Petition to award the design of Federal projects through open competitions


Dear Architects and Sympathizers,

I think this is worth a try... If this petition gets 100,000 signatures by March 26, 2014, the White House will review it and will issue an official response. If not for anything else, just do it out of morbid curiosity and pass it on. Here it is...

Award the design of new Federal building projects utilizing open architectural competitions.

The link takes you to the petition and provides more info... please take a minute to sign.


Feb 25, 14 10:51 pm

 My question  is how do you judge such a competition. Politics will certainly be involved.

My other question is about competitions in general. So your design is great, how does a young architect know how to build the building. A smart licensed architect just doesn't build anything on a whim, he learns a building type and a construction type and specializes.

So suppose I won the competition for something big like the 9/11 site. I might have a great design, but knowing how to build it would be way out of my league. Many young architects would probably design building that are unbuildable by anyone.

Feb 26, 14 1:02 am

Yeah, to me this doesn't seem like a worthwhile petition. Young designers are not chosen to participate for a reason, they lack the knowledge that it takes in order to get a building built. With an inexperienced architect at the helm, a large-scale project is very likely to have large cost overruns.

Feb 26, 14 8:03 am

I would imagine that there would be an architect of record with offices in the city in which the project site is located. Your example for 9/11 is a good one in that Michael Arad's proposal for the memorial was designed with Handel Architects and Arad went on to become one of the partners of that office.

The intent is to generate discussion for buildings that are representative of America and our generation of designers should be more involved in that process. I also think that governments, whether on a Federal or local level should be more conscious of the value architects (especially the young ones) can bring to the table.

Feb 26, 14 8:11 am

skeerd - there's a lot of questionable value to having open competitions (and i presume that's what you mean with the petition) for so many projects. it's a huge timesuck for firms - your win rate is rarely above 15-20%. And, as you acknowledge, you'd have to potentially pair a young designer with a more experienced firm, something which most of them simply wouldn't do for 'ordinary' projects. In short, it's a huge extra layer of bureaucracy, effort, and wasted money for 90% of the projects. Finally, it doesn't get the agencies what they want most: someone who can bring a level of expertise AND understanding to their particular project. Getting to that level takes a lot more work than generating a cool design concept. 

Feb 26, 14 10:21 am
Most fed projects are boring to the extreme (roof replacements anyone?) why have a competition for that?
Feb 26, 14 10:24 am
el jeffe
most young firms don't have the financial depth to handle large federal projects of the type appropriate to a competition. so it wouldn't really solve what you perceive to be the problem of access.
Feb 26, 14 10:41 am

Despite the previous elections marketing scheme of "hope" and "change," you can't "change" Washington or bureaucrats.

 This petition website was created to generate the illusion that the public can have an impact on Congress. 

They wouldn't even build a Death Star after we clearly came together as a nation in support of such a venture.

Feb 26, 14 10:52 am

EVERY municipal project should be a public competition.

Multiple rounds, with the losers in each round becoming judges in the next. Also with stipends after round 1.

Feb 26, 14 11:08 am

Here is a list of projects from the GSA website. I applaud the GSA for their Design Excellence Program but there aren't enough opportunities to smaller offices to participate.

I don't see these as "ordinary" projects. Further, there are projects that smaller offices can handle like the Warroad, MN border crossing as an example. Opening up the projects to competition will attract offices that want to win the project, it they see it as inefficient for their practice they don't have to submit.

Small offices collaborate with large offices as architect of record all the time and it is the attitude that small offices somehow limited or incapable that I want to reverse. We all can get by with a little help from our friends.

Other municipalities have similar programs such as the Public Design Commission in New York. My hope is that there can be a more transparent process.

Feb 26, 14 11:25 am

Good luck with that.

I agree that all public work should be awarded by design competition (as it's done in most of Europe). But that is extremely unlikely to ever happen in the US.

Feb 26, 14 1:17 pm

skeerd - but they do competitions for all design excellence program projects. it's 2 stages; you show them some amazing work up front, get shortlisted and they have you do a design proposal and interview. it's judged by other architects. i'm lost as to what you're asking for - that they all be open, blindly judged competitions? would that truly get the 'best' responses to come to the front? 

we're a small office that just won our first gsa project a couple of years ago. i don't think we've encountered an attitude that says small firms are 'incapable' but surely you acknowledge that a firm has to have more resources at their disposal (and that would include a larger firm backing them) than simply an awesome design methodology? even if that's a track record of doing great work with the smaller projects you've been given? i think there's an inherently narrow definition of "small design firm" embedded in your assumptions. do you really think you can go from doing 1-2M projects into leading a 200M courthouse? 

Feb 26, 14 2:15 pm

The current process selects a shortlist of architects first, then proposals come in the second step. I believe that the first step should be to request proposals in an open competition (preferably blind), select a shortlist based on the merits of the proposed design and develop the proposal further in the second step. I think this is a significant change from the current system. 

Feb 26, 14 3:07 pm

Great progress, we are at 141! if you already signed the petition, please spread the word!

