Can last year’s Wood Awards winner be bettered?

Niall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King chapel in Oxford seemed such a perfect winner of the top prize at last year’s Wood Awards, that you might think that this year’s results would be an anticlimax. But you would be wrong.

The judges’ final meeting was yesterday, and we were pretty upbeat. Although we came to agreements fairly sharpish, there was some angst – and this was thanks to the sheer quality of the entries. Between us we had voted for some 88 projects for potential short-listing – ie at least one judge thought the project worthy of a visit. And the shortlist that we ended up with was really impressive.

Some projects that we saw were even better than the photos and descriptions suggested; others were a disappointment. That is the purpose of visiting projects and all the projects were seen by some of the judges with one exception – a temporary project that was no longer in place, dRMM and Arup’s Endless Stair. In that case there were detailed presentations from the design team.

Not every judge saw every project. That would not have been feasible, and as it was the judging visits added up to well over 100 judge days. It is worth remembering that good awards don’t happen without a large amount of voluntary effort. But in the end an award scheme is only as good as the entries. Look at the shortlist and you will get a sense of the quality. And when the winners are revealed in their glory in November, you should be delighted. Perhaps you will disagree with some of the choices, but if you do it will probably be becaause you thought something else was better, not because the winner was undeserving.

A decade ago, any building that used wood in a well-considered way was likely to pick up a prize. Now it will get little moe than an approving nod. There were certainly buildings in the shortlist where one could see that the clients were, rightly, delighted, but where there was not the level of innovation in either thinking or technology or craftmanship that would justify an award. With growing appreciation of the aesthetic and environmental properties of wood, the bar has been raised. Were last year’s awards the best? Or this year’s? I would say the best is still to come. And that is certainly a subject for celebration.

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