Competitions in Architectural Practice

Competitions have always been a part of the architectural profession to some extent. However, in recent history the process has become ever more significant and is now one of the most used procurement methods in many countries around the world. This report will explore the benefits of architectural competitions for those parties involved in the planning process, followed by an outline of the various competition models used today. Finally, I will highlight some of the key issues I have encountered whilst working on a range of competitions during my placement period in 2010.

Essay assignment at the University of Edinburgh



'The design competition is one of those useful means, and potentially a powerful tool in advancing design, which it has been for two or three thousand years.'

The competition is the beginning of the design process. Indeed, many successful and well-known projects have started out as competitions, and a number of architects have managed to start their careers, or propel themselves forwards, through high profile competition achievements. The process provides the client with a wide range of design options from which they can select the one that most caters to their needs. This ultimately creates a flexible framework for discovering the best solution. Optimizing design projects around the world, the competitive process has survived for centuries and its continued prominence in the architectural sphere is not doubted.

'In Europe, the proliferation of competitions and the inclusion of so many building types in that process can be viewed as a post World War II phenomenon. Architectural associations in Germany, France other European countries and Japan convinced their governments that mandating competitions for public buildings which exceeded a specific budget was the best way to achieve better design.'

This report is founded on the competition experience I have had during my work placement at two architectural firms where work has been submitted for competitions in China, Germany and the UK. The first two sections of this document focus on fundamental concepts: Why should we use competitions in architectural practice, and what must be considered when organising such processes? A selection of three competitions that I have had the opportunity to work on during my placement period will be documented in the final section.


Benefits for Architects

“Competitions take us to places we never expected to be. We don’t know where we might end up, but it won’t be where we intended, and that really gets us thinking.”

The excitement of participating in a competition can have an exceptional impact on office morale. New ways of thinking can be developed and tested throughout the course of an intense and usually relatively short burst of activity. Aside from the process of a competition being extremely hard work and a test of one’s own stamina, I have always found it to be a particularly enjoyable experience. Competitions have, throughout my placement period, given me moments during which I have been challenged with tasks I would, in a conventional environment, have needed much more experience to be entrusted. These were rewarding moments that I excelled in and that led to further responsibilities on other simultaneously running projects. Andrea Dean points out that, “competitions bring the younger people forward and reveal talent that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

Not only can competitions bring to light young talent that a company already possesses; they can also provide opportunities for the development of the team. Whether this be trying a new software package; or needing to quickly gain an understanding of a site-specific condition that will influence the rest of the project: an entire team can learn during the competitive process. Furthermore, “many architects relish the competition process as it can be an opportunity to design a new building type.” To put it simply, architects enter competitions not only to secure new work, but also to develop the team internally through collaborative effort.

These are justifiable aims. However, architectural practice remains a business and winning is undeniably the aim for the vast majority of entrants. A well-managed competition makes particularly large projects much more accessible to all sizes of practice. Due to the anonymous process the project is awarded to the company found most suitable, based on the chosen selection criteria. A fair procedure is thus achieved which rewards the architect’s efforts based purely on the design proposal, not on social contacts. “They [competitions] provide a fair, transparent and auditable process for the appointment of an architect (or design team) that protects the interests of bidders and meets public accountability criteria when relevant.”

When a designer wins a project through a fair competition process, the reward goes well beyond just the contract. Winning gives the successful bidder a vast amount of potential exposure; although the level to which this is exploited varies significantly between countries and project types. Nonetheless, this free form of advertisement should not be underestimated. Countless practices “have found that their stock has risen dramatically after performing well in a competition.”


Benefits for clients

For the client there are various motivations for commissioning a design competition. These can include:

  • Inviting fresh thinking

  • Promoting a site

  • Making a step change in the quality of your organisation’s work

  • Attracting talented design teams

  • Assessing the range of approaches to design challenges

  • Delivering real innovative thinking within technical and financial constraints.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives an indication of the possible added value which organising a competition can hold. However, the most obvious reason for organising a competition is the aim of getting the best possible design. Competitions have long been used as “an instrument of structured design optimisation.” Clients who commission a competition are not aiming to buy planning services at the cheapest possible price, but rather invest both time and money for the opportunity to choose the best solution from a variety of available proposals.

