The project that has undoubtedly “changed my life” is the New Student Union Building (SUB) Project at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. A mammoth of a project, it’s 255,000+ square feet of complex program, multiple stakeholders and varying politics. Oh, and did I mention it’s lead by a revolving door of twenty-something-year-olds?
I became involved in the project at the moment in which the project was stuck in a year and a half long deadlock. The University and the Student Union I was an executive of could not agree on terms outlining the project. The biggest argument was who would be in charge of hiring the project manager and architect. The Alma Mater Society, the Student Union, wanted control over both project manager and architect. The University, having their own project management/development arm, wanted UBC Properties Trust (UBCPT) to take on the project instead. Essentially, the Project was in legal limbo despite best efforts on both sides to keep things moving along.
Legal Mumbo Jumbo to Democratic Voting
Jump to early spring 2010, and I, 21, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, newly elected, had three large binders full of legal mumbo jumbo to go through and try to understand. For two (three? It all seems like a blur now) months, three times a week for three hours each, the entire negotiating team would meet to resolve the Project. Finally, it was settled that the AMS, and consequently the students, would be responsible for the selection of the architectural team and UBCPT would manage the project.
Here’s where things started to get really interesting architecturally. Through a rigorous pre-selection effort, the AMS selected 7 or so outstanding local design firms to potentially design the New SUB Project. Instead of selecting the top three behind closed doors, the process of architectural selection was given back to the student body through an innovative voting process.
Each firm created a presentation, website and giant board outlining why they would be best for the project. Then students voted for their top three. Bing Thom, HBBH + BH (Now Dialog + BH), and Busby Perkins +Will all came out on top due to their focus on student-centric process, sustainability and iconic design.
While the final selection was conducted by a small group of students, university staff and AMS staff, the process of pre-architectural selection based on democratic voting hints at what’s to come in this field. To reach out to students, each firm embraced varying forms of media; Dialog + BH excelled at twitter and on the ground communication while Bing Thom’s stunning video clips is worth a view.
Community Selected Design
Can we truly trust ultimate users to choose the “right” design firm? After all, architects’ focus should be on great design and not winning a veritable popularity contest. Here are a few things I learned while helping manage the Architectural Selection Process for the New SUB Project:
(1) Design competition versus “Team” competition: the New SUB Project was NOT a design competition by any means. Design competitions may work for certain projects (in fact, the old Student Union Building was designed by competition) but for this specific project, we wanted to learn about the Team/Firm itself. We wanted a Team that would be comfortable with having students direct the design and open to changing circumstances—a firm that could relate to Millennials’ desire for sustainability, community and iconic design.
(2) Clear rules are key. Because this was possibly the first architectural “voting process” that firms have ever experienced, there needed to be some sort of set rules surrounding spending, presentation, and scope. Having clear rules given to firms far in advance, approved by the necessary architectural governing bodies will avoid potential lawsuits and gross disappointments. A debrief session after the voting process will also help manage disgruntled firms but I would discourage sharing specific voting results with the firms. In hindsight, I think we could have better informed the participating architects and set a more stringent cap on marketing spending.
(3) Keep students informed in different ways. We couldn’t assume that students would go out of their way to learn everything about the Project and the competing firms, therefore, we made sure the same information was portrayed in varying ways. Here’s where social media was huge as both the AMS and the competing firms strived to get attention on the internet. But the internet alone wasn’t enough; knowing that thousands of students came into the SUB everyday, we set up presentation boards at high traffic areas and gave each firm a lunch hour to present to 50-100 engaged students. The different channels used helped hype up the Project and informed students before they voted.
(4) Online voting. Voting was done entirely online. With such a huge computer savvy group, it would have been unwise to do it in any other way. Invest in good online voting programs (ours was hacked a few months before and we had to revert to one through the University which wasn’t as good) and keep the voting period long enough to attract all votes but short enough so that hype is maintained. The challenge here would be to successfully carve out the eligible voters. With universities and schools it’s easy since students are registered, but I can see this becoming a large problem with other types of projects.
(5) Partner with other media. Once word was out, the student newspaper was all on this but so were other media outlets. It was a million + dollar contract at the hands of students and made for some delicious headlines. Blogs were also filling in the gap and providing their own commentary.
Looking back on the architectural selection process, it amazes me that we avoided any legal action. After all, giving the reigns to the democratic process is scary and giving the reigns to a bunch of college students is even more so. But as we start moving towards greater public input into design beyond simple “workshops” and charrettes, I see similar processes becoming more popular, especially for institutional projects (I’m currently trying to figure out if it could work for residential/affordable housing models, comment below with your thoughts).
Oh and who won you may wonder? It was Dialog + BH! You can see their presentation here.
Vancouver, the City of Glass. It’s a city of shinning skyscrapers and cardboard homes: a city of spectacular natural beauty, crushing rain, award winning livability and a frightening income gap. It’s a city of contradiction—and it’s growing. This blog will follow Vancouver through its coming of age. It will highlight the city’s search for new forms, its attempts at new urbanism, and its struggles and moments of success within the world of architecture, planning and design.