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Here's a head-turner: A distinguished jury; a wealthy Swiss foundation dedicated to sustainable architecture; an upset decision during its first North American competition -- the $100,000 (U.S.) gold prize of the Holcim Awards has gone to a low-income housing project in Montreal.

If this were Germany or Holland in the 1920s, the privileging of the poor might be instantly credible. But not now. Not in the age of architecture as spectacle in which citizens are thrown uber-buildings meant to be consumed at the speed of a drive-by. And yet. The winning project is a labour of love that extends back over the last 15 years. By resisting, rather than conforming, a small architecture studio that calls itself L'OEUF has recast the question of whether sustainable architecture is necessary. Now the question is: How could architecture be anything but sustainable?

Green Energy Benny Farm sounds like the kind of 1960s garden where Joni Mitchell might have sprinkled some golden stardust. Don't be deceived by a name. What began as a bucolic landscape was converted after the Second World War into a low-rise housing development for returning veterans.

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Fifteen years ago, the architects at L'OEUF (L'Office de l'éclectisme urbain et fonctionnel) in Montreal, including principals Danny Pearl, Mark Poddubiuk and Bernard Olivier, begin imagining the future for Benny Farm. In the early 1990s, the economy in Montreal was flagging badly -- the impulse of the site's owner, the Canada Mortgage & Housing Corp., was to flatten the development, cross fingers and sell the 18 acres to condo developers. Neighbours were frightened that renovated buildings at Benny Farm would send their property prices plummeting downwards. For years, L'OEUF resisted the wisdom of a 1998 master plan that recommended wholesale demolition of the site.

There was no incentive from CMHC to be especially innovative and there was no money for anything but a base building budget. What compelled the architects to push for more? The architects simply believed that the community in Montreal's west end deserved something other than built formulas for the poor.

Together with the community, the architects scrounged for money. Ultimately, after years of looking, they found nearly $4-million. It was enough to substantially increase the budget assigned to each of the 187 units for senior citizens and families. The architects made something more intelligent of the apartments, designing roof gardens into the schemes as well as radiant floor heating, operable windows and, because of a geothermal heating system, tremendous energy savings. Grey-water and storm water are also being reused for things like garden irrigation as part of the pilot project.

"The key word is neighbourhoods. Policy-making should aim at creating livable places to give people a chance to become neighbours again," says L'OEUF's Pearl. And the architects took the time to listen to the wishes of the neighbourhood, even when there was tremendous pressure from the city of Montreal, which wanted more social housing put up quickly in order to fulfill its promise before next month's municipal elections.

The second-prize winner in the Holcim Awards went to the $400-million New Sustainable California Academy of Sciences, a major public building for San Francisco designed by the acclaimed Italian architect Renzo Piano. The jury included Adèle Naudé Santos, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne and Montreal architect Gilles Saucier. The Holcim Awards are presented in Africa, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. Each competition is juried separately. In 2004, Holcim, one of the world's largest cement companies employing 61,000 people, recorded sales of over 13-billion Swiss francs (almost $12-billion).

Canadians distinguished themselves in the Holcim competition. Perhaps these are the kind of rewards we can expect for signing the Kyoto agreement. Third prize went to Mark West, a University of Manitoba associate professor, for innovating a flexible kind of formwork for concrete construction. Most formwork for poured-in-place concrete, whether wooden or metal, is thrown away after being used. But West proposes a geo-textile formwork made from a product readily available around the world, and recyclable.

One of the honourable mentions or "acknowledgment" prizes went to Teeple Architects of Toronto for its design of the library at Vancouver's Langara College. Rather than including a conventional air-conditioning system, the facility is designed with a warped concrete roof shaped to increase the velocity of crosswinds running across it. But the sculpted roof is not a purely aesthetic exercise; the wind currents are captured within a wind tower to facilitate cooling in the building.

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"The reason for sustainable design is to make a better life for people," says Saucier. "The Benny Farm project was about the way the architects consulted people. We're not talking about fake consultation, they're really involved in their community -- and we felt that as a jury," he adds. "It's easy to put forward environmental issues, . . . but it's not so easy to involve people, and to give back something that is totally appropriate."

lrochon@globeandmail.ca

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