Assuming the correct competition procedure has been selected, the client will not only receive several design options, but also be sure that the best team is being hired to take the project forward.

The competition process has often been criticised as expensive and time-consuming, wasting valuable resources in a struggling industry. I agree with industry professionals that, “no other stages in the project lend themselves as easily to cost reduction as the ones preceding planning.” In its most primitive form, cost reduction can be realised by simply setting a realistic budget in the competition brief. The jury and client can then consider the deliverability of a proposal within the constraints of the available funding in their selection criteria.

Furthermore, a client still unconvinced by the competitive design process must consider:

‘[…] how much a competition speeds up the subsequent planning and approval processes. How much more efficient is a design obtained from a transparent and instructive selection process than one obtained in other ways? And how much more acceptable is such a process in the eyes of the general public?’

This leads on to possibly the most significant benefit from a client’s point of view: the PR potential of running a competition. This is true for both public and commercial clients. The concept of added value through high-quality architecture has become highly topical in recent history.

‘The relevant issues are dictated by the global market: sustainability, location marketing, customization, brand value and the competition for top quality staff; these are the factors that are vital for Europe’s future as a place for doing business. Arguments such as these must be considered first and foremost in the planning of major buildings that, at prominent locations, reflect and project a company’s self-image. Secondly, they are to be considered as well in the context of how construction projects affect the company’s image as perceived by its staff, the local community and the region as a whole.’

In the modern business environment every organisation, whatever its scale, has a corporate identity. This can take any form, from a simple logo to all-round strategies developed and implemented by large marketing departments. But how many companies have a position on their corporate architecture: what type of image is their office building to convey? Let’s take environmental policies as an example. When a 21-Century end user looks at a company’s website, he or she is likely to be presented with information on how ‘green’ its products are, or how little energy is used for transport and delivery. However, I am not aware of any companies at present which actively market how much money they have invested in their new office building in order to minimise energy consumption or create the best possible working environment for it’s employees. Marketing directors are always looking for new ways to present their companies and are no doubt going to begin exploring this option sooner rather than later. A well-organised competition can be an excellent channel for marketing an organisation’s architectural policy in a subtle, yet obvious way. After all, “competitions are news; and the press does much to sustain public and professional awareness.”

Hosbach suggests that while significant projects have been awarded through open competitions, equally important projects have been commissioned directly, through less transparent procedures. “As a result many, many buildings are still being constructed that will not attain major importance for these companies, their staff or for the general public.”


Benefits for the end user/public

Holding a competition to find the best solution at the best price is just as relevant for the end user as for the client, particularly when public funds are being used for the procurement. However, some specific benefits are particularly relevant to the general community.

There is a generally held belief that participation from the public will result in a better solution. This is understandable as any development is likely to affect the public in some form; and it will be those who engage with the building who eventually evaluate its success. This alone justifies the necessity for public involvement at some level and competitions can easily allow for this. Yet, it could be argued that in order for people to be able to evaluate the design quality, an understanding of the subject is a prerequisite.

The process involved in running a competition can help with this education. “Competitions which are run openly and in public serve to stimulate public dialogue

regarding design. They make the public aware of design – its cost and its effects.” Education of the general public is very important in developing architecture and “toward this end, design competitions may prove very useful.”



The architectural competitive process also has its critics: understandable to some degree, given the nature of competitive environments in some countries. The most commonly argued point is undoubtedly:

‘Is it justifiable to employ a number of architects with no payment other than the uncertain prospect of one being commissioned?’

‘Add to this the knowledge that his work will probably all be thrown away and the job be given to somebody else, more skilful or more fortunate than himself.’

If a competition is organised in a way where rules are unclear or the process is vague and ill defined then yes: it is fair to say that competitions are an unfair process. However, to simply argue against it by suggesting that someone more skilful will be given the job due to the competitive nature of the procurement process is ridiculous. Of course the best team should be given the work. This has long been accepted in most business sectors and architectural practice is no exception.

