For individuals who strive to build a reputation and further develop their design abilities, competitions are a great way to gain recognition and to test new ideas. Whether a student or a licenced professional, they can provide a gateway into the types of projects that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of us.
And once complete, competitions can help build up an extensive portfolio of experience and enhance confidence. But with the hectic schedules we face from both our architecture school’s and firms, along with the high-risk reward nature that often comes hand-in-hand with these competitions, it can be a difficult field to navigate.
So in this article we take a deep dive into the world of architectural competitions to provide an unbiased understanding of their aims, purpose, types, suitability, methods of wining, and where to find the best competitions for both students and architects…
What is an architecture competition?
Architecture competitions have existed for more than 2500 years, with many famous projects and now landmarks being commissioned based on winning entries. However this isn’t always their sole purpose.
What are the aims and objectives of a competition?
Architecture competitions serve both the client and architect. The aim is to get a group of architects dedicated to a single problem and bring out the best possible design to choose from several different approaches.
As the competition puts the best among the best, winning could be a great leap for any architect or firm. Young architects who normally would not get such opportunity can showcase their abilities through these competitions, even if they don’t win.
On the other hand, getting selected could easily put them on the radar for future clients.
So, not only is the client’s objective to get a great design but also to hire an architect who understands their needs and can collaborate in other future projects.
Why are competitions held?
The most common reason why architecture competitions are held is when an individual or an organization wants to build a new project, and send out a notice that is open to all.
Interested firms who can propose design solutions while adhering to the requirements set by the client are thus selected. The designs are then reviewed by an esteemed committee of judges and then a final winner is selected whose design is approved for construction.
In some cases, the competition could be just for the recognition or idea based in which the winner could get prize money for the research and proposal which can be implemented in the future.
Other competitions could specifically be dedicated for architecture students to create a sense of competition apart from their academic curriculum. This helps students to be more creative and increase critical thinking, along with opportunities to obtain scholarships, prize money, and even future employment.
Why do we enter architecture competitions?
There are lots of reasons why we might enter an architecture competition but the main aim will be the same for all, to win! If you are looking for yours, here are a few to get you going.
Exercise creativity and think outside the box
During most of the projects we work on as a student or practicing architect, we find several constraints and there is no room for failure. If that persists, it could derail your performance in both school and your firm.
Architecture competitions, on the other hand, allow you to flex your creative muscle and even if you did not end up winning, critical thinking can be further developed for your other projects. They also work as a breather in between work where you can proceed with no restriction over your ideas and creativity.
Boost your portfolio
A portfolio speaks for all the hard work that you have put in over the years of learning and as an architect. To land your ideal job, you can’t leave any stone unturned.
The first thing anyone looks at is the portfolio and it could be your make-or-break point. An architecture competition can help you stand out from the crowd. It will not necessarily be the only factor, but shows your future employer your willingness to try new things.
These features could boost up your profile especially for young architects as they don’t get much exposure during school.
Competitions give you a platform to present your ideas by whatever means desired, you have full creative control over every element, and make decisions without fear or severe consequence. All this collectively increases your confidence and aids greater productivity.
Architecture is a field that can only be mastered with experience and no one is a born master-builder! Competitions are excellent environment to put new skills and ideas to test, and most of all learn from mistakes.
Chance to have designs built
The best feeling for any architect is to have their design come to life, especially as a young professional getting hands-on experience with big projects can be difficult. Winning an architecture competition could get your design proposal on the roads for construction.
If the competition is open, then as a student you will have the same opportunities as anyone else. Meaning that if you are selected, not only will you have chance to collaborate with some of the best firms in the industry but also start your career from an extremely privileged position.
Most of the architecture competitions come with their share of recognition. So, depending on the number of participants and the scale of the project, you could see yourself rising among the competition if you intend to enter.
These competitions are well covered by many world-renowned architecture platforms and magazines; thus, you get international features that increase your chances of being scouted by your next big client.
Which architectural competition should you enter?
There are many architecture competitions, some of which are being held even as you read this article. Don’t worry you are not late, but before you fill out any entry you must keep a few things in mind.
First thing is to make a self-assessment, find out your strengths and weaknesses, whether you want to participate alone or in a team, scale, and requirements of the project, along with the expectations of the client will determine the time you have to put in to make a presentable entry.
Secondly is what you want to achieve from this competition. You should have a clear vision for the project without which it will just be a loss of time and effort. Only enter competitions that interest you and will fit well in your future strategies.
Based on that analysis, you can decide what kind of competition you want to enter. To help you we have categorized different types of architecture competitions.
What are the types of architectural competitions?
1. Open Design and idea competitions – As the name suggests, anyone who fulfills the basic criteria of this competition can participate. This is a great platform for young and upcoming architecture firms to compete with top-tier firms and get global recognition.
