It’s been a good two weeks since the Wilmina Hotel received the German Sustainability Award (GSA) in the category for architecture. The bestowal of this award – for the conversion of a former women’s prison in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg – follows in the steps of some prodigious projects over the past ten years. Looking back, it’s clear that many of the projects that have won the award were ahead of their time. They also helped trigger debate that is as pertinent today as it has ever been.
Talk to past winners of the GSA for architecture and it immediately strikes you how much the prize means to them. The impression gained at this year’s award ceremony on 2 December 2022 was no different. There was a palpable sense of mutual appreciation among the nominees, not to mention a desire to set something in motion with the projects. That’s also the case with the latest award-winning project: the Wilmina Hotel.
Winners of the 2023 German Sustainability Award for Architecture: Prof. Almut Grüntuch-Ernst (founder or Grüntuch Ernst Architects) being interviewed alongside Gordian Grüntuch (co-founder and opening manager of WILMINA)
When the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) joined forces with the German Sustainability Award Foundation and launched a special award in 2013, it was impossible to foresee the significance of this prize ten years later. Today, it is the most important architectural competition for sustainable architecture in Germany. This is also due to the fact that the jury, which comes in a variety of constellations, has time and again managed to pick out projects that have made a long-term impact in setting things in motion.
Circular building was already possible in 2013
A good example of this is the first award-winner: Ravensburg Art Museum.These days everyone is talking about consuming fewer resources, reusing materials and circular building. That may still be a pie-in-the-sky concept for most modern buildings, but back in 2013 it was a philosophy the award-winning project had already embodied and embraced. The result: a building envelope and vaulted roof made from re-used bricks recovered from a former monastery.
Dealing with existing buildings sustainably is another one of those issues that are now more topical than ever. There is a growing realisation that we will not solve the challenges of climate protection with new buildings alone. This was the starting point for the renovation of a 200-year-old farmstead, HOF8 in the Tauber Valley, which won the award in 2014. The completely renovated surplus-energy farm offers plenty of evidence that tearing down a building and erecting a new one is often the easier choice, but from a sustainability standpoint it’s usually worse.
It was a similar story with the award-winner in 2015. In that year, the top prize was awarded for the general refurbishment and extension of a high-rise block of flats in Pforzheim. For example, the project addressed a common challenge with buildings from the post-war period: what to do with old buildings in need of renovation.
Climate-positive buildings – a reality for some time now
The jury also acknowledged the exemplary role played by the winner of the award in 2016, Schmuttertal Grammar School in Diedorf, which reaped praise on a number of fronts. Built according to energy-plus standards, the ensemble of buildings generates more energy than it consumes itself, making it climate-positive in operation. The school buildings were based on an exemplary new approach to architectural design and material production. This revolved around prefabricated modules that allowed the complex to be built cost-effectively in no more than two years.
The jury also showed that they were on to something when they picked the winning project in 2017: the wagnisART cooperative housing development in Munich. This housing estate, which encompasses 138 flats, showed that even in times of social division it is entirely possible to involve future residents in the planning process – in this case resulting in an exceptional approach to architecture that fosters a sense of community.
Even with public buildings, with plenty of motivation and the right drive it’s possible to come up with outstanding approaches to high-quality architecture that are both sustainable and innovative – as demonstrated in 2018 by the award-winning ew town hall building in Stühlinger, a suburb of Freiburg. Since it is the world’s first surplus-energy public building, it’s impossible to overstate the exemplary role played by this development.
Flagships of sustainability
A truly beacon project when it comes to sustainable building is the 2019 award-winner, Alnatura Arbeitswelt in Darmstadt. That said, the building has much more to offer than its compressed clay facade, which is probably what it’s best known for. Among the most noteworthy features are its exceptionally high standards, in all areas, exploring the boundaries of possibility when it comes to sustainable building methods.
The 2020 German Sustainability Award (GSA) went to Wohnhochhaus SKAIO, a block of flats in Heilbronn. At its time of completion Germany’s tallest building based on timber hybrid construction, it is now a pioneer of architectural methods and a trailblazer when it comes to timber construction in Germany. It also explored the boundaries of feasibility with regard to building regulations and is now of direct benefit to other projects. The building also shows that sustainable building and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive.
The jury also showed a keen sense for topical issues in 2021. If we really want to succeed in making the environment we build around ourselves carbon-neutral, we must learn how to replace conventional materials with more resource-efficient alternatives, and from the outset dispense with individual layers of materials and do away complicated building technology. This was a challenge taken on by the Einfach Bauen development in Bad Aibling, an issue it tackled in exemplary manner. Further still, by involving scientists and making documentation freely available to the general public, the project is also playing a pioneering role, which is already leaving its mark on planning and building practice.
More needed than ever: a sensitive approach to existing buildings
The Wilmina Hotel will probably also make its mark. As the award-winner in the 10th anniversary year of the German Sustainability Award, this hotel is an outstanding example of existing buildings filling vacant plots while at the same time dealing with a difficult legacy. Instead of considering the fabric of the existing building a burden, it was seen as an opportunity to come up with something new. This is a building with feel-good factor, despite its history. And it’s a building everyone should visit one day – just to experience the aura.
The Wilmina Hotel in Berlin | © Wilmina, Photo: Robert Rieger