Fair Pay for Fair Work

Lawrence Scarpa on paid competitions

“Art in the City” by Moreau Kusunoki Archictectes, the proposal that won the Guggenheim Helsinki Competition. (Courtesy Moreau Kusunoki Architects)

The following editorial comes courtesy of the Lawrence Scarpa, a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Brooks + Scarpa Architects, in response to Matt Shaw’s October 24, 2019, article on the value of paid architectural competitions.

Matt. After reading your post, “Here’s to Paid Competitions!” about the design competition for the new cafe at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, it reminded me of the many pitfalls surrounding the vast majority of design competitions and the abuse of design professionals that are rarely made public. While the Everson Museum Competition appears to have been equitably organized and includes some compensation, most competitions grossly exploit architects and designers and their valuable skills. Competitions today are a “Client Take All” proposition with perhaps one architect or designer as a winner. Even when competitions are well-compensated, the requirements for deliverables, such as physical models, 3D visualizations, travel for interviews, etc. almost always exceed the amount of compensation offered, by double or more! I have never heard from any architect, EVER, that has said anything other than how much they’ve spent or lost (beyond the compensation) to partake in a design competition.

Furthermore, the large majority of design competitions rarely get built. Not because of poor design or any problem(s) with the designer or architect, but because too many clients are quick to hold a competition before they have funding for the project, control of the site, jurisdictional approval, political support, or many of the realities that are necessary to permit and build a competition-winning scheme. Take the recent Guggenheim Museum competition in Helsinki, for example. Many millions of dollars were spent by hundreds of architecture firms around the world with the promise of the “career-changing” commission. Result: No commission and NO BUILDING. (Winning such a coveted commission and seeing it built are about the equivalent of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning). No big deal for the client(s), as they’ve invested very little relative to the benefits they get from the architects’ work.

Another similar competition was recently held in Bentonville, Arkansas, sponsored by a major foundation that paid shortlisted firms $5,000 each to compete, and again, after the architects spent well in excess of the stipend amount, they were informed that maybe only one of the five sites that were part of the competition might be constructed. Just last week, I was told by a globally recognized firm that they just finished a competition where they were paid $450,000 to prepare a design proposal but had spent almost $2 million to complete the competition submission. Recently, our firm was short-listed for an important commission in South Florida by an unnamed city. When the teams were notified for their interview times, and even though it is against Florida law, they were told that the selection committee was expecting to see design proposals during the interview. No compensation was offered, nor did the rules state that this would be a requirement. I was shocked that a municipal organization would brazenly break the law. Yet no team dared challenge this demand as it would be a sure ”death sentence” and the chance to win the competition would go to zero. Unfortunately, these examples are more of the norm than the exception.

To add insult to injury, we have a network of architect-slash-competition advisors that, rather than informing clients of the great benefits that architects provide and how they should be compensated fairly, they instead get paid handsomely by the client to round up the best architecture talent and get them to do extensive amounts of work for competitions at little to no cost. When was the last time you told your attorney that if they represent you for free this time, and that if you like them and their services, you might hire them for future work? Architects should simply say NO to competitions that are: a) Not compensated fairly and/or b) do not have an extremely high probability of being constructed. Furthermore, organizations that hold competitions and do not hire or engage the winner for professional services to construct the building should be held accountable for false advertisement and be required to pay all competitors for the time they spent preparing their competition scheme. By the way, many competitions also require that the architect or designer give up their ownership and copyright for their designs they create

Unfortunately, there has been little movement to change this unjust practice surrounding competitions. Britain’s Architects’ Journal has at least started a conversation on the issue. They’ve assembled a panel to look at how competitions are being run  and followed up with an article by Ella Jessel titled, “What is Going Wrong with Architectural Competitions?” Derek Leavitt’s blog, “Why Open Competitions are Bad for Architects?” highlights even more poor and unfair practices surrounding design competitions.

What is sorely needed is an organization that officially sanctions all design competitions, that have been vetted and proves that they have the ability to pay the design professional in accordance with industry standards and have the funds to build the project they are offering in the competition. Competitions are a massive investment for design professionals, and at the very minimum, they should be treated fairly and given proof that the competition they are about to enter is not just a dream! Architects and other designers rarely talk publicly about this for fear of becoming the Colin Kaepernick of the design world. Competitions in the U.S.A. are a far cry from European and other countries’ models, even China’s, where rules and compensation are clearly stated at the onset of a competition and submission requirements are more fairly aligned with the expected deliverables. This has started a new and alarming trend for “Design Awards” as well, with so many magazines and organizations starting to charge $500 and more just to submit for an award, but that is another story.

It is time for our profession to stand up against this treatment, but more importantly, advocate for the valuable services and skills we provide. It would be interesting to hear from your readers and others about their experiences with design competitions. Hopefully, there will be a few readers brave enough to speak up and hold those who exploit designers accountable.

Related Stories