Design Competitions; What are they? and are they Worthwhile?

Design competitions are becoming increasingly popular and if undertaken successfully can improve market yield and provide a significant contribution to the design of the urban environment. Notwithstanding they can be tricky to navigate and need to be facilitated so that they deliver a quality yet feasible outcome for the developer, and provide the confidence to Council that the competition has properly facilitated and that design excellence has been achieved.

Mecone has significant experience in managing design competitions for a range of projects. Our most recent experience was to facilitate three separate design competitions over one large site in Zetland, which involved 550 residential dwellings. This article draws upon our experience in successfully operating design competitions.

What are design competitions?

The objective of a design competition is to deliver a high standard of architectural, urban and landscape design – generally above and beyond that of a normal development project. It focuses on lifting the bar of urban design and creating better urban spaces which make a positive contribution to the public domain. The process generally involves architectural firms submitting competing design schemes for a development, with a jury (or panel) deliberating on the preferred scheme to determine whether it achieves design excellence.

Design competitions are linked to achieving design excellence, which are legally addressed in planning controls (LEP’s), and provide either a height or FSR bonus (not both). Design excellence is not guaranteed through a design competition and a robust process that brings out the creative energy of architects should be instilled throughout the design competition process.

Where and when are they required?

Design competitions have been facilitated by the City of Sydney (CoS) for over 13 years, with many other metropolitan regional centres, such Parramatta, Liverpool, Penrith and others now following.

Design competitions are mandatory in new developments which meet certain criteria in the CoS, such as developments that have a height greater than 55m in Central Sydney, or a building higher than 25m outside Central Sydney and development having a capital value of more than $100,000,000. Developers can also opt into a design competition even if they do not meet the above criteria, although before commencing a competition process, a Stage 1 consent would be required to establish the building envelopes and a design excellence strategy.

In the case of the metropolitan regional centres, such as Liverpool, Penrith and Parramatta, design competition (design excellence) process were created around 2007 when the then Cities Taskforce Unit of the Department of Planning required each of those Council’s to require design excellence provisions for key or gateway locations within their city centres, as well as other significant development, that exceed a height criteria, such as in the case of Parramatta CBD which requires a design competition for projects more than 55m.

Notwithstanding the take up of design competitions outside of Sydney remains low.

What are the different design competition formats?

There are several different formats for design competitions, which range from publically open design competitions to smaller invited competitions. The range of competitions include the following;

• Open architectural design competitions; where the public are invited to participate and expressions of interest are sought with a prize being offered for the winning scheme;

• Invited architectural design competition; with a minimum of five architectural entries competing for the project, with each firm remunerated during the competition phase and a jury of 4-6 persons deciding on the winning scheme; and

• Design alternatives process, which involves at least three architectural firms competing for the project with each firm remunerated during the competition phase and a panel of at least 3 persons deciding on the winning scheme.

The majority of design competitions are either invited or design alternatives process, with the general steps in the design competition process within the City of Sydney comprising;

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Design Competitions

There are many advantages of design competitions, which are included within the table below. Whilst there are some disadvantages, they can be reasonably managed from a risk perspective and by the far the benefits of a successfully run design competition outweigh the risks.



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Mitigation Approaches


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Competitive design competitions have provided a vital tool to both the City of Sydney Council and Developers in achieving design excellence. Design competitions continue to gain momentum, with the CoS being strong advocates for the benefits associated with these processes.

The take up of design competitions outside of CoS remains low, however with its success, it is expected that they will be used more widely to achieve a high level of urban design and excellence across Sydney.

Our experience has shown that a well run design competition will add value to the project, gain respect and support from Council and ultimately assist in de-risking the project. Therefore design competitions should be embraced and included as an integral part of the project design and approvals process.





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