Others believe that competitions tend to “over-emphasize the cosmetics of design and dramatic exterior character.” This may be true in some cases, but I believe it is necessary to evaluate the competitive environment before entering into it; if it fulfils the generally recognised requirements (these will be covered later) then the competitors can only trust the ability of the jury. After all, the competitors can choose whether to enter a competition.

Possibly the most prominent architectural figure fiercely against the practice of architectural competitions was Frank Lloyd Wright. In his autobiography he writes:

‘But no matter how promising the program nor how many promises were made I steadily refused to enter a competition. I have refused ever since. […] the jury itself is necessarily a hand picked average. […] the first thing this average does as a jury, when picked, is to go through all the designs and throw out the best ones and the worst ones. […] The net result is a building well behind the times before it is begun. […] Moreover, to further vitiate the competitive objective every architect entering any competition does so to win the prize. So he sensibly aims his efforts at what he conceives to be the common prejudices and the predilections of the jury. Invariably, the man who does this most accurately wins the competition.’

This again questions the credibility of the Jury. A competition judge may well be biased to some extent, but it is important to appreciate that bias is inherent in the nature of all human judgement: it’s what makes us individuals. It is the architect’s choice whether he wishes to compete in a competition or not; and I doubt that Frank Lloyd Wright would be unable to find a competition with a suitable jury nowadays. However, his critique may need to be viewed within its historical context. Arguably during the period of Wrights professional career competitions had not yet become common practice in America and therefore no proper procedural framework had been implemented leading to unclear, and thus unfair, competitions.


Varying competition models

Competitions can be a highly complex process and a number of generally accepted procedures have been developed. Before discussing the various procedures it is important to highlight some pre-competition considerations. The initial decision that needs to be well considered is whether to conduct a competition at all: there are risks involved and they are not suitable for all projects. Secondly, one must accept that the aim in choosing a competition procedure is “choosing the most appropriate approach, rather than a quest for the ‘ideal’ competition procedure.” Thirdly, “the preparation and conduct of a competition costs money. […] Depending on the project volume and the scope of services expected from the procedure, the actual cost of a competition generally amounts to between 0.8 and 2.4 percent of the construction cost.”

Once it has been confirmed that a competition is indeed the most suitable instrument for achieving the best possible result, there are several models to choose from. The most common of these are briefly outlined below:

Competitive Interview

The competitive interview is used to determine the best team at a very early stage of the project. No design proposal is submitted and therefore only a vague outline of the project is required with a commitment to appoint the winner. Design teams are usually required to submit information on relevant experience and the background of their team. Of those who apply, a shortlist is invited for interview from which the final decision is made.

Open Ideas

The open ideas competition is open to all competitors and is used to explore the possibilities of a project. There is no commitment for the winner to be appointed. The results often only contribute to further academic understanding of a given subject as opposed to a real project, therefore a highly conceptual brief can be used to encourage and stimulate the most creative responses.

Open Design

The open design competition is also open to all competitors, but there is a commitment to appoint the winner. The designers respond to a detailed project brief with proposals that are realistically achievable.

Invited Design

Design teams are shortlisted on the basis of their previous experience. Those chosen are invited to submit proposals to a detailed brief. The winner will be appointed to take the project forward.

These processes clearly achieve different results and are therefore each is suitable for different types of project.

If a client wishes to take further control of the design outcome he or she can implement a two-stage process. Although this costs more, it has been argued that the expense is justified as the “results are noticeably superior to those produced in single-stage competitions.” Conversely, some architects believe that it simply adds additional hardship, without actual design improvements. Marion Weiss summarised her beliefs as follows:

‘If you win a competition in the first stage, it’s about ideas. Often second stages are excuses to window ideas out on the basis of experience, team make-up and other variables, which really shouldn’t be central to the competition. […] Enormous joy, care, spirit and passion goes into a first stage; second guessing and caution is brought bear in the second stage. That is not what we do competitions for.’

