Making design competitions work within procurement structures

Malcolm Reading, Malcolm Reading Consultants
24 August 2009

Using OJEU processes does not preclude running a design competition but you should choose your methods and procurement processes carefully to suit your project aims.

Malcolm Reading, Malcolm Reading Consultants

Malcolm Reading, Malcolm Reading Consultants. Copyright Julian Anderson

Much of our recent built environment is delivered through agreements with organisations to deliver projects. This can become very complex, leading to a procurement arrangement that becomes an end in itself, losing the fundamental quality goal.

Some think that design competitions are not feasible within the procurement models used today, especially in the public sector. Yet Malcolm Reading thinks this is a fallacy: it’s down to matching your methods to your aims. ‘With construction projects, the client needs to be clear whether it is procuring an idea, a design team, or a project.’

Mandatory requirements are also cited as the reason why the idea of competitions is sometimes rejected. ‘Yet processes, such as publication in the Official Journal of the European Union – OJEU – needn’t be a barrier to taking on design competitions.’

Malcolm Reading is a qualified architect and project manager who has led and organised major design competitions on behalf of a number of high-profile public and private-sector clients. He runs Malcolm Reading Consultants and acts as expert advisor to the RIBA Competitions Office.

Malcom Reading’s tips for making competitions work

1. make your methods suit your aims – if you want fresh ideas your process has to reflect that
2. think of a competition as the competitive selection of a design team
3. work with procurement structures if you need to
4. remember that OJEU processes don’t preclude competitions - but pre-existing framework agreements can cause blockages
5. invest wisely up front; the cost of a well-run competition is a small percentage of total project cost.

Tailor the process to suit the outcome

With experience gained in projects from universities to transport buildings, Malcolm Reading highlights the broad range of scale and complexity that can be delivered through design competition. ‘It really isn’t that a particular sector, type or size of project better suits this method of selection, but it is important to tailor the process to the desired outcome.’

Get the risk/reward balance right

The stages of the design competition process (click the image to see full size version).

The key is to know whether you are searching for an idea, a team to work with, or a project. Procurement can block the search for innovation by making it hard for fledgling practices - or even established practices without experience in the sector - to get past the first hurdles of selection. If the procurement focuses on measures such as professional indemnity insurance and accounts for three years of trading, then the practice best placed to fulfil your goal could be excluding from the shortlist.

There are simple ways to avoid this. For example, with an infrastructure project in a sensitive situation Reading suggests that seeking bids from joint-venture design teams is a good idea. They can combine the flair of designers fresh to the sector with the delivery assurance of a safe pair of hands that is knowledgeable in project management. This way it is possible to manage risk and reward.

Use appropriate procurement processes

Reading also observes that procurement routes need to be moulded around client needs. ‘If the project is flexible, then it would be wise to start by defining the brief. When doing this, make it clear that the scope of work is limited to a feasibility and briefing project. This can often be through the competitive design team selection process, and need not be a complex affair, though it should be transparent.’

To decide what route to take you need to know what you are looking for. ‘Is it a team to develop a good working relationship with, a finished product, some design options, or the raised profile for your organisation?’ These goals require different procurement approaches.

To develop a long-term relationship with the consultant working on the feasibility you should assess whether to go through OJEU even at this early stage. If not, there is a risk of reopening the competitive process, resulting in a lot of wasted design work, and the end of good relationships that were developing.

Appoint the right people

The winning architect of Oriel School made an early contribution to the brief development.
Copyright Andrew Beard

Appointing consultants is often a big decision for clients as it sets expectations for the future of the project. Reading advises appointing a lead consultant for the main design skill required on the project. This consultant then has contracts with the other consultants. ‘This consolidates the design lead in the decision processes and gives the client a single point of contact.‘

Invest in resources upfront

Spending 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of project cost on procuring the best team and preparing the brief is a good investment, considering the long-term costs of a delivering and maintaining the built environment, There are multiple sources for information, guidance and competition running services and they can be tailored to the needs of individual projects.

Be transparent, consistent and fair

Design quality was prioritised at Abbey Mills Pumping Station despite technical complexity.
Copyright Peter Cook/View

In running competitions, there is an onus on the client to maintain a transparent process. ‘It is vital to competitors – who are investing considerable resource into entering – that the goalposts are clearly staked out.’ Staging the competition needs to be carefully aligned with the procurement reality. And it is beneficial for all that the process is believed in as the genuine selection process. Reading is also adamant that fair payment is important.

‘Of course there are risks associated with design competitions,’ he concedes, ‘and there is a considerable time commitment required to get things right, but like all things in life: nothing ventured, nothing gained.’

Further reading

More advice on running a design competition


The stages of the design competition process.