Britain’s best new building is a public housing project, according to a major award announced yesterday. Goldsmith Street, a 105-home development completed by architects Mikhail Riches in the city of Norwich, has just received the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize, after being described by judges as “a modest masterpiece.” Although it’s the first time that public housing has won Britain’s most prestigious architectural award, the project’s success makes perfect sense.

That’s not just because affordable housing in general has been the subject of intense discussion and some public recognition in Britain recently, with the public housing architect Neave Brown receiving RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement shortly before his death in 2018, and the regeneration of a rundown Liverpool neighborhood becoming the unlikely winner of fine art’s Turner Prize. It’s also because Goldsmith Street’s attractive townhouses, built by Norwich City Council, could—in their matching of affordability with extreme energy efficiency—provide a standard model for developments all across Britain. Indeed, RIBA President Alan Jones called the development not just “a pioneering exemplar for other local [governments] to follow,” but also a “beacon of hope.”

©Tim Crocker

You might not see all this at first glance. A pleasant, somewhat traditional-looking development that recalls the modest Victorian-era rowhouses found elsewhere in this city of 200,000 people, Goldsmith Street doesn’t look as groundbreaking aesthetically as it is in terms of its planning and construction. The new mini-district is nonetheless denser than it looks, concentrating 45 houses and 60 apartments on less than two acres, yet gaining a sense of spaciousness from a central, car-free garden alley with play spaces and greenery.

Above all, Goldsmith Street is extremely energy-efficient, constructed to ultra-low-energy Passivhaus standards. The pale-brown brick walls are all built to an insulating thickness of at least 23.5 inches, while the homes’ orientation is southwards, so as to maximize solar load. This is a useful energy saver in a region where (for now, at least) keeping homes warm is more of an issue than keeping them cool, and could make heating costs far lower for residents.

To further enhance this solar orientation, buildings were kept low-rise and roofs were tilted to a 15 percent gradient—both decisions intended to reduce overshadowing. Other small touches reinforce the drive for energy efficiency. Windows are partly shaded via aluminum brise-soleils, and in a country where most people still receive their mail directly through a drafty, heat-seeping slot in their front door, Goldsmith Street’s homes have been designed with a mailbox sunk sideways into the porch instead.

It’s great to see this level of care taken with housing intended for people on low incomes. But despite the recent recognition for public housing in the U.K., it would be a mistake to assume that the country is going through a golden age in this area. Finding funding for public housing remains extremely difficult, and the number of socially-rented homes in Britain actually dropped a dramatic 11 percent in the year 2016-17.

Meanwhile, the targets handed out to private developers that require them to produce a number of homes at sub-market rates have a habit of being diluted with impunity. And often, the sub-market homes end up being rented out at rates still beyond the pockets of many people they are intended to benefit. Norwich’s scheme avoided this pitfall by committing to all homes being rented at a subsidized rate not directly pegged to market prices, an approach that still ultimately recoups construction costs, but more slowly. Even here, however, the approach was made possible partly by funds gained by the council from selling off public housing elsewhere.

©Tim Crocker

Developments like Goldsmith Street still capture the public imagination because many British people remember a time when public housing was built both in large quantities and (often) to high standards. While Britain has had its public housing disasters, the idea of state-built housing doesn’t have quite the shadow over it that exists in the U.S., cast by Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green. More than 40 percent of Britons lived in public housing in the 1970s, before Margaret Thatcher decimated the sector in the 1980s. So many people remember a time when living in well-built but cheap housing was something normal for those on lower incomes.

That memory has a powerful luster in today’s unequal, austerity-hit Britain, and helps explain why a likable but unremarkable-looking project like Goldsmith Street could win the country’s top architectural accolade.