How the technical review process holds design to a higher standard

Oculus normally uses its annual Design Awards special issue to feature a project selected by the jury as best in competition. This year, however, the jury opted not to select one. We took it as an excellent opportunity to shed light on the often-misunderstood technical review process, in which a specialized panel scores each of the Design Award submissions prior to our staff releasing them to the jury. For the 2022 awards, the AIA New York received 202 submissions, 195 of them complete enough to qualify for review.

“How does our profession back up the value proposition of what we keep saying we’re doing?” asks Stefan Knust, AIA, director of sustainability at Ennead and member of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE). Knust led a panel of 12 volunteers from the committee in a technical review of the Design Awards submissions, a process he describes as a way to help architects “walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.”

“We’re all familiar with the narratives we submit with our projects, and we have great intuition about what matters,” he continues. “Yet we can’t articulate it and put it into con-text globally, regionally, or even locally unless we take steps to measure what we mean.”

Prior to the technical review process, each year’s panelists meet to develop criteria for how to evaluate submissions. Then AIA New York’s staff assigns each project to a pair of randomly selected reviewers. The reviewers grade the submissions from one to five, based on project descriptions and images, and on written responses to a range of qualitative and quantitative questions contained in the Common App Template, which COTE developed as an umbrella application for sustainability design performance recognition. The panelists also annotate the scores with explanatory comments.

“How does our profession back up the value proposition of what we keep saying we’re doing?” —Stefan Knust, AIA

In general, projects that perform perfectly receive a five, ones that are adequate receive a four, those meeting the minimum requirements or slightly exceeding them earn a three, those barely meeting the requirements get a two, and those doing a bad job in describing building performance and sustainability are given a one. When the scores differ by more than one point, they are dis-cussed and reconciled between the two reviewers—an additional step implemented by Joseph Corbin, assistant director of member services, who administers the awards. Once this process is complete, AIANY shares the technical review scores, comments, and submissions with the Design Awards jury members to inform them of its evaluations.

The merging of sustainability into the criteria for the Design Awards is part of the 32-year legacy of the AIA’s Committee on the Environment, founded in 1990. Starting in 1994, the group tried to influence the AIA’s Committee on Design to change its criteria for Design Awards to demonstrate that performance and design excellence were not mutually exclusive. After failing to persuade the committee to establish performance standards within the national awards program, the group began the COTE awards as a pilot program in 1997. Originally planned to sunset after five to 10 years, it continues to be a key testing ground for the implementation of performance criteria in the profession. In 2016 the AIA published Lessons from the Leading Edge, highlighting the evolution of sustainable design, starting with building-scale issues of passive design, energy efficiency, and materials, and leading to the broader context of ecology, economy, health, social equity, and resilience.

In 2019 the AIANY Chapter began technical review to ensure that the Design Awards reflect the organization’s expressed values regarding sustainability and building performance. The same year, the Chapter initiated a separate award track for sustainability, evaluating those submissions for project metrics and asking questions along the lines of the Common App, colored by AIANY’s values.

In the years since, members, panelists, and staff have debated questions like whether or not the sustainability award winners would normally qualify for a design excellence award, and whether sustainability constitutes one of the basic criteria for design excellence in the first place. That discussion is reflected in a report published by AIA national office, the Framework for Design Excellence, which identifies 10 principles and a series of corresponding questions to inform progress toward zero carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environments. The Framework advocates that the 10 principles—concerning matters like ecosystems, water use, economic values, energy performance, and well-being—be considered from the start of every project, regardless of size or type.

Technique is the baseline for protecting the built and natural environment from catastrophe as well as for creating beautiful, meaningful places.

In 2020, AIANY decided to adopt the Common App for all Design Award applications, integrating sustainability as one of the key criteria for design excellence in all projects, while maintaining a special award for sustainability. This year, sustainability ceased to be a separate category and became fully merged into the process of evaluation for Design Awards.

Corbin says the merging of design excellence and sustainability has improved the way the awards reflect the Chapter’s values. “Integration led to greater success in seeing submissions across all categories rise to the top on sustainability metrics into the jury room and receiving awards,” he says.

Some members have raised doubts about AIANY using a technical review process to vet projects for the Design Awards. They suggest it could lead to a mechanistic process valorizing designs that meet quantitative performance standards, while neglecting the qualitative, humanistic values of architecture. Yet what is great architecture if not the art of gracefully deploying a variety of technical skills to achieve deliberate purposes? Technique is the baseline for protect-ing the built and natural environment from catastrophe as well as for creating beautiful, meaningful places.

The technical review process is designed to fully embrace the social and environmental values of the Chapter while allowing the wild diversity of project types by New York members to rise to the top of jury selections. “So many projects are on a different continent, in a far-off place, that it is difficult to funnel them into a language or system here in New York,” Corbin says. “We have to provide some confidence that, if you do your work in an appropriate way and apply yourself in an overlap-ping mindset that you see in the Common App and the Framework for Design Excellence, the jury members will look at your submission more favorably than you other-wise would have thought.”


Technical reviewer notes on a submission that received a 5/5 rating:

“Exemplary submission!!! Not only is it a beautiful project that demonstrates that great design can be provided to those most in need, it ALSO demonstrates a committed focus on design performance, as advocated by the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, and actual performance data, as required by Passive House protocols. (Whole-building air-tightness testing and actual energy per-formance make this certification the most meaningful when it comes to climate change mitigation strategies for operational energy, not to mention optimization of comfort via passive means.) This project deserves to be a national case study for what the AIA means by ‘design excellence services,’ what archi-tecture firms today should be able to practice (and communicate), and what clients should expect. From the passionate Client Impact Statement to exceeding Architecture 2030 Goals to reducing embodied carbon to priori-tizing comfort via passive means (first), this project and submission truly stand out. Bravo to the entire project team!”


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