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Last edited 28 May 2021
Building design competitions
 Selecting consultants
Selecting the right consultants to design a development can be critical to its success in terms of the client's ability to work with the consultants, their efficiency, their knowledge, their experience and their creativity.
Consultants can be selected by:
- An existing relationship or framework agreement.
- Research and interview.
- Competition without design.
- Design competition.
They can also help clients crystallise their own thinking about the sort of design they might like, which can be difficult to envisage in the absence of any proposals. Competitions allow clients to see their project from a number of different perspectives in a way that rarely happens once they start working with a single team. The approaches different designers take to the same brief can be startlingly diverse. Some may focus on organisation and process, working from the inside out, whilst others may go for a more flamboyant stylistic approach, or start with the site and work their way in. Seeing these different approaches helps the client consider their own perspective and priorities and start to develop their own design language.
However, they are also time consuming and expensive for consultants to take part in and unless they are set up and run properly, with the genuine prospect of an appointment being made at the end of the process, they can be very wasteful and frustrating.
 Types of competition
Design competitions can be open or selective. Open competitions can be entered by anyone. While this may generate the greatest number of submissions, it is also the most wasteful, and the low likelihood of being appointed may put-off serious contenders. Selective competitions can only be entered by consultants who have been invited by the client. Selection may be on the basis of an existing relationship, recommendation, or a pre-qualification process that identifies a short-list of competitors from a large number of potential applicants (see pre-qualification questionnaire for more information). Selective competitions have the advantage of being less wasteful and, as competitors have a good prospect of success, they are likely to attract high-quality submissions. However, they reduce the scope of proposals received and are a barrier to consultants' practices growing or entering new fields.
Competitions can be run to select a specific consultant (typically the architect), a full consultant team, or the full project team, including contractor. Private Finance Initiative (PFI) projects can involve the appointment of a single integrated supply team to design and build a development and then to operate it for a period of time. A special purpose vehicle (SPV), of which the integrated supply team is a part, finances the project.
Competitions may range from relatively open 'ideas competitions', to very detailed proposals (for example on PFI projects), and may involve multiple stages, interviews and presentations. They can be anonymous so that the outcome is not prejudiced by the names that appear on the submissions.
A fee may be paid to entrants, or prize money offered. It is generally considered good practice to offer payment of a fee to entrants that have been invited to take part in a competition. This not only ensures competitors use their best staff to prepare submissions, it also sets up the project in the right way, with everyone being treated fairly.
It is very important to be clear about what is expected from entrants. There is a danger that competitors will waste time entering competitions for which they have no prospect of success, or that competitors prepare inappropriate designs. The client may need expert advice to set up a competition properly, and this is often provided by an existing team that has carried out early project appraisals, such as preparing a strategic brief and carrying out feasibility studies.
An invitation to take part in a competition should include:
- Restrictions on eligibility.
- Clarity about whether there is a genuine commitment to proceed with the winning design.
- Timetable for the competition.
- Submission procedures.
- The level of detail required.
- Judging criteria and weighting (such as compliance, technical aspects, financial aspects and design quality).
- Conditions relating to anonymity, confidentiality and copyright.
- Prizes or payments.
- Contact details.
- The strategic brief.
- The client’s management structure.
- The scope of consultant services that will be required.
- The full project programme.
- The construction budget.
- The intended method of procurement.
- The form of agreement and conditions of engagement that will be used.
- The level of professional indemnity insurance required.
 Submission required:
- Design proposal, including details of the format required (e.g size, number of pages, key drawings, models and written statements).
- A list of key personnel to be allocated to the project, their role in the project, CVs and a description of their relevant experience on similar projects.
- A broken-down payment and resource schedule.
- Hourly rates to be applied to any work outside the proposed scope of services.
- Identification of any sub-consultants the candidate intends to use.
- Evidence of professional indemnity insurance.
- A list of recently-completed commissions with referees and details of other consultants involved.
The ownership of copyright in a design is generally dealt with in standard forms of appointment. However, it may not be properly addressed in the conditions for a competition, where no agreement has actually been entered into.
Entrants should be careful to retain copyright, and to understand the extent of any license granted to the client to use designs submitted. Generally, the client should only have the right to use the submitted design for the purpose for which it was prepared, that is, to select a designer.
 Competition process
Competitors should be given a single point of contact that they can approach for additional information. It may also be desirable to allow site visits or to arrange workshops to clarify the brief. Where questions are answered or clarification provided, it is important that this information is circulated to all competitors.
The judging panel should include key stakeholders in the project so there is no prospect that they will disagree with the selection made when it is announced. It should also include individuals with expertise in key aspects of the client business and understanding of the design requirements. This may mean that external advisers are needed. They can either be part of the judging panel itself, or can provide a technical briefing on the competition entries to the panel.
It is important that the panel is chaired by an individual who is able to restrict the judging process to discussion of the agreed selection criteria. The judging panel should also recognise that this is just the first step in a long design process, and that they are assessing proposals from designers who may not have even spoken to the client. The completed project may be significantly different to the competition entry.
It can be prudent to ensure that the selected designer is actually in a position to take on the commission before announcing the winner. The client may also wish to select a runner-up that can offer a fall-back position and some negotiating leverage should it be needed.
It is good practice to give honest feedback to all participants. Some clients shy away from this because they fear the judge’s decision will be disputed, but experience shows that designers are usually genuinely appreciative of feedback, even if it is negative, as this helps them to improve for future competitions.
 Tips for winning
To win a competition, it is necessary to get into the 'head' of the client. If their expertise is in healthcare, then focus on healthcare. If their expertise is in music, then focus on music. When designers just focus on the ‘architecture’, clients can glaze over as this is outside of their experience, or they might just hate the style. The best competition entries do not always try to tell clients the answer, they simply set the scene and start the dialogue.
It can be beneficial to find out who has set up the competition and whether the client will be getting professional advice assessing the entries. This gives a good steer about where to pitch the entry and whether it should be conceptual or technical.
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