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How to win an architectural competition

Stanton Williams  UK  with Asif Khan  Julian Harrap  J L Gibbons and Plan A 2
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What makes a winning architectural competition bid and what are the best strategies to increase your chances of victory? Gerard Daws of Plan A Consultants shares his top tips

Gerard Daws Plan A Consultants

As design managers, we regularly support architects on competition entries. In the last year we worked with Stanton Williams and Asif Khan on their successful Museum of London bid (pictured) and with Adjaye Associates on its Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art win. 

While great design and a relevant track record are key ingredients to success, strategic and management factors must not be overlooked. Here is our tick list of how to choose, approach and deliver an effective contest bid. 

  1. Don’t be tempted to go for every competition out there. Work out what you do best and focus on the competitions that suit your practice. Likewise, it’s important to consider project location, project sector and commercial risk. If it’s mutually beneficial we often team different practices up, especially where local knowledge is necessary. 
  2. It’s often tempting to deliver more at competition stage, but we often advise our architects to stick to the requirements of the request for proposals (RFP). Don’t be tempted to bring a concept model to the interview, for example, if the purpose of the competition is to select a team rather than select a design. Also, be conscious of the difference between a ‘design’ and an ‘approach’. We know from feedback that architectural practices come across as good listeners and open to new ideas by not being wedded too early to a ‘fixed’ design.
  3. Read the RFP. Then read it again. And then read it again. 
  4. Be clear on whether this is an open or restricted procedure and whether changes to submissions or terms and conditions can be negotiated after you’re successful.
  5. Consider carefully the CVs proposed and make sure they are tailored to specific the experience or qualifications required, and include an ‘at a glance’ summary at the top of each to make it clear which role they will occupy should you be successful.
  6. One of the first activities that we produce is a competition timetable. It doesn’t need to be anything elaborate but something as simple as a diary mapping out activities such as design iterations, cost checks, legal reviews, latest date to submit tender queries and a period for final check and proofreading.
  7. Work out early on who will do what during the competition stage and most importantly the roles and responsibilities within your team if successful post-competition. We have been brought in more than once to resolve differences between two parties where there is a disparity in expectations (normally in respect of fee split). These issues can be avoided if they are addressed head on and early.
  8. Make someone responsible for the bid on your team. This doesn’t mean that this person carries out absolutely everything. They should have the responsibility though, and importantly the authority, to call the shots. The role would include chairing the competition kick-off meeting, making sure that there is clarity of expectations as well as researching and collating a competitive fee proposal. This is often the role that a design manager will carry out at competition stage.
  9. Be clear on team structure, points of contact and responsibility. Identify what fee you believe is required to successfully deliver the project and then consider what fee you will need to submit to win the project – do not promise what you can’t deliver.
  10. A common trap architects and design teams fall into is the lack of appreciation of bespoke management issues such as team organisation, delivery methodology and programme. Often these roles and activities are given to a junior member of the team or even worse, ignored or not priced, as they are seen as non-design activities. Don’t forget that a requirement of the architect’s role as lead designer is to identify and co-ordinate the activities of the team even though other consultants may be directly appointed by the client.
  11. If selected for interview, do your homework. This can include research on who is on the client panel – Google their background and previous experience to understand their interests and what makes them tick.
  12. A few years ago we supported an architect for a high-profile cultural project and found out from client feedback that the interview sealed the win, even though the written bid wasn’t the strongest. There is no magic formula, but here are a few thoughts on what has made the interviews we have attended successful: 
  • Individuals introduce themselves (and give a couple of lines on their role and what they will bring to the project) rather than being introduced by a chair.
  • The presentation should be structured so that every key requirement of the RFP is covered and everyone in attendance should have something to contribute.
  • Read the RFP carefully to find subliminal differentiators. Quite often there will be pointers or clues contained within the descriptive texts that will resonate with the jury if repeated back to them in addition to specific questions.
  • Make sure that someone is looking at the clock and provides discreet prompts on how much time is remaining.
  • Make sure the slide count corresponds to the time allowance – do not end up racing through the slide deck and/or running out of time.
  • The client team will typically ask questions at the end of the presentation. Be one step ahead by having model answers prepared.
  • Have some pre-prepared questions to ask the client panel at the end – what are the next steps and how will the client team be organised are favourites.
  • Ask for feedback afterwards. Competition organisers are often keen to share their thoughts. 

Gerard Daws is co-founder of design manager and principal designer adviser Plan A Consultants 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    What's a design manager in an architect's practice? That's precisely what we train for for all those years. Is it another quasi 'profession' eating into our core skills?

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