead of relying on ASHRAE recommendations. Ultimately, this informed approach—combining sensor data with human feedback—has resulted in increased runtime for passive modes of operation and reduced runtime for active modes.

The project also won the Top Ten Plus award, which recognizes projects that have collected actual metrics and post-occupancy data to confirm that performance goals have been met.

The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Major Renovation

The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, DLR Group|Westlake Reed Leskosky.

A major renovation of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum has revived the building, adapting it for the future with state-of-the-art energy efficient systems.

Photos: Kevin Reeves; Courtesy of DLR Group|Westlake Reed Leskosky
DLR Group’s major renovation of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., built in 1859, preserves the historic character of the landmark building while updating its systems to reduce energy use and meet strict requirements for environmental control. In support of an integrative design strategy, all services—architecture, interiors, mechanical systems, preservation, lighting, etc.—were provided by a single firm.

The project, certified LEED Silver (v2009), targeted a 30% energy-use reduction from ASHRAE 90.1-2007 and includes upgraded roof insulation and windows, a modular water-cooled chiller system, a high-efficiency condensing boiler plant, and advanced sub-metering.

In addition, the team collaborated with an LED manufacturer to develop a new product line capable of lighting art from 16 feet while providing a high level of control. The building, one of the first museums in the U.S. with all-LED lighting, reduced its lighting power density from 6 W/sf to 1 W/sf.

A case study of the project is available on the Whole Building Design Guide site.

San Francisco Art Institute, Fort Mason Center Pier 2

San Francisco Art Institute by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.

A historic U.S. Army warehouse has been transformed into San Francisco Art Institute's new campus—a high-performance cultural hub.

Photos: Bruce Damonte
Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects adapted a historic U.S. Army warehouse in San Francisco into San Francisco Art Institute’s (SFAI) new Fort Mason Center campus. The original concrete and steel structure, built in 1909, now houses 160 studios, a workshop, a media theater, flexible teaching spaces, and public exhibition galleries. Using the Athena Impact Estimator, the project team calculated that this reuse results in a 74.9% reduction in embodied greenhouse gas (GHG) impact compared to a new building.

The building’s rooftop 255-kW PV system is the largest installation on a national landmark and provides 100% of the project’s electricity. And a new hydronic radiant slab, installed over the original deck, provides heat and thermal insulation from the bay below.

By hosting public programs and classes, and providing galleries and performance spaces that are free and accessible to all, the new SFAI campus promotes interaction between the students and the wider community. And the project, which positions the school within the wider cultural community around the Fort Mason Center, serves as a highly visible model of sustainable design and reuse to the arts organizations and millions of annual visitors that participate in this community.

The project site, on San Francisco Bay, also supports a diverse ecological community. The local ecosystem supports hundreds of species. The project team collaborated with the National Park Service to protect this ecosystem; for example, by meeting the requirements of the International Dark Sky program to minimize light pollution.

Sawmill Canyon Retreat

Sawmill Canyon Retreat, by Olson Kundig.

The Sawmill Canyon Retreat is a net-zero, off-grid house that promotes a new, regenerative approach to the design of single-family homes.

Photos: Gabe Border
The Sawmill Canyon Retreat in Tehachapi, California, designed by Olson Kundig, is a net-zero-energy single-family house that operates completely off-grid in the Mojave Desert.

The design brief called for a home that would maximize the connection between the building and the surrounding nature, as well as that between the occupants. In response, the project team took as inspiration the idea of tents gathered around a campfire. The three wings of the house—the “tents”—are connected by way of the hearth in the central living area. (See “Thermal Delight in Architecture” for a discussion of how the hearth fire and other archetypes of thermal delight serve to reinforce bonds of affection.)

The large concrete fireplace, based on Russian and Finnish designs, circulates the hot air from a fire through the basement before releasing it through the chimney. This increases heat exchange with the concrete, which then radiates the heat into the basement and living area.

The building is sited to take advantage of the region’s diurnal temperature swings, channeling breezes in summer and capturing solar heat in winter. Heavy mass construction and overhangs are designed to maximize solar gain in the winter and minimize it in the summer.

The house’s radiant floors are supplied with water from a five-ton ground-source heat pump. An 8.4 kW PV array, equipped with battery storage, allows the house to operate off-grid.


For more information:

AIA Committee on the Environment

Published April 19, 2018

Wilson, J. (2018, April 19). 2018 AIA COTE Top Ten Build Community. Retrieved from

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