If you want to commission a great public building, holding a competition for its design is commonplace.

There are great examples of success: for example the Sydney Opera House. But there are issues that need to be carefully considered in ensuring that neither the building design nor the profession is not short-changed in the process.

When should you hold a competition?

Competitions have their place. If you do not really know what you want, for example, or if you hope to give a young architect an opportunity, a competition works quite effectively. You might get something extraordinary, but it can come at a cost– quite literally. It’s difficult to link design entries to a construction budget. The Opera House cost $120 million, for example, and the original budget was $7 million.

Competitions do generate public interest, which can be a good thing. The Australian Institute of Architects provides some guidelines and if anyone is thinking about running an architectural competition, I strongly urge you to contact the AIA. On very complex sites, competitions can be a way of fostering a lot of design ideas.

Open competitions are probably best for major iconic public buildings where the wider public are the ultimate “owners” (through governments) and the building becomes, over time, part of the valuable architectural heritage of our nation and records where we were at that time.

Why competitions fall short

I don’t like competitions because they take away the opportunity for the architect to work closely with the clients. I believe every building is the creative combination of the architects and the clients working in collaboration – the architect understanding what a client wants and then interpreting it, using their building, research and design skills to bring originality and new insights to the client’s brief.

At Hames Sharley, we spend a great deal of time inputting our knowledge into a collaborative brief redefinition phase with our clients.

Creating a building brief is a complex task. The process of refining the brief, the interaction between the client and professionals, is part of the creative process and deepens the relationship and nuances of understanding between both parties.

Competitions that don’t work are where a client tries to “cherry pick” the best ideas and it becomes a “camel”.

Public/Private/Partnerships (PPPs) and Design and Constructs (D&Cs) are defacto design competitions. They do not necessarily give the taxpayer the best design outcome and value for money, however, they are perceived by some clients and governments as a way of limiting risk or transfer of risk. But it comes at a cost.

However, all procurement methods have their value and competitions do have their place. Competitions can work if there is a detailed brief that includes defined budgets. Community and stakeholder early engagement should also be part of that brief development process.

Another good initiative for open competitions is to seek initial concept ideas which lead to a paid shortlist who then refine the concept to a schematic design for final judgement.

However, it takes a brave competition jury to choose to build a Sydney Opera House from an open competition entry – we almost overlooked Jorn Utzon’s iconic design.

I favour a process of selecting architects based on their track record, their reputation in the industry, and their skills.

Competitions add a premium to every building design

We will always have architecture competitions – the Acropolis is the result of the first known one 2,500 years ago! But in one way, competitions are an enormous cost burden carried by the industry. Some clients may pay a fee, but some do not. Most fees or prizes come nowhere near covering the costs to the architecture practice.

With little to go on from the client, architects view competitions as an opportunity to put forward blue-sky ideas as a “quid quo pro” for little or no financial return. I do not know of one other design business that takes such foolhardy risks.

The best competitions

It is, of course, up to the client if they want to have a competition, and there is a way to get a much better result: make it a closed, invitation-only, paid competition.

In this case, only the invited architects can enter the competition – usually four or five at most. It’s ideal when the client sets aside time to meet with the practices involved and discuss the brief as much as is possible and fair to all parties.

In this way, you will gain a greater understanding and knowledge about the architects who will not only design your building but also successfully deliver it.

The process of design and delivery is long and sometimes complex and you need to know, trust and enjoy the company of your architect for that long, complex period. Thankfully I have made some lifelong friends in this process.

These are the kinds of competitions we enter.


Before you decide to hold a competition, consider whether you have:

Sound reasons for holding a competition, such as generating public interest, delivering a signature structure that has a local, national or international market advantage
The budget to build a “blue-sky” building to achieve that market/tourist value or a new breakthrough functional or operational activity for that which the building is being used.
A preference for working with a “hands-off” approach to design, rather than close consultation and involvement in the creative process.
However, remember ideas are valuable and most people seem to pay more attention to them and value them more when they pay for them.

Want to debate the points raised in this article?

Melbourne University is holding a debate on this very topic, July 30th, called Competing Ideas: Public debate on the role and relevance of Architectural Design Competitions. More about that here.

William Hames, Executive Chairman, Hames Sharley

William Hames, Executive Chairman, Hames Sharley

William Hames is the executive chairman of Hames Sharley and its founding father. He is a qualified Architect, Urban Designer and Land Economist with high level skills in retail and commercial property development, including land development. William Hames has considerable international experience, particularly in SE Asia, where he has been responsible for a number of major retail, resort and residential developments. His forte is placing urban design into a practical, commercial realm as well as the creation of vibrant civic spaces. His expertise in Urban Design and City Planning is recognized in the Design Advisory Committees he served on for the City of Perth and currently for the City of South Perth.

Did you enjoy this article?