National centre for synchrotron science, designed by Bates Smart. Finalist in Commercial Architecture category

This week the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its shortlisted 2013 entrants for its annual Architecture Awards (I looked at the 2011 award winners before). The term shortlist seems exaggerated – there’re a whopping 112 finalists in 13 categories.

I confess the overall logic behind the Award categories eludes me. The Public Architecture and Commercial Architecture categories seem to be based on markets; the three Residential categories on end-use; and the Interiors category hints at a spatial principle.

The other categories variously appear to be based on function, time and geography. There’s even a seeming leftover called the Small Projects category, suggesting size is in there too! Presumably it all makes obvious good sense to the organisers and is consistent with how architects view their business.

One aspect I’m disappointed about is the continuing use of a distinct Sustainable Architecture category. It’s 2013 and sustainability has been around for a long time now – at the national level, the AIA has had a sustainability Award under various names since 1993.

Sustainability needs to be treated as an integral and normal part of architecture, not something special and separate. I know almost all architects are very committed to sustainability but this is the wrong approach. There isn’t a ‘Buildings that stand up’ category or a ‘Buildings that keep out the weather’ category and nor should there be – that’s just what architecture is. It’s time to regularise sustainability and make it a given, not an exception.

The Awards are the state Chapter’s premier event. They should tell us a lot about what architecture is and what it means to the profession. In particular they should tell us what exemplary architecture is.

The reality however is different – they only provide a partial explanation of what good architecture is.

The judges (who’re all architects) listen to a short presentation from each entrant and briefly visit each building. Their primary source of information is their eyes and what the architect – hardly an independent source – tells them.

They don’t know much about how the design worked financially or whether it came in on program. The AIA notifies clients of site visits, but doesn’t actively seek information from them or their independent participation.

And because the buildings are all new, no one knows if the ultimate users – the residents, office workers, patients, students, and so on – will be happy or will discover major flaws with the design over time.

Even if the judges rigorously evaluated the projected operating and maintenance costs of a building (and I doubt they do), no one knows if it’ll live up to the claims made on its behalf by the architect or if there’ll be some awful surprises down the track.

Then the judges have to compare the relative merits of what in some categories are plainly disparate buildings. In the Commercial Architecture category, for example, the Bar di Stasio has to be compared against the National Centre for Synchrotron Science.

What all this means is appearances, both literal and metaphorical, loom large in the judging of Awards winners. Qualities like value and functional performance that seem to matter a lot in other aspects of life and business take a back seat, especially for larger projects. That’s a pity, because a good building – an Award-winning building – should above all else satisfy and delight those who use it.

Thus Awards only provide a partial understanding of what good architecture is. That’s understandable because they have inherent problems. In particular it would be costly to require more extensive information from entrants and have it rigorously assessed by an independent ‘auditor’.

Moreover these are new buildings. The experience of users is short-term and in some cases they might not even have moved in. In any event collecting objective data on their experiences would be time consuming and costly.

Awards obviously have a lot of value for architects, they seem to love them. But what they say – what they can say – about the overall excellence of the architectural process is really quite limited. It’d be less of a problem with detached houses because they’re relatively small and simple, but for the larger part of the profession’s work they only tell part of the story.

Awards aren’t likely to disappear but I expect there’s some scope to tighten up and bring more rigour to both the definition of categories and the judging process. The AIA should be prepared to shell out for a measure of independent data collection and analysis. It should also be more reflective and up-front about what the Awards actually measure.

There could also be value in requiring buildings to operate for a minimum period – say a year – before they can be considered for an Award. That would provide some scope for users to gain experience and provide feedback. Clients should also be invited to participate actively in the evaluation process.

The best way of identifying genuine examples of architectural merit has little to do with Awards as they’re currently structured i.e. by annual competition. I propose universities should be pushed hard by the AIA to do more research on how well buildings perform across a range of functional and financial indicators. Universities have the scope to look over a long time horizon and the ability to collect objective information from owners and users.

It amazes me – in fact it staggers me – that there doesn’t appear to be any rigorous academic research into how well architects deliver. If the architecture schools won’t do it or lack the appropriate research skills, it should be taken on by a social science department.

I expect those 112 shortlisted entrants are all fine buildings when looked at through the current Awards lens. My key issue is that the awards process is based on a limited definition of what makes good architecture.