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Getting the best from a design competition

Nick Johnson, Urban Splash
24 August 2009

Design competitions are best used to generate flexible and imaginative solutions rather than a fixed end product - and they require committed clients to be successful.

Nick Johnson, Urban Splash

Nick Johnson, Urban Splash

Urban Splash’s Nick Johnson is the first to admit that building a reputation for delivering high-quality projects through design competitions is hard work, and requires commitment. "Competitions shouldn’t be a publicity stunt; if you play to their strengths, they can be an intrinsically good element of your business plan".

For more than a decade Urban Splash has used competitions to explore the potential of sites or expand the perceived limits of a building type. The company has developed a means of making competitions work to suit the development process, and to enhance it. The key has been to place emphasis on creative endeavour while making sure that competitions have a pragmatic purpose and are rigorously managed to mitigate against risks.

Nick Johnson is deputy chief executive of  property developer Urban Splash. Originally trained as a building surveyor he brings vision and pragmatism to the company’s major projects. For Johnson, holding design competitions brings vital energy to their endeavour.

Nick Johnson's tips for making competitions work

1. assess the benefits of running a competition
2. know what you can bring to the project and choose a design team to complement this
3. set up a robust project-management structure for the competition process and delivery
4. remember competitions are best for flexible, imaginative solutions not fixed products
5. expect the unexpected in response to the challenges you set.

Weigh up the benefits and risks

There are benefits and risks in unning a design competition -  they are not suitable for all projects. Apart from the considerable investment of time and commitment required, Johnson advises that it is worth assessing the value of a competition to your organisation.  The benefits of running a design competition 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 a range of approaches to design challenges
  • delivering real innovative thinking within technical and financial constraints.

Let the best ideas win

The Timber Wharf competition asked for contemporary urban living at the price of suburban volume-built housing.
Copyright Richard Cooper Photoflex

Johnson views the competition process as an opportunity to find fresh approaches. Urban Splash favours open competitions where anonymous entries could be from established firms or new practices. ‘We have commissioned architects on large projects who haven’t worked at a large scale - but they have handled things well and have gone on to develop successful practices.’

By investing in younger designers who are developing their approach to design, a savvy client can add to the distinctiveness of its own brand. If you are clear that the idea and approach is what you are looking for, focus on creative skill, says Johnson.   Once a practice has won the competition it can gear up as required.

Make sure you are a committed client

Competitions often fail because of a lack of commitment from the client. It is essential to identify a project champion and a project manager to take the project forward.

A committed client knows it has an instrumental role in bringing projects to successful fruition. Johnson sees the client and design team’s skills as complementary; ‘We trust ourselves to work well with design teams; we are aware of the pitfalls and we invest in experienced project managers who provide a counterbalance.’  

Create the opportunity for innovation

The Timber Wharf brief was for five storeys  but nine were built - things do change!
Copyright Joel Chester Fildes

Competitions can be used to deliberately expand thinking about a development scenario. For example, the Timber Wharf competition asked for a new housing type to provide contemporary urban living at the price of suburban volume-built housing. The winning entry by Glenn Howells Architects has won several awards.

Following the competition, the business case for the project was developed with the design team. As Johnson says; ‘Glenn’s competition entry for Timber Wharf was a statement of intent, initially it was five storeys and we built nine, so things do change as they are tested.’

Create a new sense of place

Johnson believes passionately that design competitions can contribute something vital to the regeneration of a place. They can be used to explore a site’s potential and to promote a vision of its future.

The brief for an international design competition for an abandoned 19th century pleasure island (LINK) asked for a presentation that ‘describes simply and clearly (no mumbo jumbo) your approach to the site and to creating architecture that will excite us’.   The competitors had free rein to speculate on the qualities of place and mix of uses that could make a successful community.

Johnson is happy to take the conceptual framework of the competition entry and see the project evolve in development. ‘We like to keep things flexible. If anything, I think very proscriptive competitions are riskier.’

Attract the cream of the crop

This brief asked for a simple  approach to the site and to creating exciting architecture.
Copyright Levitate

Pitching the competition correctly is vital. Internationally, competitions abound, and yet jurors can occasionally be faced with either a dearth or a glut of submissions. Urban Splash attracts as many entries as possible to drive up standards. ‘Actually,’ Johnson acknowledges; ‘in this process the risk can be skewed against the entrants.’

Competitors invest a great deal of energy and time to develop a unique project. They will look for evidence that the client means to see a project through and assess the credibility of the jury or the client’s track record.

Think outside the box

Often the best, and the most rewarding, answers to difficult questions are the most challenging ones. In this sense the Urban Splash model is a marriage of the need of client and design team to innovate.

"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".

Further reading

  • Birnbeck Island design competition by Urban Splash
  • Northshore international architecture competition 2008

More advice on running a design competition