Too many practices fall into the same traps, says Mark Middleton who has been both judge and competitor over the years

Mark Middleton

Awards are great, especially if you win one. The surprise and delight on the face of Jamie Fobert after receiving top honours at BD’s Architect of the Year Awards this month was testament to that.

Because firms are always in competition with each other, many members of the architectural fraternity find it hard to celebrate the success of their peers. But there wasn’t any grumbling to be heard in the bar after the AYAs. Instead there was love for all the winners and, with a broad sweep of available awards, there seemed to be something for every facet of the industry. Personal vanity aside, winning an award is significant. It announces that you’ve arrived at certain stage in your career and serves as a great sign of a practice’s progress.

My only real gripe with awards is the paucity of venues for the ceremony itself. I dread the familiar trudge down the steps of that hotel on Park Lane in my tuxedo, particularly if it’s a wider construction industry event that feels more reminiscent of a bouncers’ convention. On these occasions, I’ve often found myself wishing for a spectacularly inappropriate after-dinner speaker. Someone who uses too many expletives or insults the hosts to liven things up. That said, the bad ones are the exception and when that finely honed piece of plastic/steel/glass is sitting in your reception you won’t remember the underwhelming three-course meal.

I’ve been honoured to be part of several award juries this year, including the AYAs, and though I’m no Alan Stanton (my far more experienced fellow juror for the AYAs), I thought I’d offer up some things to avoid if you have an award-worthy project that you’re looking to submit.

1. You can only control what you can control. Juries are rarely known and their make-up often seems strangely irrelevant to what is being judged. Also, you have to remember that awards are about opinions and everybody has one. Sometimes juries align, other times they don’t. The ultimate decision can be influenced by a variety of things – personalities, politics, the prevailing zeitgeist – and have very little to do with design. I think the Eden Project is a good example of this, and I could be accused of sour grapes here, but when it missed out on the first Stirling Prize in 2001 it seemingly had little to do with the quality of design. The decision to award it to the Magna Centre has been anecdotally attributed to many things, but most frequently to the personal opinions of individual jury members who dominated discussions that year with their own agendas. It’s important to realise you can’t influence any of this, so don’t worry about it.

2. Be clear and simple in your presentation. Stick to the time and avoid obscure language and “archi-bollocks” – the main pitfall that architects regularly fall into. If you are presenting, be clear with your messages. We know you know a lot about your project, but we don’t need to hear all of it. Judges need to review a lot of entries in quick succession and be able recount the benefits to each other succinctly, so help them out.

3. Don’t be obtuse and don’t cram too much in. If you are doing boards, make them clear; spell out the benefits and only use your best images. Some of the AYA boards were almost unreadable, making potentially good schemes indecipherable. Whatever you do in your submission or presentation, always answer the question. If it’s an award for employer of the year, speak about your staff and not your projects. If it’s for education, explain how the building facilitates learning. Don’t assume the jury will spend time sifting the wheat from the chaff of your submission or presentation; they won’t.

4. Don’t overrun; it’s a fairly archetypal thing for an architect to do, and it’s annoying.

5. Don’t inflate your achievements. You’ll be presenting to an eminent panel of experts and peers who know what they are looking at. Lofty claims or exaggeration will be obvious and won’t endear you to a jury. This is a particular trap for younger practices who are keen to show what they are capable of. Expanding on the truth is understandable, but altogether unadvisable.

For some practices awards are irrelevant and many decide against entering for a variety of reasons. Either because it’s too expensive or, in the case of the pretentious few, those who feel they don’t need the acknowledgement of their peers or their industry. For the rest of us, they are a good barometer of our progress, and provide recognition for both our clients and hardworking staff. It doesn’t matter how large your social media profile is, winning an award for a successful project is the best way to increase the publicity of your work and create new opportunities. To avoid entering them is a commercial faux pas.