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Debate Design competitions

Losing the detailed design contract for Hong Kong's Stonecutters Bridge to Arup after winning last year's design competition was like 'giving birth to a beautiful child, then having to hand it over to foster parents', said Flint & Neill partner Ian Firth recently. He added: 'Design competitions are normally about finding a designer, not just a design.'

This week we ask: Should the winners of design competitions expect to be awarded detailed design?


True design does not come from discontinued thought or interrupted process but proceeds from a detailed understanding of goals and aspirations set by the client at a project's inception through to its completion. It does not stop at the concept. Design delivers a finished product.

I contend that true design involves the coming together of many things. To list but a few, the structure must complement its environment aesthetically; it must be functional and logical to construct; materials used must be appropriate to required performance; it must be efficient to operate and maintain; and it should be a joy to experience.

There are several problems with handing detailed design to a second firm after the concept has been selected through competition.

The originator of a design concept will normally have thought through many design and construction issues in ways that competitors for detailed design work have not.

Changes will inevitably be required throughout the design process. But they will only be acceptable if the original concept remains undiluted. Revisions should enhance not detract, and a real understanding of the original 'composition' is crucial if changes are to be incorporated successfully.

It may well be possible for a third party to take on the construction of another's concept.

However, without the creator's involvement, the finished item will simply be an interpretation or, in the worst cases, a 'development that has retained the character of the original concept'.

Meanwhile, if a conceptual 'solution' is neither practical nor deliverable, then it is not really a solution at all. True design addresses all issues of buildability, time framing and delivery. Discontinuity at any stage between concept and detail allows this to slip and allows future problems to remain undetected.

Even where the winner of a design competition is a small firm without the resources to deliver detailed design, it is desirable that it retains a central position as the project advances in order to 'police' technical solutions and modifications.

Lastly, detailed design is bread and butter to most traditional consultants. Fees earned by winning a conceptual design competition are likely to be annihilated by the cost of bidding for detailed design. If the competition winner is unable to see the project through to completion it is little the richer for its participation.


Most designs are procured through some form of competition. This is sometimes for the design concept alone, but nowadays more often includes a combination of design concept, fees and the experience and capacity of the competitors.

Designers who win a design competition obviously wish to realise their design. Whether they will, depends on the owner's construction contract strategy and the rules and traditions of the country.

Pure design competitions or ideas competitions are associated with prize money and agreements that transfer ownership of ideas to the promoter for the specific project.

The purpose of the ideas competition is to find good design ideas and concepts and the winners are chosen with that in mind. They are not necessarily guaranteed a further involvement in the design, and their ideas may be used or even be combined with other ideas in the further project development.

If the purpose of the ideas competition is to award a design contract, and a fee element therefore needs to be introduced, then the submissions will not be judged solely on the merit of the design concepts and ideas.

In such project competitions the prize is further involvement in the project. The purpose of the competition is then to find the most advantageous combination of technical/aesthetic quality and cost, with the scheme promoter putting his own emphasis on quality and cost.

Some projects where the concept is procured in a design/project competition are bid as 'design and construct' contracts with the winning contractor doing the detailed design.

To insist that winners of design competitions must carry out the detailed design would be retrograde and contrary to the considerable development that design and construct contracts has undergone.

There are other ways of procuring designs. In Hong Kong, projects move through successive design stages towards construction. The most important are feasibility study, preliminary design, detailed design and supervision.

For each stage a project/ bid competition is held in which the winner is chosen according to a predefined combination of technical quality and fee demand.

The Stonecutters Bridge project is unique in introducing an ideas competition between the preliminary design and the detailed design stage.

The facts

Hong Kong Highways Department normally selects designs through invitation.

Before Stonecutters Bridge it had never previously staged a design competition.

Detailed design has traditionally been carried out by a consultant working with a contractor under a design and build arrangement, or by a consultant selected at competition stage on both a technical solution and fee proposal.

The Hong Kong Highways Department chose a detailed designer for Stonecutters Bridge weighted 80% on technical competence and 20% on cost. It is understood to be the first time that this system has been used to select a detailed designer.

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