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Running competitions the European way

Antti Pirhonen and Dominic Papa
15 September 2009

Architectural competitions are commonplace across Europe for getting the best design for new developments, so what can we learn from our European partners?

Antti Pirhonen

Antti Pirhonen

Dominic Papa

English attitudes to design competitions are often lukewarm, so we invited European professionals to share their thoughts on why competitions should be used more in England.

Architect Dominic Papa discusses the risks perceived by architects and developers in the UK, as well as the bureaucracy of European Union rules.

Finnish competition organiser Antti Pirhonen argues clients can make competitions work by thinking flexibly, having a can-do attitude and planning ahead.

Antti Pirhonen is a Finnish architectural consultant specialising in competitions. He has worked on improving housing through competitions at Europan Suomi, was competition secretary of the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA), acting general secretary of the Association of Finnish Architectural Offices (ATL), and has advised on more than 150 architectural competitions.

Dominic Papa is director and co-founder of architecture practice S333 and has overseen projects in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and UK. Before joining S333 he spent six years as senior design associate with Wiel Arets Architects and Associates in the Netherlands. He is a member of the RIBA Housing Group and a design review panel member for CABE and MADE.

Antti and Dominic's tips for making competitions work

1. don’t be puty off competitions just because your existing processes make them difficult
2. build the reputation for design competitions because they promote quality outcomes
3. allow plenty of time for the judging process, with structured meetings and helpful feedback
4. be clear about what the entrant’s role might be on winning
5. explore innovative ways of balancing risks in design competitions – for example by inserting challenges along with the more prosaic requirements.

Set a clear programme

The most crucial step in running a design competition is to set up a clear, logical and well-phased programme, Pirhonen says ‘this first phase is when everyone has to set out their needs and targets and what the project is all about. You have to have a consensus for the programme. When you have this you can go forward and organise the competition.’

It helps if you can use an experienced competition organiser to guide the process from the start. In Finland, the architect’s association usually provides such an expert.

Once you have set up a programme, announce the competition to architects and planners.

Don’t rush decisions

The Europan housing competition allows young architects to put forward fresh ideas,  such as this winning design for Oldham. Photo by Loop Architecture Ltd & Harry Dobbs Design Ltd.

An important lesson is to be rigorous if you want a valid judging process. Deciding who makes decisions is crucial, whether it is client representatives, users, politicians or respected professionals from across the design, planning, procurement fields.

The jury must be given adequate time. Pirhonen says that in his country a jury often meets five times over a period of 2-3 months to discuss and deliberate before announcing the winner.

You should provide serious and constructive criticism if you want to earn the goodwill and future participation of architects who did not win. ‘A report is very important because we can give our judgement on each entry and also an overall criticism of the whole competition,’ he says. ‘So all the competitors come away with something useful.’

Avoid common pitfalls

The main barrier to the best outcomes is the client who obeys the letter of the regulations and processes without remembering the spirit and intention – to achieve the best quality project for the money invested.

Another threat is not having the know-how. Don’t bypass those experienced professional bodies and individuals who could advise you in organising the process.

Competitions also have the potential to get muddled by trying to cover too many different requirements of the development process. Pirhonen is clear that the design comes first. ‘You can connect in the other elements later.’

Finally, organisers should make sure at the outset that they have a plan in place for how they will proceed with the winner.

Don’t be afraid of the rules

Jyväskylä has made design competitions central to its identity.Their architectural policy has transformed the cityscape.

Dominic Papa, founding partner of S333 Architects, has experience of working in Holland and Belgium as well as the UK. He notices how the prospect of EU rules seem to have a chilling effect on the use of competitions in Britain, despite them being a normal part of the process elsewhere,

‘There is a perception in the UK that competitions mean you have to jump through hoops rather than simply have a phone call and an interview.’ The Anglo-Saxon love of business negotiation can often lead to the deals being made on grounds of who knows who rather than who is best for the job.

Others in the UK development industry complain that when advertising a competition in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) a deluge of entries is received, overwhelming staff and wasting valuable time

Keep it simple

In Belgium they make things simple, Papa says. The authorities operate a system where the architect applies to be on a select panel of practices, which remains in force for five years. Every six months the government releases a wave of building projects of varying sizes and disciplines, and practices can apply for the jobs to which they are most suited.

This usually culminates in a limited competition between five companies who will each receive an honorarium of about 10,000 Euro. In the UK framework panels can operate similarly to this, but it tends to be for whole project delivery, not for design excellence.

Be imaginative

On Paris's Left Bank,  architects were appointed by competition to lead the design of each district and  major street
Copyright Urban Exposure

A huge number of competition entries can make things complicated for organisers. Wording advertisements in English can make British clients particularly vulnerable as the English language is so widely understood. One way to narrow the number of applicants is to define strict criteria. However, this can put off capable entrants who could bring good innovation.

An alternative is to be more imaginative with the design of the competitions process. One great example of this is from Germany where a number of practices are invited to apply and others are selected by lottery. This instantly removes a vast number of applications, ensures that there will be some capable teams by invitation and keeps the possibility of being challenged by the unexpected.

Further reading

  • To establish a diversity of architecture for Paris’ Rive Gauche redevelopment different architects were appointed by competition to lead the design of each district and each major street
  • When the city of Zurich sold the land for housing at Hegianwandweg they made holding a design competition and including the city on the jury conditions of the sale
  • the landowners of an award winning commercial housing scheme in Essex selected architects by competition
  • Flemish government open tender procecure
  • The architectural policy of Jyväskylä clearly sets out the city’s aspirations for quality

More advice on delivering the winning scheme