I would further add that if a strict competition procedure is implemented and is appropriately managed, the two-stage process does indeed allow for further design improvement. It can allow for the client to view the initial results, which are most probably very different to his or her expectations and may have highlighted new opportunities. This helps to further clarify the clients’ requirements in their own mind. A second stage can adopt these initial findings and allow for further refinement of the brief during the design process. This is one way the competition process can involve a level of discourse between the client and competitors.


The Brief

A competition always begins with a brief; some are very abstract and some follow regulatory guidelines. Arguably, it is the most important part of the competitive process, as it is the primary element to which competitors will respond, particularly on international competitions where the competitor may not have the opportunity to visit the site. Therefore, it is important to invest effort and money in properly creating the brief and accompanying documents.

Many organisations offer professional services to assist clients in creating a brief and generally assisting those not usually involved with the competitive process. In the UK, both the RIBA and RIAS have dedicated departments providing such a service. It is essential to get experienced input from such organisations in order to have a successful outcome from a design competition.

The brief is the first point of contact between the organiser and the (potential) competitors, who will decide whether to enter based on its content. Linda Roberts from the RIBA competitions office believes that “a simple and uncluttered brief is more likely to elicit a broad range of responses. If it is too prescriptive this may reduce the scope for imaginative and varied responses.” When deciding to enter a competition, most architects agree on what is important. These points have been outlined in various publications, such as Competing Globally in Architecture Competitions. The most significant have been summarised below:

  • Is the project adequately financed?

  • Has the site been acquired by the client?

  • Is the jury known, and are design professionals in the majority?

  • Is the competition anonymous, or is a presentation in person one of the requirements?

  • What are the presentation requirements and are they appropriate?

  • For invited competitions: is there a great variety of architectural language among competitors, or does a certain style seem to be preferred?

The most important element of the brief is the transparency of the rules. After all, competitors invest a great deal of time and money in competing in competitions and “they will look for evidence that the client means to see the project through and assess the credibility of the jury or the client’s track record.”


Transparency – the fundamental principle

A process that relies on the good will of its competitors must take its responsibility to those taking part seriously. For competition organisers, transparency should be “if not a matter of course, then a desirable goal.” This applies to all aspects, whether it be clarity of the site conditions or what “plan is in place for how they will proceed with the winner.”

Within the EU much has already been successfully done in order to encourage the acceptance of this primary principle. However, unfortunately this is far from the reality in other parts of the world. My work experience in Chinese competitions, for example, has shown that transparency as the norm is a long way off. I will discuss this further in relation to a case study later.

Even within the EU we cannot say that we have a fair process across all project types. A lot still needs to be done, particularly in the UK. We “must reorganize the competition industry, in particular with regard to such aspects as anonymity and the principal’s obligation to honour the promise that the competition winner will be commissioned.” This is especially pertinent for private sector competitions that at present do not have any legislative requirements.


Legislative requirements and influence

Historically there have been many attempts to form legislative frameworks to which competitions should adhere and these have been implemented successfully in some countries. These usually nationally implemented models vary greatly and in a now global market it would be extremely beneficial to have a single ‘rule book’.

This has been attempted by a number of organisations: most prominently perhaps by the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Their “Recommendation concerning International Competitions in Architecture and Town Planning” was implemented in 1956 and has since been revised in 1978. It covers the principles of competitions but does not define actual rules: as the documents title suggests, it remains a recommendation. A further attempt was made by the Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA), though they were unable to “bridge differences on the national level.”

Before a global competition standard could be implemented, there would need to be a globally recognised body that could enforce such a law and this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, in the EU such a legislative framework does exist. “Many public sector projects must follow the detailed rules set out in the European Unions’ Public Procurement Directive and The Public Contracts Regulations 2006, which implement these in the UK.” The Directives are based on fundamental principles that “first evolved in the 19th century: ‘equal opportunities for all competitors,’ ‘adequate remuneration,’ ‘unequivocal language describing the commissioning criteria,’ ‘independence and competence on the part of the jury,’ and ‘precise formulation of tasks.’”


Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU)

The OJEU process initially appears somewhat complex. However, having been involved extensively with the process during my placement in the UK and through further research I have managed to understand the process and more importantly it’s intentions.

