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Use competitions to help your practice – don’t let them use you

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Despite being branded ‘exploitative’, design competitions can be hugely beneficial if you consider six basic criteria, writes Laurie Chetwood

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‘Design’ and ‘competition’ – two words that, for architects, have become emotionally charged with unlimited capacity to attract or repel. Ever since the college crit, pitting your design wits against your peer group makes it inevitable that things can get personal. Recent cries of ‘unfair’ and ‘exploitation’ against the competition organisers are symptomatic of this.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When it comes to design competitions, to a very large extent, architects are masters of their own destiny. After all, you don’t have to enter and there are always a number of pointers that help you make up your mind about entering a competition in the first place. In most cases, if you finally find the process exploitative or unfair, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Of course, through no fault of your own, you may find yourself mixed up in a rogue competition. So, sue the organisers; they do it all the time on the Continent.

Pick your competition carefully. Make the decision to enter, or not, a considered one and avoid much of the angst that can follow.

We probably wouldn’t have bothered with any of these considerations if we hadn’t had a good idea

In 2016, we entered the AJ/Crown Estate Future Office open ideas competition. We based our decision on a number of things:

The brief We liked the sound of the brief; it was well-written and clear. If there are too many unanswered questions at the beginning, it’s a good pointer to a badly organised competition leading to a lot of unanswered questions at the end.

The jury We liked the complexion of the jury and we thought they would like us. Make sure you research the jury. Do you have anything in common/ Will they like you and the sort of work you do?

The opportunity We liked the idea of an opportunity to impress the Crown Estate – a client who we wanted to work with. The competition matched the sectors we worked in and had the potential for some decent publicity.

Manage expectations We wanted to win and we wanted to work with the sponsor, but we also wanted to use the competition as a way of improving our research in the area of the workplace; useful material for a marketing push whether we won or lost. If we didn’t win, it would make the losing easier. Most importantly, we used the process to create a series of in-house studio charrettes to involve everyone in the design process. Win or lose we would all be getting something out of the competition.

The idea We probably wouldn’t have bothered with any of the above if we hadn’t had a good idea.

A few years ago, we considered entering the Royal Academy Urban Jigsaw competition, aimed at making better use of brownfield sites in London. We held an internal charrette and decided not to enter because, although all the other boxes were ticked, we didn’t have an idea we thought was good enough to set us apart.

Then a work-placement student stuck his hand up and said: ‘How about London’s longest brownfield site – a six-mile tunnel running from Paddington to Whitechapel?’ It was a no-brainer and we won the competition with two other architects.

The odds Based on all of the above, what are the chances? Add in numbers likely to enter, (affected by popularity of the competition theme, time of year etc), and there’s a good chance that you’ll make the right decision.

Having won the AJ competition along with five others, we followed up and are now working with the Crown Estate on a live project. Whether we’d won or lost, we have better knowledge of each of the sectors involved and have used the material extensively in our marketing.

Better still, everyone in the office was part of the process and also feels part of the success.

Laurie Chetwood is founder and chairman of Chetwoods

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