The announcement for these competitions can be made public through advertisements in online magazines or national newspapers.
2. Project or Ideas competitions – This type of competition can either be based upon a real live project or an ideas-based solution, but can occasionally be a combination of both in some cases.
The aim is to find the best design solution for a future project that is going to be commissioned upon finding a winning entry. In other cases, the competition is used just as an exercise to generate ideas that may be utilized in the future, this is best for students as the chances of these projects being carried out are less.
3. Invited design Competitions – This is a competition in which a limited number of architects are invited by the organizer which is either advised by the panel of judges or pre-agreed upon.
Each participant receives an honorarium for their design proposal. An invited firm may collaborate with other firms with different specialties depending upon the guidelines set by the organizers.
4. Competitive interviews – In this type of competition, the jury invites you to present your work. These experiment with when the competition is narrow, so ensure that your presentation skills are all brushed up.
In case of a team effort, make sure to pick the participants with good communication skills and those who have brief knowledge about the project. Rehearse beforehand and respect the time limit allotted.
5. Single or two-stage competitions – Depending upon the scale and complexity of the project the competition could be staged in either a single or two phases.
Single-stage competitions shall have all basic requirements and sufficient data to explain the solution. The design is then assessed by the panelists and awarded a winning entry. These competitions are ideal for small-scale projects.
Two stage competitions on the other hand are made for more complex projects like town planning and housing proposals for example. In the initial stage, the applicants are invited to send a proposal with broad ideas that indicates the intentions of the competitor.
Following this, the assessors select a handful of promising prospects and inform them of the invitation to the second stage. In this stage, they build upon their proposal and work more deeply with the requirements. Only after this does the jury finally select the winner by analyzing both the initial and final stages.
6. Anonymous competitions – The purpose of these competitions is to project fair decision-making during evaluation and award-granting deliberations. All the details apart from the proposal are kept hidden from the jury until the winner is announced.
What to look for before entering
Before you decide to enter a competition, there are a few aspects to look out for:
- A clear objective. Is the competition a real project or idea-based?
- The post-competition policies that the commission of the project is based on. Is funding secured by the clients or is it a planned commission?
- A clear outline for the requirements at different stages and everything you’ll need along with the duration of the competition.
- A commitment to safeguarding your work in terms of copyright.
- Knowledge about the jury and brief information should be available in the announcement of any competition.
- The decision-making should be fair and uninfluenced, and to ensure that the display of design proposals should be anonymous.
- A system for honoraria payment for the shortlisted entries, this amount should be stated at the launch of the competition.
- Feedback should be provided even if the entry was not successful. Hence, to improve upon the mistakes of the teams not selected – as a symbol of motivation.
How do you win an architecture competition?
You are all set to be the next big thing in the architectural community, winning competitions, getting international features. But wait! Before all that happens, take a look at a few tips to remember if you want to win your first among many architecture competitions.
Set your goal / why do you want to enter an architecture competition?
Competition is a commitment and thus will require all your efforts. So, the first step should be to create a timetable with short and long-time goals to achieve.
There could be many reasons as to why you want to enter architecture competitions, from portfolio needs to recognition. All these are essential but, in the end, they serve as a building block for your ultimate goal so, keep that in mind before you even apply for any competition.
Winning is great but not always important. You must try to learn from your mistakes and gain experience which will, later on, help if you genuinely keep trying. Having the right attitude from the beginning will help regardless of the outcome.
Do you need a team?
Depending upon the requirement of the brief you may choose to partner up with people of different expertise.
Deciding on a team of people who also want to boost their professional profile, understand and encourage ideas is crucial because a good team could make you win or lose your competition.
Choosing the right competition
Self-assessment is the best place to start. So write down your and your team’s strengths, and align them with your goals which will give you an idea about the type of competition you want to enter. SWOT analysis is a must.
There are two main competitions to target- project and idea-based where both of them allow a selected team to be perfect. Once you make that decision plan, ensure to follow it in order to maximize the entire team’s strength. Finally, know what you would like to get out of this competition.
Read the entry criteria and requirements carefully… understand the rules!
Many entries, no matter how good, get disqualified because they neglect important information in the entry criteria, so remember to read it carefully.
Try to study previous winning entries or other competitions hosted by the same organizers as this will help you understand the key points to give attention to and avoid making unnecessary mistakes.
Edit and layout your response to the brief clearly
Make sure you go through the design brief ample times to get the most accurate interpretation. The better you understand the requirements the more confidentially you can convince the jury of your work.
So, give considerable time to discuss the brief and requirement as it lays the foundation on which the entire project is based.
Don’t just meet the competition requirements, exceed them!
