Are architectural competitions a good thing?

Architectural “products” involve many stakeholders which makes a complex process even more difficult. So where do architectural competitions fit in and do the winning designs reflect the diversity of society? A group of Austrian researchers checked out 15 competitions with 76 entries to see if they included universal design concepts.

A major finding is that there is room for better consideration of universal design in the early phase of the building process.

Almost all people spend a large part of their lives in a built environment whether their home, their work or leisure activities. Therefore architecture concerns everyone, not just architects and interior designers. An inclusive approach should be a necessity – a non-negotiable principle. But is it?

In the German speaking area of Europe the construction industry is highly regulated. To get attractive and economically viable designs, the competition method has evolved. Competition is an integral part of the the project as well as the tendering process. Once the competition process is over, a new process begins to realise the design. The aim of this method is to provide transparency in decision-making as well as good design.

Researchers found that at the competition stage of the process, universal design was reduced to wheelchair users. Also, while the term “accessibility” is used in documents, it is not reflected in graphic representation. Indeed, many graphics showed barriers to access. Accessibility emphasis, where it existed, was on entrances and sanitary facilities.

Another issue was found in jury statements which focused on specific architecture aspects without addressing diversity or disability. Accessibility is reduced to minimum standards such as the number of designated parking places.

Are competitions a good thing?

The overarching question of this research was whether architectural competitions are a good way to consider the diversity of disability. On a superficial level, organisers and participants deal with some basic access features. However, there is little space in competition entries to flesh out the detail beyond that of wheelchair users.

In summary: “Fundamentally, the term accessibility is considered important, but is very often only used as a superficial buzzword.”

A work table is filled with paper and folders and a woman is cutting a piece of paper with scissors. It looks like a group of people are working on a design.

The title is, The Built Environment and Universal Design: Are Architectural Competitions a Qualified Instrument to a Better Consideration of the Diversity Dimension Impairment? The writing style of the paper indicates that English is not the authors’ first language.

Architecture competitions for universal design

picture of a modern building Norway Opera House. Architecture competitions.

How juries assess universal design in architectural school competitions is critical to the level of innovation that can be expected. Norwegian Leif D Houck gives an excellent analysis of the way competitions are run and improvements for the future.

Houck says the reason to organize an architectural competition is to achieve maximum quality in a project. The idea is not to have a competition to see if anyone manages to comply the regulations, building codes and the competition brief. The idea is to achieve qualities beyond the regulations.

As Houck says, an architectural competition will likely result in different designs and solutions. In addition, the whole process from design through to the building stage has stages where the project has opportunities for improvement.

The title of the article is, How Juries Assess UD in Norwegian Architectural School Competitions. The article was published in Universal Design 2016: Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future H. Petrie et al. (Eds.) © 2016  

The picture is of the Oslo Opera House

Urban planning competitions

People sit around round tables discussing questions. There are four round tables shown in this picture

It’s time for planning competitions to have residents involved in design decisions and planning solutions. A select panel of judges are not looking for the same things. Planning competitions are used as a way to determine alternatives and promote innovative solutions in the early phase of urban planning.

The book  New Approaches, Methods, and Tools in Urban E-Planning, has an interesting chapter that outlines the findings of how e-participation can be implemented in urban planning competitions. You will need institutional access for a free read. The chapter is “Enhancing E-Participation in Urban Planning Competitions”.

From the abstract

Front cover of the book New Approaches methods and Tools in Urban E Planning

This chapter describes how web-based public participation tools are utilized in urban planning competitions. Public opinion is included alongside the expert view given by the jury. This chapter focuses on how public participation can be arranged in competition processes. It shows how the contestants use the information produced, and how it has been utilized in further planning of the area.

Based on two Finnish case studies, web-based tools can augment public participation in the competition process. However, the results indicate that the impact of participation on selecting the winner is weak.

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