Dealing with sustainability through design competitions

Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten
24 August 2009

Design competitions can foster sustainable design by including high standards in the brief, but only if they are prepared to disqualify proposals that do not meet these standards.

Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten

Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten

With considerable experience as a competition judge and as an entrant, Patrick Bellew believes sustainability guidelines should be written into the competition brief. ‘There’s a competition language for sustainability, and as a judge you soon recognise the same old words and phrases.’

While he acknowledges that it is difficult to judge full sustainability, he takes a hard line on those who flout competition guidelines and disqualifies their entries immediately. He advocates inviting entrants to describe a day in the life of their proposed scheme or building as a way of gauging how the place might feel and how it might work.

Engineer Patrick Bellew is a founding director of Atelier Ten, an engineering practice with which believes that environmental, economic and social sustainability is synonymous with a good quality of life. He has expertise as both a judge and a competition winner. Atelier Ten is a founding member of the UK Green Building Council.

Patrick Bellew’s tips for making competitions work

1. set benchmarks for environmental, economic and social sustainability in the brief.
2. decide on the design emphasis of the competition – are you looking for a deep-rooted ecological statement?
3. choose how to measure the emphasis. Is the jury equipped to make an informed choice?
4. ask entrants to describe ‘a day in the life’ of the scheme to get an idea of how the place will feel and be used.
5. avoid greenwash in your brief and you won’t get it in your responses.

Set your standards in the brief

Meeting strict energy targets by grouping apartments around a 'microclimate zone'. Solar gain and heat loss are minimised and all apartments have water recovery systems.
Copyright Atelier 10
See the full-size version

‘There’s nothing like the competition process to sharpen up people’s thoughts on sustainability,’ says Patrick Bellew. ‘However, judges should be wary of greenwash and entrants should be wary of making inflated claims.’ Bellew suggests that the best way to factor considerations of sustainability into a competition is to start with the brief.

‘Too often if competitors are left to their own devices, you’ll receive the standard line about low-energy consumption and waterless urinals. There’s a competition language for sustainability and as a judge you soon recognise the same old words and phrases. It’s advisable to set guidelines or requirements at the brief stage so that entrants have something tangible to respond to. Benchmarking related to BREEAM or LEED is a good idea.’

The scope for demonstrating sustainability may be limited depending on the scale of the project. ‘It’s a great deal easier to explain ideas of economic, environmental and social sustainability in a large project, such as masterplanning a scheme, than it is for a single building’.

Balance creativity and sustainability

The competition brief for the National Assembly for Wales stipulated exemplary sustainability strategies, renewable energy systems and Welsh materials be used.
Copyright Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners

There can be tensions between creativity and sustainability. ‘Of course every competition should encourage a creative response, but there must be a sense of reality too. And it must look beyond the obvious such as specifying local materials and orienting buildings to make the most of the sun.’ The classic challenge would be in a project such as an office building where there’s the perennial battle between the design, daylight and the choice of heating and cooling system.

‘If sustainability benchmarks have been set in the brief and are then flouted, I strongly feel the entry should be disqualified, no matter how amazing the design. I spit nails every time I’ve lost a competition to a winner who has ignored the guidelines.’

Consider how to judge entrants’ claims

In Bellew’s experience the most arduous standards are those in Germany. ‘We won a competition for a housing project in Hanover and were asked to specify in great detail down to the anticipated water use on site and kilowatt per hour electricity consumption per square meter.’ But wherever sustainability claims are made by entrants, a knowledgeable jury is required to spot whether the claims ring true.

Sophisticated analysis is needed to make sure figures are correct, so competition sponsors should be clear how and whether they are prepared to build in a process for cross checking. ‘And even if you are thorough, some elements of sustainability remain highly subjective. For example, there are plenty of people who would advocate natural ventilation as the only environmentally sound solution whereas I wouldn’t agree in every case.’

Don’t forget quality of life!

A limited design competition was used for eco-homes at Great Bow Yard. The winners went through a detailed design process to achieve stringent sustainability requirements.
Copyright Design for homes/Richard Mullane

Sustainability is about considerably more than just environmental considerations. ‘In our work at the Earth Centre in Doncaster, the project worked really well in terms of environmental and social sustainability, but the wider economics were never quite right. In competitions, people tend to be very bold about making claims such as creating hundreds of jobs or acting as a catalyst for millions of pounds of investment; I’d like to see that backed up in some way with a few sentences of explanation to demonstrate that the entrant has done his or her research.’

Bellew emphasises that sustainability is synonymous with a good quality of life. ‘A really sound submission should include the description of a clear vision, to demonstrate integrated social responsibility, and paint a picture about how the proposed scheme could actually work. What would it be like to live or work there? When entrants are asked to put themselves in the shoes of their project’s future users that has a really positive impact on the design.’

Further reading

More advice on running a design competition


Meeting strict energy targets by grouping apartments around a 'microclimate zone'. Solar gain and heat loss are minimised and all apartments have water recovery systems.
Copyright Atelier 10