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Most RIBA competition-winning projects never built

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RIBA competitions service is under scrutiny following revelations that more than half of winning projects have been scrapped or put on hold since 2010.

The RIBA is to probe its competitions service in a bid to stamp out exploitation of architects across the industry.

President elect Stephen Hodder is backing calls for a taskforce to review the in-house service – a move proposed as a first step towards improved competitions guidance for all potential clients.

The motion – approved by RIBA council this week (20 June) – follows reports that Tom Russell Architects’ RIBA recent competition-winning McCarthy & Stone retirement home proposal would not be built (AJ 05.06.13).

It also comes as research by the AJ showed that just less than half of the winners in RIBA-run contests in the past three years have been built or have a firm commitment to go ahead.

Dropped: Rick Mather Architects' Worcester College Oxford lecture theatre and kitchens

Dropped: Rick Mather Architects’ Worcester College Oxford lecture theatre and kitchens

A worrying 21 per cent of schemes won in RIBA competitions between 2010 and 2012 have hit the rocks while the future of 31 per cent of projects remains undecided. Abandoned trophy designs include Rick Mather’s Worcester College kitchen and lecture theatre – won against the likes of Dixon Jones, O’Donnell + Tuomey, 6a, Burd Haward and Wright & Wright in 2011.

Deborah Saunt of 2011 Stirling Prize-shortlisted DSDHA said the current situation showed the RIBA’s contest service – which was set up in 1967 and is rumoured to charge clients upwards of £15,000 to run competitions – ‘definitely needs to be reviewed’.

A worryingly high number of competitions don’t deliver

She said: ‘There seems to be a worryingly high number of competitions that don’t deliver. I’ve been hearing murmurs of disquiet for quite some time concerning [RIBA competition’s] lack of acuity and the question is whether the RIBA is properly interrogating the brief and what due diligence are they taking of the client?’

Mike Russum, of Birds Portchmouth Russum, criticised the RIBA for running the Great Fen visitor contest, in which he was shortlisted, where the £2 million scheme was expected to be design and build ‘allowing the contractor to be arbiter of quality’.

On improving the RIBA’s in-house service, he said: ‘The client should be nailed down to deliver the scheme. The organiser has that responsibility to all competitors, not just the winner.’

According to Hodder, a Competition Task Group will now ‘examine the current competitions process, understand how we might improve and extend the RIBA’s own service, and establish guidance for clients as part of the RIBA for Clients strategy.’ The group will conclude its work by the end of the year.

RIBA should be setting the agenda for all contests

The motion was mooted by RIBA councillors, including Martin Knight, of Knight Architects, who said: ‘There is a very narrow guidance document by the RIBA which describes RIBA competitions as a commercial enterprise. That is not enough – the RIBA should be setting the agenda and guiding strategy for all contests to make sure clients get best out of it and architects’ input is valued.’

Knight, who is expected to chair the committee, declined to speculate on whether the new guidance would include a firm commitment to build or to pay shortlisted architects honoraria.

But RIBA Procurement Reform Group chair Walter Menteth, who backed the motion, said the institute’s procurement report, published last year, had already ‘identified making competitions a more attractive and better route to procure in line with some of our continental competitors’.

Design contests and negotiated procedures – where face to face talks follow a PQQ or expression of interest – are favoured by RIBA as ways to diversify UK procurement routes. But Menteth pointed to research showing a disproportionately small usage of design competitions and negotiated procedures in UK procurement, compared with France, Belgium and Germany.

Competitions organiser Malcolm Reading said a conflict of interest might occur with the RIBA running competitions for a fee and simultaneously promoting a ‘gold standard’ for contests.

He said: ‘How could the RIBA be an independent champion, as well as taking clients’ money? Isn’t this illogical, like the FSA selling insurance? Will we see RIBA staff hauled up in front of a Gold Standard star chamber if a client or competitor complains?’

Tony Fretton argued the RIBA could become a ‘world leader’ by abandoning design contests and promoting competitive interviews, which would be cheaper for architects and a ‘much finer basis for selection of architects’ than taste. He said: ‘The RIBA system is not uniquely bad but it would be uniquely good if it stopped doing design competitions and just went with competitive interviews.’