The ideology of the organizers behind these competitions is for them to get the best available solution. Even though they give basic requirements and guidelines, understand that you have to bring out something unique and exceed the expectations. And this is what will make you stand out from the rest of the entries!
Now that everything is settled, it’s time for action. All your ideas and thoughts need to be boiled down to the execution of your design. Make sure once you freeze your design, finish the basic requirement as soon as possible.
Don’t improvise and make corrections until the end, since that might come with its own baggage of repercussions.
Presentation is key
The jury decides the winner based on the final submission boards which means all your hard work, sleepless nights, and countless man-hours depends on how well you present your design.
It is important to create a good first impression, and you should have a clear idea of how your final submission board should look. This will make it clear what you want to show and most importantly, will avoid wasting time during the later stages of the competition.
Get an outside opinion
It’s always better to have an opinion from a set of unbiased eyes, as not only will this help you in the presentation of the sheets but also get important feedback.
Be a good self-promoter
Architecture is a business and often, many young architects neglect that aspect. Being able to produce great design is as important as being able to showcase it, be it on social media, a firm’s website, or publishers.
One should start to learn how to handle the business side of it. So when working on competitions, ensure to use them to enhance your portfolio and promote yourself with different mediums available.
Where to find the best architecture competitions
E-architect is a recipient of the best design media award in the year 2019. This platform was founded in 2006 by Adrian Welch and is now one of the top global architecture websites.
The platform features building news, competitions, jobs, awards, and events. Considered more than just a magazine, they regularly post about global and regional competitions with huge cash prizes for idea-based competitions.
The main aim of this platform is to introduce new ideas by bringing in architects and designers from all disciplines. Hence, to make a more open-minded and connected architecture community.
Started in 1997 by Paul Petrunia, the website has been a favorite for students, architects, and educators. They feature competitions for all students and professionals.
Archdaily is one of the biggest platforms in the architecture community with over 13.6 million monthly readers. The best place to feature your projects and competitions as they get the maximum reach globally.
They feature some of the most sought-after architecture competitions for both project and idea-based competitions, and winning one could be a huge addition to your portfolio.
4. Chicago Architectural Club
The club was established in 1895 as a place to study for outstanding individuals in humanities. Making it one of the oldest organizers in the country, they hold three major architecture and design competitions.
First, the Burnham Prize, based on Chicago’s Daniel Hudson Burnham. Second, the Chicago Prize competition with an intent to bring critical design thinking with issues pertinent to Chicago city. The third is the Emerging Visions which is a portfolio competition based on the visions of a constantly evolving urban environment.
This platform has been around since 2006 and became one of the biggest online communities for architects to meet, share and compete. The website allows you to make profiles where you can build various projects and promote yourself.
Known best for its WA Awards which is a competition that gives the participants and winners a great opportunity to have their projects highlighted and recognized at an international level.
A place where clients meet designers, this platform is an architecture competition organizer. So, if you want to organize a competition or want to participate, this is a one-stop destination.
They have expertise in various types and stages of the competition. They allow your problem to reach a global community of architects and designers, inviting them to participate in competitions.
RIBA competition is a big brand in the architecture community for organizing competitions especially in the UK and Europe. In over 40 years of establishment, they have conducted some of the biggest architecture competitions.
They have partnerships with big media platforms and a dedicated team that will ensure that the highest quality of standards is maintained for the duration of the competition.
Similarly, architects and students can find a great and wide variety of competitions depending on their needs.
Top and most popular competitions
This competition invites you to think about the future of homes as they are the basic building requirements of people.
How the development in materials and building techniques along with a major shift in urban density of major cities affects the way people live and call a space home.
The competition has been marked as the best design competition for the years 2018 & 2019. Usually starts around July and concludes in February.
Established in 2006, this is an annually held competition that looks for new innovative ideas in which the emphasis is given to the relationship of the proposal with the social and cultural context.
The brief is very flexible in terms of scale, context, and program and pushes participants to look for advanced technology and sustainable systems. It begins in January and the winner is announced around mid-April.
The idea behind this competition is to tackle different social problems with the help of design. Thus, they seek a solution for growth, changes, and exemplary visions. They have collaborated with many industries and if selected could turn your idea into reality.
It is one of the best architecture competitions, especially for students. Free topic and at no charge, the founding philosophy of this award is to support students from all around the world, providing an opportunity to showcase their talent at a global stage and become a part of the Inspireli family.
Student architecture competitions
A student architecture competition is an all-student or young professional event where an individual or a team competes for a prize that involves new ideas and design. They also focus on problems that encourage them to think out of the box and push their creative limits.
How do they differ?
The biggest difference is that there is a very rare chance that the design proposal is going to be commissioned. The main objective of these competitions is to introduce students to real-world engineering situations and to inculcate project management skills and decision-making ability at a young level.
