Stanton Williams’ building beats David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Wakefield and Populous’ Olympic Stadium

Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge has won the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize.

The practice, shortlisted for the prize for the first time, beat off bookies’ favourite David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Wakefield, Populous’ Olympic Stadium, OMA’s Rothschild Bank and Maggie’s centre and O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Lyric theatre.

The building, which was built for the University of Cambridge by contractor Kier, was awarded the prize at a ceremony in Manchester on Saturday night. AKTII was the structural and civil engineer, with Arup providing additional design work and working as the mechanical and electrical engineer.

The plant science laboratory was praised as timeless, elegant and classical by the judges.

It was something of a surprise victory for the project, which had not been considered among the favourites to receive the prize.

The Olympic stadium, the Hepworth Gallery and the Lyric Theatre had been tipped as likely winners in the run up to the award.

Alan Stanton, director of Stanton Williams, said: “It [winning] was absolutely a surprise to us. The thing about laboratories is that people think ‘well private building not so interesting’. The Olympic stadium is a very public building, a galley is very public building, a theatre is a very public building so they are all more easy to get excited about than a research laboratory.”

Deborah Saunt, director of architect DSDHA and a member of the audience, added: “I think it was a surprise because it’s one of those projects that is quietly radical.”

Stanton’s sentiment was echoed by designer Naomi Cleaver who sat on the judging panel. She said: “They [the public] are just looking at the pictures. I’ve done lots of judging over the years and it’s very difficult to judge on a photograph. You need to taste it, you need to smell it, you need to hear it and hear from the people who have designed it and those using it to inform your judgement.”

Joanna van Heyningen of Van Heyningen & Haward Architects, who was also a judge, said the panel had whittled it down to just two entries before plumping for the Sainsbury Laboratory but declined to name the project that took second place.

She said the laboratory had a “timeless” quality which would have made it a strong contender in any year.

Stanton said that he hoped the award would lead to an increase in commissions for the practice.

Jack Pringle, chair of the Construction Industry Council and managing director for Europe, the middle east and Africa at architect Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, said: “Everyone is asking who are going to be the successors to the iconic firms of Rogers [Stirk Harbour + Partners], Fosters [+ Partners], Grimshaw and Hopkins? Who is going to take on that mantle? If Stanton Williams continues for another 10-20 years maybe they could come to be one of those world-beating and world-striding firms from a current brilliant but national base. This could be a catalyst for that.”

Pringle said he was surprised by the result but that the laboratory was changing people’s view of what a laboratory could be and recognising that was one of the purposes of the Stirling Prize.

The Stirling Prize was just one of five prizes awarded on the night. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) was awarded RIBA Client of the Year for its delivery of the Olympic park. The ODA pipped competition from developer Argent, Wakefield Council, developer Manhattan Lofts and social enterprise Living Architecture to take the honours.

The Guangzhou International Finance Centre in China designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects was awarded the Lubetkin Prize for the best international building. Projects by firms Foster + Partners, SCDA Architects and TR Hamzah and Yeang were shortlisted for the prize.

Maison L, designed by architect Christian Pottgiesser, won the Manser Medal for one-off house design beating competition from designs by Found Associates, Duggan Morris, Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects & Mole Architects and Simon Conder Associates.

However, there was success for Duggan Morris on the night as it was awarded the Stephen Lawrence prize, set-up in the memory of the murdered teenager to reward projects with budgets under £1m, for its house project in King’s Grove, London.