News Analysis

Learning from the Best: The 2019 COTE Top Ten

The 2019 winners of AIA’s COTE Top Ten are all about education and connection to place.

There is a bittersweet irony in celebrating a sustainable design award for the renovation of a major cathedral a mere week after Notre-Dame de Paris was devastated by a fire that was started, according to initial reports, by renovation activities.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City sees about five million visitors annually. They’ll walk through the glass doors helping to air-seal the entry, but most of them will never know about the ten wells drilled over 2,000 feet into Manhattan’s bedrock to allow heat pumps to replace boilers, reducing the building’s carbon footprint. Or about host of other measures contributing to reduced energy use, enhanced comfort, and even improved ecological diversity on the midtown site.

Slideshow - AIA Top Ten Gallery (click to launch)

The project scope included preservation of all exterior and interior surfaces, a retrofit of sustainable systems, a 10-well geothermal system and upgrades to the landscape. All work was conducted while the Cathedral welcomed five million visitors annually. (Location: New York, NY. Architect: Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects.)

Photos: John Baer, Floto Warner, and Elizabeth Felicella.

This is just one of the ten projects celebrating awards from the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE).

And the winners are …

  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral, renovation designed by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects

Whether or not a house of worship counts as an educational facility is debatable, but seven of this year’s top ten are all about pedagogy. These include:

  • Large, modern edifices of higher education:
    • Amherst College Science Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, designed by Payette
    • Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex in Boston, also designed by Payette
    • The University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design Building at One Spadina Crescent by NADAAA with Adamson Associates Architects and ERA Architects
  • A much more modest house of learning for young students:
    • Asilong Christian High School in West Pokot, Kenya, by BNIM
  • A trio of environmental education centers:
    • Frick Environmental Center for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (also distinguished by the jury for its exceptional post-occupancy performance)
    • Oregon Zoo Education Center in Portland by Opsis
    • Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota, by MSR Design

Even the modest waste transfer station includes a learning center:

  • Seattle Public Utilities’ North Transfer Station by Mahlum Architects

And the only project on this list that doesn’t have any obvious educational connection is:

  • Lakeside Senior Apartments in Oakland, California, by David Baker Architects, home to 91 very-low-income and special-needs formerly homeless seniors

Firms on a roll

With two winners this year, Payette becomes the seventh firm to have won two in the same year, an especially impressive achievement for a firm that didn’t win its first AIA COTE Top Ten Award until 2016. Perhaps not coincidentally, Payette is also this year’s AIA Firm of the Year. The firm’s use of the architecture to help with comfort and energy savings shines through in both of these projects. Efforts to “value engineer” the dramatic screen off of the Northeastern University building’s façade failed when it was shown that the savings from removing that screen would be less than the increased cost of mechanical systems needed to handle the added load.

BNIM is also no stranger to Top Ten Awards, having won them many times over the years. But this year’s winning project is unusual for the firm: a rural school in Kenya that was an early jury favorite. “I have chills on my arms just thinking about it,” said juror Nancy Clanton, CEO of lighting design and engineering firm Clanton & Associates. “That blew me away, how good that was.” It isn’t just the architecture that Clanton appreciates: “That they used local people, got them skilled, and got the whole community behind the school was really inspiring.”

Clanton also appreciated the quality of daylighting at Lakeside Senior Apartments by David Baker Architects. “They really looked at orientation. On the east they have vertical shielding, and they celebrated the north and south with big open windows. I thought, ‘that’s where I want to retire to.’”

Connecting people to place

A unifying theme for many of these projects is the way they connect occupants to the environment and the community around them. As an engineer, Clanton was drawn initially to the energy and lighting performance data, but after reviewing the projects with the rest of the jury, she especially appreciates the ethos each one represents. “All these projects are sending different cultural messages—that we care about the place, and the way we live in it,” she said. Kudos, on this Earth Day, to the designers of buildings that help people feel more connected to planet.

Click on the slideshow for images, and read more about each project on AIA’s Website.

More on the AIA COTE Top Ten

What’s the Secret to High Performance?

2018 AIA COTE Top Ten Build Community

2017 AIA COTE Top Ten Awards Emphasize Buildings That Teach

Published April 22, 2019

Malin, N. (2019, April 22). Learning from the Best: The 2019 COTE Top Ten. Retrieved from

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