RIBA competitions 2010-2012 (excluding ideas contests)


Gateway goes for Guild Social Housing, Preston
Grant cut and scheme developed through client’s framework instead

Yele Music Studio, Haiti
John McAslan + Partners
Contest became ideas only following earthquake (right)

Yet to start: RSHP's Guy’s and St Thomas’ Cancer Treatment Centre

Yet to start: RSHP’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ Cancer Treatment Centre

Guy’s & St Thomas’ Cancer Treatment Centre
Planning won. Estimated to complete in 2016 but yet to start on site

Guy’s & St Thomas’ East Wing cladding
Hopkins Architects
Under construction

Royal Parks drinking fountain
Moxon Architects and Robin Minotti Architects


Ullswater Yacht Clubhouse
Architects Plus
Project on indefinite hold

Dropped: Rick Mather Architects' Worcester College Oxford lecture theatre and kitchens

Dropped: Rick Mather Architects’ Worcester College Oxford lecture theatre and kitchens

Worcester College Oxford lecture theatre and kitchens
Rick Mather Architects
Project split and kitchen element now being designed by Freeland Rees Roberts Architects

Whitehaven Central Harbour
Richard Murphy Architects

Hereford Buttermarket regeneration
Austin Smith:Lord
No guarantee local authority will take idea further

Salford House 4 Life
White Arkitekter
Discussions on-going with developer

Hastings Pier regeneration
Scheme submitted for planning and fundraising on-going (above)

Progressing: Carmody Groarke's Windermere Steamboat Museum scheme

Progressing: Carmody Groarke’s Windermere Steamboat Museum scheme

Windermere Steamboat Museum
Carmody Groarke
Planning won and set to open October 2015 (above right)

Next generation pylons
Design being prototyped

Sherborne Qatar School

Completed: Cottrell and Vermeulen's Royal London Children’s Hospital play Space and roof garden

Completed: Cottrell and Vermeulen’s Royal London Children’s Hospital play Space and roof garden

Royal London Children’s Hospital play Space and roof garden
Cottrell & Vermeulen
Completed January 2013



Cronton Colliery
Michael Lee Architects
Project pending funding no date for planning application

King’s College London Quadrangle
Hall McKnight Architects
Planning application expected later this year

Progressing: Allies and Morrison's Worsley New Hall hotel scheme

Progressing: Allies and Morrison’s Worsley New Hall hotel scheme

Worsley New Hall hotel
Allies and Morrison
Planning application expected in autumn

Springfield Hospital, London
CF Moller
Brief under development



Should there be a RIBA gold standard for architectural design competitions and, if so, what would it look like?

Malcolm Reading, chair of Malcolm Reading Consultants

Simultaneously running competitions for a commercial fee and regulating a Gold Standard for the same would be a conflict of interest. How could the RIBA be an independent champion, as well as taking a client’s money? Isn’t this illogical, like the FSA selling insurance? Will we see RIBA staff hauled up in front of a Gold Standard star chamber if a client or competitor complains? I doubt it.

Competitions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There is choice for clients. We have run fair and trusted competitions for over 17 years that have brought new talent to public attention, without the bureaucratic superstructure associated with the RIBA. Some competitions are for clients who want to remain private, others are public. Our competitions are run to ISO9001 and we have professionally qualified people advising at all stages. We carefully follow the RIBA Code of Conduct.

We support an independent standard that recognises clients’ as well as architects’ priorities but from our point of view how could this possibly be fair if it was regulated by a business competitor?

Moira Lascelles, deputy director at The Architecture Foundation
The best competitions are tailored to the requirements of a specific client allow for flexibility.   Therefore any ‘gold standard’ should take account different projects will require different responses and ways of working.  If managed correctly competitions should let both clients and architects take risks and push the boundaries.

There are some key standards however that should ensure competitions are fair and democratic.   Architects should be compensated for any design work they undertake, briefs should be clear and comprehensive, PQQs shouldn’t require too much time investment from interested practices and clients should be upfront about the feasibility of the outcome – i.e. whether the commission will actually get built.  

In addition, interim design reviews where the client and submitting architects meet and discuss design proposals can be highly effective.

