The RIBA have run architectural competitions to procure projects for over 40 years and historically some fine and important buildings have been launched in this way – New Scotland Yard and The Hepworth in Wakefield are just two recent examples.
For architects, doing what they do best – designing -, a competition must be so much more satisfying than spending days completing speculative pre-qualification questionnaires. Many relish the opportunity to pitch their creative visions competitively against their peers and I can only begin to imagine the celebrations that take place when they win. Not only another job in the bag and for the balance sheet but a public affirmation of their design capabilities and credentials.
For the client wanting to choose an architect, the appeal of an architectural competition is obvious: it saves them hours of sifting through hundreds of on-line portfolios or evaluating statements of approach that testify more to the architect’s prose writing skills rather than the merits of their design. Presented with an architect’s initial interpretation of the brief, the client can immediately form an opinion of how their requirement might become reality. Or can they?
There is no doubt that architectural competitions encourage creative solutions to projects and offer an innovative approach to construction but surely good architectural design and certainly a design that can actually be built, is so much more than that?
Usually the competition will require a visualisation which suggests that the design needs to go significantly beyond a simple concept. But with initial entries not attracting a fee, surely the entrants must have to weigh up just far they can go and how much time they can commit to developing a design that might not bring any tangible reward.
A submission that only provides an architectural solution is a significant investment – or gamble – enough. But if it also considers a services strategy, structural arrangements and costs, which surely it must for it to be a realistic proposition, then the speculative expenditure by multiple entrants in these competitions must be huge.
Then there is the thorny issue of CDM. The client should really commission all the necessary surveys and investigations that might influence a design before the design process starts and of course the competition entrants (are they all Principal Designers?) should be considering the health and safety of those constructing, occupying and, in the future, maintaining their designs too.
Are architectural competitions really the best way to procure a project? In my opinion they are certainly a good way to select an architect. How better to test the creative approach of your consultant? But, an architectural competition that does not offer a realistic fee to develop the design as the first step in the procurement of a new building? I think the risks of getting excited by a scheme that may not have been fully thought through, might not be structurally feasible, and quite possibly not affordable either, are just too great.