Open design competitions devalue the architectural profession

Architects flock to open design competitions despite a lack of fees and tiny odds of winning a real job. It’s time for architects to take a stand, says Mark Middleton

An architect’s position in the construction industry is not what it once was. Change has come in response to the way the industry procures work, and we are splitting our offer into design and delivery services; some practices even offer one or the other. Architects have ceded ground in terms of contract supervision and project management, particularly to cost consultants, which in turn has moved us from a pivotal role to one on the side. This is all old news, and we can’t reclaim that ground, but we should stop devaluing the profession even further. This is illustrated best by the profession’s attitude to design competitions, a process by which we work for weeks on ideas to unlock value for clients, while we receive zero compensation.

Creativity is our currency, and our ability to synthesise an individual’s or institution’s needs into built outcomes is invaluable to clients, yet we give our ideas away for free. The real salt in the wound is that this exchange is accepted by architects. If we compare ourselves to other professions like law or medicine we are very unprofessional in how we charge for our services, which impacts clients’ expectations around paying us for our contribution. Lawyers get paid for writing emails; as we all know you don’t get anything from them without paying.  Any sort of consultation is itemised and billed. That’s the standard for most professional services and yet architects sit outside that.

Any global call for entries now should be taken as shorthand for projects that either have no site, no funding, or no local backing, and little chance of being built

The worst example of how we are complicit in driving down the value of our contribution is with open design competitions, like the one for Guggenheim Helsinki launched in 2014. These types of competitions are a waste of time, they devalue our profession and are a terrible way for clients to find architects and, in theory, realise their buildings. Those in favour always refer to the competitions for the Sydney Opera House or the Pompidou Centre as illustrations where the competitive process has led to the realisation of world renowned architecture. However, the needle has moved on. Those were over 40 years ago, and any global call for entries now should be taken as shorthand for projects that either have no site, no funding, or no local backing, and little chance of being built. Most competitions of this type are becoming deliberate exercises by unscrupulous clients to create a buzz around their project for free, to gain funding and attention but ultimately preying on our profession.

A good example of this is when a group of Colombian students were highly placed in a competition to refurbish Flinders Street Station in Melbourne. While this was a remarkable achievement for them, there was never any chance that the client could credibly select them, and they were ultimately taken through many rounds of competition with all the expense for no real outcome. The project frittered away and was never built; although some good did come of it. I am proud to say that we got to know the students quite well, and one of them now works for us in London.

If clients had to pay all the architects fees who were bidding, and had to budget accordingly, they would have to think about the whole process more responsibly

Competing on the basis of design can be a great way to measure ourselves against our peers, however there must be a well-defined brief, a clear process, a respectable jury and most importantly, an adequate level of recompense. Occasionally competitions offer a small honorarium, which I believe is code for picking the pocket of an architect. This small fee barely covers the cost of the model and printing, and if clients are serious about their buildings and recognise the value of what architects bring they should pay the real value for design.  

If clients had to pay all the architects fees who were bidding, and had to budget accordingly, they would have to think about the whole process more responsibly. It would mean that they would have fewer architects competing, meaning less wasted effort in the industry and better chances for those competing to win. Earning a fee for the design work would also give smaller firms and new start-ups further opportunities to grow. Ultimately, if we allow clients to treat our ideas and creativity as a commodity with no real worth, then we will continue to lose respect. Architects need to make a stand to get properly recompensed for our efforts, and to hold our own work at a higher value. Only then will clients begin to do the same.  

Postscript:

Mark Middleton is a partner at Grimshaw

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