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Louise Harrison: ‘Judges love hand-drawing’

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Louise Harrison, of new architecture ‘dating agency’ designed2win, defends the competition process and the dangers of ignoring the rules

Who are you and what exactly do you do?
I’m one half of designed2win, a consultancy offering practical advice and support to clients wishing to appoint designers and to designers hoping to win work.  The company was launched on Valentine’s Day when I officially became Linda Roberts’ other half - in a business sense anyway. Although having worked together for more than 20 years at RIBA many people already regard us as on old married couple. On the same theme I’m like a dating agency – bringing people together, and hoping they will hit it off.  

How is your new venture different to what you did before at the RIBA Competitions office?It is more flexible and is aimed as much at small clients needing short term support for projects, maybe a helping hand with establishing a brief or a one off piece of work, as it is at a client needing a full management service.

There will always be an appetite for design contests

It’s also about supporting the profession more directly – offering to advise on interview techniques, inputting into EOI documents and generally being available on an ad hoc basis to provide general support.

Do you think there is still a place for design contests?
There will always be an appetite for design contests – competitions of any nature appeal to the human psyche and we all dream that we might get lucky one day.  It’s the same for architects – a project pops up that whets the appetite and the creative genes take over.  In France there’s been a trend over many years to hold competitions for key public buildings. This has now become the cultural norm. The public [there] is also more engaged and has a real interest in architecture. They seem proud of their boundary-pushing buildings. It helps of course when Governments buy into the concept, but sadly here we never have.

There has been a lot of criticism of design contest in that they waste resources and take advantage of practices - do you agree?
Yes I do. Although I’m not sure what you do about it as it’s not easy to regulate.  Because of EU legislation clients can’t restrict numbers applying for their project at the EOI stage, and that’s where there is a lot of wasted time when practices respond to PQQ documents - which are often far more complicated than they need to be.  Sometimes the profession is its own worst enemy though – applying for projects without looking closely at the project specification and checking if they are really in with a chance of being selected or not.

Clients do not reward shortlisted architects as generously as they should

As a rule clients do not reward shortlisted architects as generously as they should. But architects understand this. My job is to keep trying to push up honoraria incrementally, keep design work to a reasonable level, and if needs be walk away from a client who has no intention of paying for competitors design work. It’s important that when setting a competition budget, the lion’s share goes to the architects. 

What is the one biggest mistake architects make when entering contests?
Not reading rules carefully enough.  Or getting carried away and designing beyond the brief and taking the design to a level of detail not required. This tends to irritate a jury and is actually a waste of the competitor’s time.

Because it is a rarity these days, judges are always delighted when now and again they come across a piece of work that has been hand-drawn rather than produced on a CAD system. 

How do you think the current procurement system should be overhauled- and until it is what advice would you give to smaller practices?
The balance of power needs to shift away from procurement teams who have little or no background in design and yet are responsible for devising and marking PQQ documents upon which designers and their credentials are to be assessed.  Things need to change from the top down and some consistency instilled so that all Local Authorities operate in the same way.  At the moment there is no consistency from one to another.

Young practices must read the instructions and be very honest and realistic about their chances of selection before opting to complete the PQQ.  If you do you must be able to complete it all – Procurement Teams make no concessions and will reject your application if it has not been completed in full. 

Baltic Centre

Baltic Centre

Which project which you have been involved in are you most proud?
There are so many it’s hard to pick just one but I think it has to be the Baltic.  I was there the other day and it celebrates its 10th birthday in July. I can clearly remember a perilous journey up a tiny staircase to stand on the top of the building and take in the views and the Kittiwakes on a windy day in 1994 just before the competition launched. 

Both the Baltic and the Sage have acted as catalysts for change along the riverfront, once a bit of a wasteland but now quite spectacular. And of course the Baltic was a truly anonymous competition which delivered a very young unknown architect as the competition winner. A local authority will never be in a position to do something as ambitious, or as daring, as that again.

What contest do you have coming up that may appeal to our readers?
Discussions are currently on-going and I am hopeful that a new competition will be launched in the summer. Without giving too much away it will be open ideas and will appeal not only to architects but to interior and product designers too.

Evelina Children's hospital - a competition-winning scheme by Hopkins

Evelina Children’s hospital - a competition-winning scheme by Hopkins

Which competition-winning scheme in this country do you think does the most to prove that the competition process works?
The Evelina Children’s hospital – the client was and is still delighted with it and went onto commission the East Wing and the Cancer Care Centre; Hopkins had never designed a hospital before; the young patients and their families love it; it’s got a great international reputation and has a lot of overseas visitors; and it complied with EU legislation and still delivered a great design!

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