The Official Journal of the European Union is a document published daily by the Publications Office of the EU. It comes in three parts: publishing new laws, and general information about the EU. One part (actually a ‘supplement’) is concerned entirely with public procurement tenders. It is accessible online through Tenders Electronic Daily (TED) with intention to create a EU-wide open market.

This can cause difficulties for competition organisers as a huge number of applications are often received. “Wording advertisements in English can make British clients particularly vulnerable as the English language is so widely understood.” (All entries are in fact summarised in each of the EU languages: a cost covered by the EU).

‘We will now consider the issue of improving present procedures so not to be accused of wasting resources. According to EU contract award regulations, there are at least two successful – even if markedly different – ways to achieve this. One method consists of pre-selecting a limited number of competitors. In this respect, EU law provides sound, well-defined, and generally recognized procedures. Still, it seems somewhat contradictory that the competition proper is anticipated by a pre-selection, a limit on competition. At least as common is the alternative of dividing the competition into two stages, with the finals preceded by a heat.’

In practice I have found it common for a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) to be used as a method of pre-selecting a number of competitors. Unfortunately, these often require information unrelated to design competence; such as ‘3 years accounts’.

‘Procurement can block the search for innovation by making it hard for fledgling practices – or even established practices without experience in the sector – to get past the first hurdles of selection. If the procurement focuses on measures such as professional indemnity insurance and accounts for three years of trading, then the practice best placed to fulfil your goal could be excluded from the shortlist.’

Malcolm Reading suggests that, “seeking bids from joint venture design teams is a good idea.” This can combine the creative enthusiasm of a young practice with the experience and the proven project management skills of an experienced practice. Unfortunately, I have found that this can cause difficulties in reality. It is easy for the established company to push out the fledgling practice if the project is won. For the client this risk management technique is ideal, getting the best of both worlds. However, for the young architect trying to establish a practice, this can be a difficult and risky arrangement.



Competitions are a vital component of urban development. They give young, creative architectural practices the chance to develop by giving them the opportunity to win large projects. Those who question the ability of a young practice to handle such projects and therefore question the competitive process should consider that “once a practice has won the competition it can gear up as required.” After all, a winning team, no matter what size, was able to convince the jury of their design idea. This is the spirit of the competitive process: to procure the best architectural design. This should be the aim for all projects.

Furthermore, architects can benefits from competitions as they promote those involved, giving effectively free advertisement. In addition the media will stimulate debate, thus developing awareness for design and construction in the general public. However, architects must refrain from allowing competitions to become “a publicity stunt; if you play to their strengths, they can be a an intrinsically good element of your business plan.” In fact, “some European firms acquire up to 90 percent of their commissions by winning competitions on a regular basis.”

The competition is the beginning of the design process, in essence everything must be clear from the submitted presentation material, however, the design will be further developed together with the client and further consultants. “Clients should not expect to arrive at a perfect scheme by the end of the design competition.” This is treated differently in different countries as my own experience has shown. Chinese competitions will be looking for iconic design: the vision of the project is what’s most important. Therefore there is a heavy focus in photorealistic images, conveying a feel of the intended result. In contrast, German projects will look for a highly resolved proposal: construction details and exact floor measurement will be required. Yet, in contradiction to the level of development, European competitions accept a high level of abstraction in representational perspectives. This however, is simply due to aesthetic taste, which also differs greatly from the Chinese market.

In the UK competitions are much less wide spread than in continental Europe. There is the common misinterpretation that competitions cause unnecessary effort and are merely a hindrance inflicted by public procurement law. This may be due to how the EU directives were implemented in UK legislation. However, the success of competitions in continental Europe (needing to fulfil the same EU procurement law) proves that it is possible to combine the existing legislation with creative and flexible competitions.

I have had the fantastic opportunity of being able to work on a series of competitions during my practical experience. During this period I have discussed the subject with colleagues internationally and am deeply convinced that for many projects they are the best procurement option. In this report I have highlighted a number of points that have led to this conclusion: these being the benefits for architects, clients and the end user. Hosbach succinctly summaries, “the result of […] a well conducted competition is: the optimum project with; the best partner for planning under; optimum general conditions.”




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