Feb 27, 14 7:32 pm

skeerd - i'd like to reiterate my question again because i'm not sure you'll get too far until you can: how does this proposed change benefit the using agency (the GSA)? i mean truly benefit them above and beyond their current system? yes, it's a change from what they do now, but why is this better for them? 

Feb 28, 14 10:30 am

Why does this proposed change have to benefit the GSA? The real question is whether we benefit from this and I think it is a small step in the right direction. The GSA exists to set standards for Federal building projects for everyone's sake and serve as an example to states, municipalities as well as to other nations. If the GSA chooses to work exclusively with old established corporate architecture firms the way it has, what does that say about America's attitude toward innovation and fostering a new generation of designers? 

GW, why don't you think open competitions will work to both to engage a younger group of architects as well as to cull better proposals?

Feb 28, 14 2:38 pm

Gregory's point is that say that you do get enough signatures for it to be reviewed. When the Government reviews the petition, what is going to make them say "This would be good for us"? Without a benefit to the Agency that is reviewing the petition, it will go nowhere. Nowhere in the wording of the petition do I see anything that will benefit the GSA or the Government. You need some aspect that will convince them to abandon their current ways of doing things in order to use your new proposal. I only see it benefitting the smaller design firms right now.

Feb 28, 14 2:46 pm

i don't even see it benefitting the smaller firms (like mine). as someone above mentioned, we wouldn't be able to cover the costs for doing too many competitions a year. 

but, i'm a big fan of understanding what our clients' needs are and trying to work towards benefitting them, more than trying to get my clients to change all their procedures to benefit me. 

"If the GSA chooses to work exclusively with old established corporate architecture firms the way it has.."

in the past year, they've shortlisted brooks+scarpa, michael maltzan, tod williams + billie tsien, mack scogin merrill elam, kieran timberlake, and duvall decker for projects. those don't seem like "old established corporate firms" to me. and having julie snow, cutler anderson, msme etc. doing work for the gsa seems to me to fulfill your wishlist of the type of firms working on government projects. and, quite frankly, they do have programs to engage 'younger architects' - we're in one. 

what irks me about the petition itself (not you skeerd) is that it's so self centered: hey, who cares why you're doing things the way you are now - i want it to work for me! now! and, i apologize in advance because i imagine that's not your intent. but in order to truly affect change and not become another death-star petition, you need to really understand why the agency procures projects the way that they do. in the end, i fully understand and agree with their rationale which is we want the BEST architecture from the most highly QUALIFIED firms. where this petition falls flat for me is that you want to bypass the last part (hey, i'm young, how else am i supposed to get my shot at a 200M project! just hook me up with someone after the fact) and have a narrow view of what constitutes the first part. 

there's nothing preventing you from teaming with a bigger, more established firm to chase any project they advertise. but if you can't convince them why they should trust you to lead the design, why in the world should the GSA?

Feb 28, 14 3:32 pm

There is a distinction to be made here, I am promoting greater focus on innovation and design (as I interpret 'Design Excellence' ) by engaging as many young/small architecture practices as possible through open competition. Your position seems to be to continue selecting the 'best' and most 'qualified' firm which is based on experience and the ability to handle 200M projects.

Your criteria places importance on experience over design, I am promoting the opposite... Experience is readily available through the use of architects of record or joint ventures with larger firms. However, getting the best design for a project can't be limited to a handful of offices per project. In reviewing your list...

Brooks & Scarpa - started 23 years ago. Scarpa is 54.

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam - firm founded in the early 80's and Scogin is around 70

Kieran Timberlake - founded in 1984, don't know their ages.

Michael Maltzan - Maltzan is 54, firm is about 19 years old

Todd and Billie - Williams founded his office in 1977, he is 70 and she is 64

Duvall Decker - in their late 50's early 60's?

Julie Snow - office founded in 1995 (18 yo), don't know her age

Cutler Anderson - founded in 1977

They are not young practices... sure they aren't corporate and they are small but they are long established. Every project should have the involvement of firms like the ones listed. They are ideal practices to serve as models for young architects but if your list is the GSA's idea of promoting design excellence, it is a fail in my book because it is far too small a pool and they need to cast a wider net to achieve real progress. 

According to the AIA 1% of American offices have 100 employees or more and represent 26% of total billings. In contrast, 26% of American offices are sole proprietorships and represent 2% of total billings. 75% of all offices have between 2-49 employees (pretty much every office on your list). In my opinion, every government project should have the involvement of that group of offices. Federal, State and Local governments represent 32% of our client base. That is 1 in 3 of ALL projects and guess who all those projects are going to. 

Let me approach this another way. No one is disputing the fact that the firms you list are great offices that do terrific work. But how much better off would architecture be if they had been given opportunities to build those projects 10-15 years into their practice? 

Mar 1, 14 11:42 am

no, i'm saying quite bluntly: the owner (the GSA) has every expectation that one's qualifications should be a part of the criteria. an idea you've quite thoroughly rejected as both irrelevant and stifling. obviously, we'll just have to agree to disagree.


so, good luck with that petition. ironically, you may have more luck getting the traditional (aesthetically speaking) architects to enlist your cause, although they'd be arguing for open competitions to promote a wider aesthetic variety to the work...

Mar 1, 14 2:42 pm

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