Creating an excellent competition brief

Linda Roberts, RIBA Competitions Office
24 August 2009

The brief for a design competition should clearly and unambiguously set out all the relevant background material, the vision and the rules.

Linda Roberts, RIBA Competitions Office

Linda Roberts, RIBA Competitions Office

Competitions are often run as a one off, so lots needs to be developed from scratch for each one. Getting experienced input and investing in a good brief is essential for a successful design competition.

The brief is the main way of communicating with those that enter the competition. Linda Roberts points out that ‘a simple and uncluttered brief is more likely to elicit a broad range of responses. If it is too prescriptive this may reduce the scope for imaginative and varied responses.’

Linda Roberts is deputy competitions manager at the RIBA Competitions Office where during the past two decades she has helped clients to set up and run design competitions for projects ranging from residential developments to the swivelling wind shelters on Blackpool seafront.

Linda Roberts’ tips for making competitions work

1. set a clear, unambiguous brief which draws on good examples and follows a well-laid-out format
2. don’t assume entrants are familiar with the site - make sure the context is explained
3. provide entrants with all relevant background material
4. speak to other stakeholders and planners, to make sure they are comfortable with the brief
5. involve a fresh pair of eyes as people working on a project become absorbed in the detail.

Invest time at the start

Clients must devote effort to developing the competition brief at the start of the process. For Roberts, ‘this usually involves a three-way dialogue between us, the client and an architectural advisor. At the start of the process we meet with the client to gauge what level of support they need. For example some have a clear project plan already developed and some need this writing from scratch.’

It usually takes at least four to six weeks to get the brief right – although this depends on the project. Whatever the timescale, allow time to pass the brief backwards and forwards with the client and the advisor to make sure it’s sound.

Employ a skilled brief writer

The competition for this Blackpool wind shelter received 81 anonymous designs.
Copyright Chris Jones Photography

Roberts advises that a client should tailor the choice of who writes the brief to the issues of the project. She says; ‘Often we use former competition winners, as we know they appreciate the time and effort invested by entrants. Sometimes we combine the skills of two different advisors.’

The brief should be challenging and inspiring, but Roberts advises it must also be clear. ‘Entrants need to know what we are a asking for. That goes not only for the brief but the submissions. So setting out the competition process and defining the rules in the brief is crucial to avoid false assumptions.’

Think of the brief as the starting point

Clients should not expect to arrive at a perfect scheme by the end of the design competition. The real development of the project will come later, through conversation with the winning team.

The status of the project defines the scope of the brief. ‘For example, if a client doesn’t have a specific site, but wants an architect early on in the process, we recommend a competitive interview, and in this case an outline brief is sufficient. For an ideas competition, a very broad and open brief is usually best suited.’

Leave the detail until later

The two stage competition for the millenium bridge attracted over 200 entrants.
Copyright Chris Jones Photography

A project brief often goes through three stages of development.

  1. form a vision statement or strategic brief
  2. develop an outline brief (RIBA stage A/B)
  3. prepare a detailed project brief (RIBA stage C/D).

Roberts warns not to seek excessive detail too early on. ‘Competitions are good for starting a project. A detailed brief is better worked up later on, between the client and the chosen design team.’

Ultimately, the brief needs to define the competition’s purpose, introduce the client and describe the projects’ requirements and context. It must also set out the skills required and terms of engagement, the selection criteria and describe the competition process.

Focus on quality to get good responses

If a brief isn’t concise and well written you will get more questions from entrants. ‘It is important to allow for questions just in case there are anomalies in the brief, but if it lacks critical information which has to be provided during the competition you may have to offer extra time.’ For this reason Roberts recommends careful compilation of the descriptive information, written and visual.

Get the tone right

The winning design has a uniquely thin profile and forms as slender arc across the water.
Copyright Chris Jones Photography

Competitors will respond primarily to the brief’s purpose, however as Roberts says, ‘it’s important to inspire people, to get the vision right.’ This way, clients can often bring their own personality to a brief and this sometimes helps competition entrants get a feel for what they might be like to work with.

It helps to introduce the project with an aspirational statement: ‘It is really important to be clear about the ambition but it is also important that, however informal the tone, the rules are transparent.’

Is everyone on board?

Although the project may be at an early stage, the brief needs to anticipate the context in which it will be delivered. ‘In many cases stakeholder and community consultation can positively inform the content of the brief. Clients should also make sure the planning context has been addressed and planners consulted, especially if a project has planning sensitivities.’

Checklist for writing a competition brief

The brief needs to define the competition’s purpose and describe the project requirements and conditions. It should clearly set out the selection criteria and the competition process and could include:

- the vision
- aims of the project/competition
- introduction to client and client team
- project background, site and policy context
- client’s needs, spatial and user requirements
- performance standards (including sustainability)
- cost and time constraints
- skills required and terms of engagement
- selection criteria
- the competition process and submission requirements
- judging panel
- contact details

Further reading

  • Creating excellent buildings (especially chapter 2 and page 55)
  • RIBA competitions office - a dedicated unit to help clients run competitions to select architects and/or design solutions
  • the RIBA helped Nottingham University develop the brief for the Jubilee Campus
  • the brief for the St Pauls Bus Station called for a building that would contribute to the townscape and improve access and movement
  • an architect and engineer won the open competition for the Blackpool wind shelters
  • the Millennium Bridge was commissioned through a two-stage international competition.

More advice on running a design competition