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It’s about time the profession started to fight back against unscrupulous competitions

It would be good to see RIBA warning members off from competitions where the likelihood of a decent outcome is low, writes Paul Finch

Unscrupulous clients hold architectural competitions when (a) they do not control the site, (b) do not have funding available to build, (c) will not make any commitment to proceed with a winning design, or (d) all of the above. Their reasons for launching competitions are to get free ideas from a beleaguered profession or to delay making a real decision about a site. The fact that so many architects are apparently prepared to waste their time and money helping these jackals out is only understandable given the dearth of work in many parts of the country.

It is about time the profession started to fight back, as it has done over the clowns who were proposing a nil-fee arrangement for a substantial amount of housing design work. However, that was a rare example of general outrage among many cases that go unreported, partly because practices are generally reluctant to get a reputation as being ‘difficult’ by blowing the whistle over unprofessional behaviour.

Some of the horror stories I recently came across, prior to the Architecture Foundation’s excellent seminar on the subject last month, included an unpaid competition where the intellectual property of all the practices submitting designs would immediately be transferred to the client. Presumably adapting the old dictum to read ‘All intellectual property is theft’.

Another concerned a competition where the niceties of design were set to one side, with practices joining in a secret ‘auction’, where they made fee bid offers on a certain day in a certain time frame, the winner being the lowest. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Yet another involved shortlisted practices going to see a local authority site and finding two more firms on the shortlist than had been advertised ‘because we thought it would be great to get as many people designing as possible’. Without payment, obviously. The correct response would have been for all the firms to head straight for the station - but tough to do without a collective ethos.

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Provided it can do so without running foul of monopoly legislation, it would be good to see the RIBA warning members off from entering competitions where the likelihood of a decent outcome is low to zero. At present the institute promotes competitions by running them - plenty successful, some not. Warning off is not the same thing as trying to ban practices from exercising free will, which would almost certainly be illegal. But it would be a mark of the institute’s determination to nip dreadful resource-wasting in the bud if it undertook such an initiative. It would never be perfect, and would probably not have been effective in stopping Islington Council’s recent mendacious invitation to architects to join its framework agreement. But it would be a start.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to produce a pro forma, starting with a note about the promoters - have they ever built anything? Have they run a competition before? Who is actually running the competition? Does the client control the site? Is the client committed to building the winning design? Is the client committed to building any of the submitted designs? Will design work be paid for? If models are required, will the cost be covered? How many practices will be shortlisted? Is there any independent group of assessors? Does it contain architects (and, if not, why not?). And so on.

Privately-run invited competitions are another matter, but anyone undertaking them should ask themselves the same sorts of questions before they make another voluntary donation of time and money to people who will be laughing all the way to the bank - unlike the architects involved.

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