In the case of ideas-based competition, they appeal to the aesthetic side of the students and social perceptiveness.
Why are they important for students?
These competitions are very important for both students and the industry. These competitions allow students to apply the theories and information they have learned in the classroom to real-life situations.
They also create a competitive mindset and confidence among students which is necessary when they begin to practice. Even if they don’t win, they gain experience that can be added to their portfolio making them more marketable.
Where to find the best student architecture competitions
Today, for students, there are multiple other platforms other than E-architect, Archinect, Archdaily, and architecture competitions. Let’s look at some more, especially dedicated towards student-based competitions.
Architecture student competition platforms
The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) supports and sponsors various design competitions that contribute towards students’ educations and provide unique opportunities for students to implement their learning of materials, building techniques, or those that the student might not be familiar with.
Association of collegiate schools of architecture (ACSA) provides venues for international peer review and recognition in the form of scholarly journals, conferences, awards, and student design competitions.
Their vision is to empower students and faculties to educate a diverse range of students and discipline for the advancement of architecture.
Archasm is an international-based ideas competitions platform where they bring together professionals and students from around the world and of different disciplines.
They believe that an idea is what makes architecture different from simple basic engineering. They held a competition with contemporary and international themes to spark ideas in young professionals.
Some of the most interesting idea-based competitions can be seen on this platform. The competitions are thought building with creativity and leave a lot of scope for imagination with solid research.
Many of the competitions here are open to all and free thus, ideal for students to participate.
YAC is an association whose aim is to promote architectural competitions among young designers, no matter graduates or students.
They want to provoke thoughts and research on physical places of human interaction that are becoming unpredictable. Also, they endorse young designers by granting prize money with good exposure on different platforms.
Top and most popular architecture student competitions
For all the students thinking about which competitions to choose, some of which like the home competition, Evolo skyscraper, and Inspireli Awards, here are a few more that are specifically designed for students.
The Berkeley Essay Prize competition was established in 1998, by a donation to the department of architecture at the University of California, Berkely. Every year the committee poses a question related to the realm of the built environment and its relationship with people.
It’s a two-staged competition first of a 500 words proposal and then a 2500-word essay building upon the proposal. It is for undergraduate students along with a travel fellowship opportunity to the semi-finalists.
More on architecture essay here.
The duration is 5 days in which the students are challenged with a socially engaging and conceptual brief. The solution requires critical thinking on their behalf and quick decision-making.
This competition is established by the students of architecture from the Oslo school of architecture and design.
This competition is ideal for those interested in energy efficiency, especially in public buildings and design. Conducted by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on a predetermined site.
They accept entries from students and professionals from the field.
Also known as the traveling scholarship is a two-staged competition. The winner of which is awarded 40 thousand dollars to pursue study abroad and travel as per their needs for six months.
This is another traveling scholarship that is launched in the form of a competition, the winner is selected for their work of research in the field of architecture and urban design.
The recipient receives 50 thousand dollars along with the opportunity to work with industry leaders. The finalist will receive 20 thousand dollars as a travel grant.
This is an international platform for ideas-based competition for students and young professionals from the field of architecture. The competition asks the applicants to design a public building at a designated location.
The main focus of the competition is to bring out ideas and new concepts in the form of built space in regards to the brief. The winners are awarded a cash prize and published on the website.
Are architecture competitions worth it?
Architect Jody Brown said “Architectural competitions are a glorious waste of time”, they are indeed. After making a compelling case as to why you should participate in one, we must also tell you what areas you should be wary of before jumping on the topic.
They can be a waste of time and money; a project you are going to work on for free. Ultimately architecture is a business and it makes no sense in working for something you are not sure will pay you.
The projects you work on are likely to never get built, as most of the competitions are idea-based. You will just get the publicity which comparably may not seem worth it. Even if it’s a project-based competition, in a lot of cases, the project never gets commission due to budget constraints.
Too much competition! Especially with open competitions where there are thousands of entries, and with less than a minute to review each one, countless hours of work are judged in minutes.
This is in no way a discouragement but rather an awareness that there are two sides to every prospect. Such that you could make the most informed decision for your career.
Do architects get paid for entering competitions?
Yes in open competitions if you win, then you take the winning amount, but in case you didn’t win and your entry gets shortlisted you may receive a small amount of reward.
Those who get invited for special competitions earn a fee just for competing, and the winner gets the prize money and/or the commission. For architecture students, there is commonly either a scholarship to pursue further research or a grant that is awarded.
As architects we often found ourselves complaining about the lack of opportunity and problems we face in this industry. To put countless hours into a project, get it scrapped the next day, and yet still be motivated to try again.
Architecture competitions could be your golden ticket to the well-deserved recognition you deserve. But these competitions will test patience and endurance.
So, ready to get your hands on that architecture competition?