Louise Harrison , director at designed2win
I am not sure if it is helpful to invent a new ‘gold standard’.  Any competition properly administered with ethical controls in place to protect competitors should be of a very high standard and it is difficult to conceive of a grading system that would be appropriate.  A competition either meets industry standards or it does not. Competitors need to be paid for their contributions; they need adequate time to prepare their material; and they need to be reassured that qualified professionals are involved in assessing their submission. 

I suppose a competition truly worthy of a gold star would be one whereby competitors received an appropriate level of honoraria and a concrete guarantee was in place that the winning scheme was going to be built.  

How can architects avoid being exploited in design competitions?

Ben Addy, director at Moxon
Speculation is an inherent part of any truly creative activity just as commercial risk taking is an inherent part of any worthwhile attempt to make money.  Architects can avoid being exploited in design competitions by reading the brief and making a value judgement as to the time involved, prize on offer and the likely utility of the proposal for portfolio purposes should it not win.  Two stage procedures with a decent honorarium for the second stage and a quality jury [with a healthy proportion of architects, engineers or other relevant designers] are the ne plus ultra of design competitions.  Anything less than this and you do have to ask questions as to the motivation of the organiser and robustness of the process – however, that is not to say that you shouldn’t enter however, just calibrate your energies accordingly. Public procurement does need a radical overhaul in the UK.  The answer lies in having many more 2 stage open design competitions of the sort the RIBA Competitions Office runs, not less, because this is one thing that the RIBA invariably gets right.

How do design competitions cause problems for architects?

Sally Lewis, director at Stitch
‘A competition is an opportunity to focus on design problems in an unfettered way, bringing discussion, debate, challenge and passion to an environment that’s often too focused on the minutiae of delivering real projects and keeping paying clients happy. Winning, or being shortlisted, is a great opportunity for small or new practices to gain recognition and publicity, but it’s a big leap from victory to delivery. When a winning entry does evolve into a real project, it’s a golden moment. The rest of the time we need be wary of unscrupulous clients who can’t resist tapping into the vast pool of architects willing to proffer their designs for free, and if we do decide to join the fray it should be for the love of the process, not the reward. That said, more rigorous guidelines for competitions would help architects make considered choices about taking part in the first place.’

Gteg Lomas, co-founder of Foster lomas - shortlisted in the recent Great Fen contest
‘The current set up is a great deal for clients, they get a lot of ideas for very little outlay. But it isn’t a great deal for architects. Recently competitions have escalated in terms of money and resources spent on them and its not a financially sensible route to generating new work.

The current set up is a great deal for clients but not for architects

When I consider the resources we expend on competitions there are definitely better ways in which they could be spent to generate more work and gain a higher profile for the practice.
There is a lot of luck in a competition too, you have to work with little or no feedback from the client body and yet produce a fairly complete design that meets their brief. There has to be a better way to manage that relationship. Nobody does a competition for the honorarium on offer if you get shortlisted - but frankly they should be bigger. I’ve heard others comment in the past that its an insight into the value that the RIBA puts on the work of its members. They do vary and I appreciate it is up to the client body at the end of the day but a sum of money that covers more than 2 or 3 visualisations would be appreciated by all.’

Joe Morris, director at Duggan Morris Architects
‘Our practice has invested many hundreds of thousands of pounds in production and lost revenue [competing in competitions], and the payback has been scant at best. All too often, the hope and possibility of a real commission never materialises, and this does not include those ‘ideas’ competitions. We also regularly engage in the OJEU/PQQ process, which provides the least amount of reward. This method was invented by civil servants, focussed on risk management, and in no way a format which promotes (as its central tenet) design integrity. The competition route remains incredibly frustrating, but there are also incredible highs when the work and anguish pays off with a high profile success. However ensuring that the effort results in actual work, is an aboslute must, and the commissioners and organisers should be far more focussed on providing opportunity for practices to actively use the competition route to get work.’

Chris Williamson, partner at Weston Williamson
Key issues with some competitions are poorly written briefs, they are often either too detailed or too vague. It can be time consuming to establish a good brief. Also, the selection of judges must include the financier and end user as well as competent architectural reviewers.  If the jury is not balanced either the quality of design or the ability to realise the winning design is compromised.

[Another problem is] inadequate cost advice at judging – it is often obvious to most entrants that the winning entry cannot be built for the budget which is often inadequate for the brief and schedule of areas.

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