Editor’s Note: Quantifying Quality?

I recently had the honor of serving on the jury of AIA California’s design awards program. There’s a new format for awards applications originating from AIA National, and California’s state component is an early adopter. If it hasn’t already arrived at your local, regional, or state AIA component, the Common Application will be appearing soon. It’s based on the Framework for Design Excellence the AIA Committee on the Environment uses to judge its COTE Top Ten Awards and bears some similarity to the Living Building Challenge’s Petals of building achievement and performance. 

The 10 metrics (and all the supporting detail they require) in the application are an admirable attempt to quantify what constitutes “design excellence,” which can be an inherently qualitative and subjective determination. Because some of the categories are highly technical, requiring a deep knowledge of various codes and building performance standards, there are now technical pre-screeners who review the applications before the jury sees the entries. The idea is that a building with a very low score in these metrics should not be a strong contender for an award.

But, wait, there’s more. There are now multiple types of awards that can be given—ones that acknowledge standout achievements within one or more of the 10 metrics. For instance, a home run in “Design for Discovery,” “Design for Economy,” “Design for Equitable Communities,” etc., can lock in a Special Commendation award. Hit on even more metrics and you might win a Climate Action Award. There are still Honor Awards and Merit Awards, but they are harder now to achieve without a strong showing in the 10 metrics. 

For the most part, this new format constitutes progress toward quantifying the value architects bring to design and construction and encouraging more rigorous standards of sustainability. That said, these applications may feel onerous to small residential practitioners already struggling to keep all of the balls in the air for their projects and practices. Honestly, many aspects of the Framework for Design Excellence are best suited to larger-scale projects than single-family custom homes. Yes, we should expect an airport or a state capitol building to meet or exceed all of the AIA’s metrics for design excellence, but what about that small, rural vacation home that replaces an obsolete structure on the owners’ property? Can that jewel box building never be recognized for its design excellence when evaluated in the same competition as an urban charter school or homeless shelter? 

Custom residential projects are always going to lose when measured against more virtuous and impactful building types—even when every effort is made to design and build them more sustainably. And I’m not sure how you solve that problem, except to judge them against each other on their own merits.