Exposed concrete grabs the eye on Stirling shortlist

4 Oct 2023

There is a clear frontrunner for concrete lovers on this year’s Stirling prize shortlist. Apparata Architects’ A House for Artists in Barking, Essex is the most overtly concrete building to make the cut since another house for an artist, 6a’s Juergen Teller Studio, in 2017. Its big monolithic forms feel like a blast from the past – back to an age where housing wasn’t all politely wrapped in brick. But it is a reminder that concrete can create intelligent, sustainable, future-looking architecture, particularly in complex sectors such as affordable housing (and it’s not the only such reminder on the list). 

A House for Artists’ embodied carbon is 470kgCO2eq/m², over 20% less than that targeted in the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge. The concrete might look big and muscly, but the architects made sure it was as lean as possible, with high rates of cement replacement (50% GGBS above ground and 70% below) and a rationalised structure with minimal internal walls. The concrete also works extremely hard, not just as structure but as finish, with the exposed soffits helping to reduce overheating. As Apparata co-founder Nicholas Lobo Brennan told Concrete Quarterly last year, “That’s why it’s in the building – it’s doing so much.” 

Unlike the Teller Studio, this wasn’t a bespoke commission tailored to one artist’s requirements. It uses the open interiors made possible by the concrete frame to offer a genuinely radical take on flexible living. Residents can remove or add partition walls as required and even switch an unwanted bedroom to a neighbouring apartment. It’s a building that’s designed to change with its occupants, and that can only stand it in good stead. 

It's interesting that the two affordable housing schemes on the shortlist – and the only two schemes to stray beyond university campuses or the leafier London suburbs – both use exposed concrete, not really for reasons that tend to grab the attention of architectural critics or awards judges, but as a pragmatic way of providing comfortable, flexible, inexpensive places to live in an increasingly uncertain future.  

At Adam Khan Architects’ Central Somers Town housing and community centre, a focus on 2050 climate levels led the designers to provide a range of simple but extremely effective passive cooling measures: robust, movable external shading and natural cross-ventilation combined with exposed concrete soffits and high-density concrete block walls for enhanced thermal mass. 

It won’t get the headlines, but in many ways thermal mass is the unsung hero of this year’s shortlist – an old solution but a reliable one in an age where the competing demands of climate, housing and economic crises are increasingly hard to reconcile. I don’t know whether either A House for Artists or Central Somers Town will win the Stirling Prize. (In fact, even concrete afficionados might have their heads turned by the beautiful cast-in-situ vaults of Witherford Watson Mann’s masterful retrofit of the Courthauld Institute). But I’m reasonably confident that, whatever else the future holds, both will still be genuinely sustainable, comfortable places to live in 2050 and beyond. 

By Nick Jones, author of Concrete Quarterly