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Making sure you get the right design team

Emma King
24 August 2009

With the need for capital investment, how do you rise to the challenge of finding the right people for the job?

Emma King, Arts Council England

Emma King, Arts Council England

In this situation Emma King saw an opportunity to renew the organisation’s identity. She chose a competition as a way to secure the right team: ‘It’s important that the client’s offer is thorough enough and of the appropriate quality at the outset to provoke a good response and set the tone for the ensuing professional relationship.’

King says that clients should begin by understanding the reasons they’re employing an architect or design team. ‘It will bring in design expertise, knowledge and skills, but also an ability to navigate the process of developing a project.’ ’Therefore, the selection process needs to look at the qualities of the teams. It is also important to make sure that they invest their time for a reasonable financial return.

Emma King is director of property, procurement and legal services at Arts Council England. As part of the process of major organisational change, she led the commissioning of architects to design new offices for Arts Council England in the regions and in London.

Emma King's tips for making competitions work

1. use the process to set the scene for a successful relationship with a design team
2. present the client’s offer as succinctly and accurately as possible
3. consider what you want the design team to bring and embed this in your selection criteria
4. don’t rule out an inexperienced team if you think it could approach new challenges with skill
5. discover how the architect or design team works - visit previous projects and talk to clients.

Take the best route

At the outset, Emma King’s advice is to make sure that the effort expended on a competition reaps the full rewards. Her organisation has a reputation for promoting high-quality design and arts buildings that readily attract attention from design teams. However, a high-profile project does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome in a design competition.

Assemble the right team

A design competition secured the best design team for  the Arts Council's new offices.
Copyright Helene Binet

King’s approach was to build a relationship with the lead consultant early on. For the Arts Council’s London headquarters she appointed architects first, then built a design team around them, with the involvement of the architect in that process. (Alternatively, it is possible to appoint a design team including engineers and then go on to appoint a quantity surveyor and project manager).

King steered the competitive selection of an architect through the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) process. From the initial call for expressions of interest, six practices were shortlisted.

From the shortlist, the suitability for the commission can be explored further. King and her delivery team worked to make the OJEU process interactive and creative: for her, ‘the essential investment is time.’

Be clear on the selection process

Along with the process being rigorous, the selection criteria need to be clearly set out in the brief and applied throughout. The main emphasis should be qualitative criteria that reflect the approach, skill and experience required for the commission. Team ranking should be assessed primarily on the evaluation of these criteria. When selection is made in two stages, the aim of the first stage is to make a shortlist of practices that could undertake the commission.

A priority for King and her team was to establish a successful client-architect relationship. ‘This is as much about chemistry as it is about professional ability, so take the time to get to know and appreciate how a practice works - including how it could work with the delivery team. We made the opportunity for formal and informal time with the practices within the competition process.’

Do your homework before interviews

King used the opportunity for the design team to give the organisation a new identity
Copyright Helene Binet

During the second stage, King commissioned a short film featuring each of the shortlisted practices talking about a recently completed project. This was shown to the jury before the interviews. The delivery team also visited the architect’s studios to meet those responsible for the project they’d seen. ‘From this it was possible to get a sense of the rapport between the client’s delivery team, the lead architect and the project architect and we could see where our scheme might fit into the office set up.’

Make an informed decision

A condensed version of the brief was issued as part of the initial tender enquiry and a fuller version was given to the shortlisted firms. ‘We asked them to provide a statement of approach and present this at the formal interview.’ King took great care in assembling the selection panel which included an architect, two experienced clients, a property expert and a financial director all of whom understood the organisation’s aims.

The delivery team facilitated the interview process, It prepared questions for the selection panel that would enable exploration of the team’s ability to meet the selection criteria. The assessment included the architecture practice’s ability to respond to the challenge, its ambition and approach to the project, its values as a practice and its knowledge of the particular sector. As part of the first stage of selection the client also reviewed their resources and management.

Recognise positive challenges

For the new offices, the winning team were inspired by the German State Library and the Citibank Headquarters.
Copyright Helene Binet

For King, competitions are not necessarily about finding the easiest team to get on with. The best teams may also be the most challenging. Equally, she says, beware of being too rigid about a team having worked on a comparable project before. Instead, consider the team’s ability to develop their research and apply this to new challenges.

As the project was about change, an important aspect of King’s scheme was the ability to work with the users to research their needs and negotiate with them. She recommends that, if it’s important, clients should, ‘assess a team’s willingness to engage with users or lead public consultation and make sure that they see this as part of their work.’

Then the real work begins…

When the competition is over, work begins with the team to develop and realise a design. ‘It’s worth investing in the relationship early because there will be challenges to overcome to avoid compromising quality.’

Further reading

  • Following an initially open competition and subsequently an interview, the relatively young architectural practice Caruso St John was appointed to deign the New Art Gallery, Walsall
  • Architects were appointed through the OJEU process to develop the masterplan for Wysing Arts rural campus and then retained to design the artist’s studio building

More advice on running a design competition