Published in 2019, Designing the Global City, Design Excellence competitions and remaking of central Sydney provided an in-depth review of the mandated competitive design policy (CDP) introduced by the City of Sydney in 2000. In researching the book, the authors interviewed 60 stakeholders from the design, development and planning professions. They developed a comprehensive review of outcomes from the competitive design excellence process between 2000 and 2017 – the good, the bad and the ugly. The authors found that the competitive process had positive outcomes for the public; design quality is elevated through emphasis on design considerations from the outset, producing varied and innovative solutions. They found the variety and range of firms awarded commissions increased, inevitable leading to differing design aesthetics and approaches, shaping the built fabric of the city. Developers also benefitted from the process, with increased developer certainty on design direction, planning approval and development viability in the early stages of the project. On speaking with architects, a legislated peer review design process was noted as the primary benefit to the profession, rather than any built outcomes. The authors found these significant benefits came at a cost and that cost was shouldered by architects and developers.
While these costs were generally considered by developers to be offset by the benefits brought by the process, architects on the whole did not. In the years since this book was published there has been some time to consider if the current system is still providing the public benefits identified and whether the negative impacts on architectural practices have been removed or reduced.
If we are to examine arguable one of the prime benefits identified by the CDP, the increased diversity of practices winning work in the City of Sydney, we found that while there was initial improvement, this has stagnated. The research found that prior to the CDP there were close relationships between developers and specific architectural practices leading to an anti-competitive market. The CDP was lauded for unpicking these relationships, helping to ensure that architects are awarded on work-based best ideas rather than entrenched cronyism. The data collected between 2000 and 2017 made the spread of the diversity of practices clear. From 46 competitions there were 35 one-time winners and eight multi-winning practices. Since 2017 we see a reduction in this diversity. Between 2018 and mid 2022, 26 competitions were run through the City of Sydney CPD. There were 14 one-time winners and five multi-winning practices with one practice winning four competitions alone. There may be several reasons for this reduced diversity, including established practices having the capacity to greatly out-resource less established practices, or practices being preferred by developers or authorities based on reputation and/or relationships. Alternatively, it’s possible that the design in these cases were just, in fact, better. Regardless of the reason, there appears to be a solution of the benefits of the CDP in promoting diversity of architectural practices and consequently design aesthetics and approaches.
The authors of Designing the Global City found the overwhelming negative outcome to be the cost to both the developers of running competitions and more expressly to participants of competitions. It is much lamented by architects participating in the competitive proves that the financial burden of competing far exceeds the payments received for their participation, at times to an absurd degree. There have been some moves to combat this issue, for example, the City of Sydney, in the 2020 amendment to their CDP, included a minimum honorarium payment of $150, 000 to competitors participating in a design competition for high-density development in Tower Cluster Areas. Presumable this is to account for the complexities of such sites. However, as one member of a large multinational practice remarked this year, this sum “won’t cover the real costs”. One of the disadvantages of this prohibitive financial burden is that medium- to small- practices are unlikely to be competitive with their reduced capacity to resource a competition sufficiently, knowing that remuneration will fall short of expenditure. They also likely have fewer large projects from which profits can be used to offset the cost of competing.
Perhaps, there are alternate ways to better align the cost of competing and honorarium payments to competitors beyond simply increasing the minimum payments. This approach saddles developers with some of the financial load without really tackling the root cause. A better approach may be to cap submission deliverables so that the focus shifts from the number and quality of renders to the design ideas themselves. This could be done in a variety of ways such as capping the number of renders and pages in a submission as was done on the 55 Pitt St competition. A tighter definition of deliverables with stricter policing of adherence to these deliverables would likely assist in reducing the labour creep associated with the CDP. To effectively police such adherence, a pre-jury to check for conformance to the deliverable brief may be required.
In a move that demonstrates recognition of limited diversity in competition participants, the City of Sydney has included in their 2020 amendment of their CDP, a requirement of at lease one emerging architect, competitor for developments in the Central Sydney Tower Cluster. While increasing diversity amount participants should be seen as a positive step, it seems counterintuitive to make this mandatory on complex high-density projects, while not requiring the same entrant quotas on smaller, less complex projects. In addition, without changes to the competition process which limit the inherent advantages of a bigger workforce held by larger practices, it feels like a futile gesture. Perhaps it would be more useful to limit the number of competitions per year a practice can be invited to, and make the selection criteria of competitions per year a practice can be invited to, and make the selection criteria of competitors more transparent ensuring a greater variety of practices are included.
Knowing that the pool of design competition winners is reducing in diversity and the issue of competition remuneration remains outstanding, we have to question whether the process has become anti-competitive. This process is clearly serving the public, developers and authorities having jurisdiction, but needs to change if it is to remain truly competitive, allowing for a diverse mix of practices on an equal playing field.