Choosing what to ask for in competition submissions

Louisa Hutton, Sauerbruch Hutton
24 August 2009

Make sure the entrants understand the competition brief and ask them to provide drawings and models to help the judges understand their entries.

Louisa Hutton, Sauerbruch Hutton

Louisa Hutton, Sauerbruch Hutton

Even with a clear brief, how can you be sure you are getting the best from designers entering the competition? With more than two decades of winning a wide range of competitions, Louisa Hutton of architecture practice Sauerbruch Hutton offers suggestions for encouraging architects to produce their most impressive work.

Louisa believes the competition process can challenge assumptions and produce the best design work for the architect, the client and the end user. And while she advises competition sponsors to invite entrants to demonstrate they have understood the brief, she is also fully in favour of giving designers the freedom to question the assumptions behind the brief if it produces an excellent design that exceeds expectations.

Louisa Hutton is a partner of Sauerbruch Hutton, a 20-year-old Berlin-based architecture, urbanism and design practice that has acquired the majority of its work through competitions from offices and museums to urban planning.

Louisa Hutton’s tips for making competitions work

1. invite entrants to write a 500-word summary of their understanding of the competition brief
2. get entrants to submit a range of drawings at different scales suitable to the nature of the project
3. always ask for models - they are an incredibly successful way of assessing a scheme
4. keep an open mind - departures from the brief may provide unexpected benefits
5. give strict submission requirements to enable a like-for-like comparison of submissions.

Enjoy the process

There is a distinct spirit of adventure in the process of running and entering a competition. The response could be overwhelming or minimal, inspiring or disappointing, but it is sure to be a great learning experience. ‘By their very nature, competitions do tend to inspire the most imaginative work’ says Louisa Hutton.

‘Architects are on their toes to produce their best work, which is good for the architect, the client and the future users. For an architect, the competition culture encourages you to question your proposals, produce options, refine them and then select the strongest solutions.’

Look for a fresh eye

The Brandhorst Museum was inspired by an unbuilt competition entry for Sydney.
Copyright Haydar Koyupinar

Many architects relish the competition process as it can be an opportunity to design a new building type. Sauerbruch Hutton’s competitions portfolio ranges from offices, laboratories and university buildings to town halls, museums and urban planning. ‘Obviously there was a first time for each,’ says Hutton.

Even unbuilt designs can prove useful. ‘We won a competition in Sydney in 2000 for the Museum of Contemporary Art. This didn’t get built, but our win put us on the map for designing museums which helped us win and build the Brandhorst Museum in Munich.’

Check that entrants have understood the brief

To ensure that a competition elicits the best from a designer you should check the architect or designer has understood the brief, the proposed project and the context. ‘The most straightforward way of achieving this is to request a concise summary, perhaps 500 words, of the team’s understanding of the project and its approach to fulfilling the requirements’.

This should be accompanied by a range of other materials. ‘Depending on the scale of the proposal, the concept will need to be shown in its wider context, using drawings and models.’ Assuming a single building or a group of buildings, these will need to be shown at an appropriate scale - from 1/500, 1/200, or 1/100. ‘In addition it is useful to have some drawings at 1/50 or 1/20 giving an idea of the proposal’s physicality, the spaces and the skin as mediator between the building and the city.’

Use the power of three dimensions

Architects challenged the brief for the GSW headquarters by making the building taller.
Copyright Annette Kiesling

Models are extremely useful at all scales - to show the building in its context, to show the building forms and the spaces between them, to show interior spaces, and to demonstrate materials. Because of the high cost of producing models, the competition budget needs to be addressed, enabling the architect to have them made and for the jury to handle the models in the judging phase.

‘For juries, especially those with lay members not drawn from the design community, models are indispensable in visualising the scheme, and are particularly useful when comparing one scheme with another.’

Don’t be afraid to depart from the brief

Some entrants will not have responded directly to the brief, giving the sponsor the option to disqualify or stay open minded about those who have pursued unexpected routes. ‘We challenged the assumptions of the brief in two of our highest profile projects – the GSW Headquarters in Berlin and the Federal Environment Agency in Dessau,’ recalls Hutton.

‘In the first we made the building taller and in the second we introduced a generous public park. I’d suggest that any jury remains open minded and looks for the most intelligent response overall. It’s possible that an unusual approach that appears to ‘break the rules’ can extend the imagination of the client and of those who wrote the original brief.’

Recognise jury expertise

The brief was challenged for the Federal Environment Agency with a new public park.

The relationship between jury and competition sponsor can be tested at this point in the process. ‘Obviously the jury needs to understand and be sympathetic to the aims and ambitiions of the client and competition,’ says Hutton. ‘However, it’s useful to remember that jury members have been selected for their expertise, and they will be able to detect a winning design even if it exceeds the brief.’

Further reading

More advice on running a design competition